Bono: Sacred Cow or Sad Clown?
How the mighty have fallen. Eight years ago, the last time the UK hosted the G8, Bono had a podium position in Scotland beside Tony Blair and Bob Geldof, and his embrace of the summit document on global poverty was greeted, according to the New York Times, “with a solemnity worthy of a Security Council resolution”. Indeed that document itself, with a ceremonial signing to conceal its basic emptiness, was Bono’s idea.
This time around, with the G8 event actually taking place on the island of Ireland, just north of the border in Fermanagh, Bono had to make do with meeting Michelle, Sasha and Melia Obama for lunch in a suburban Dublin pub. On a human level this must have been superior to rubbing shoulders with the various war-mongers and austerity-pushers posing villainously by an Irish lakeside. But politically it’s a clear demotion. And worse yet, Bono was depicted, even by people as mainstream as Bryan Dobson, as part of the worthy but boring day of activities that the Obama girls were forced to endure in Ireland.
Another Irish tweeter, Sheamus Sweeney, said of Michelle and the girls’ task with the U2 singer: “It’s a bit like the way someone always had to keep my alcoholic uncle occupied when there was a family function on.” Bono is a potential embarrassment not, of course, because of any drinking problem, but because he has come to symbolise, perhaps a little unfairly, the phenomenon of tax avoidance, one of the topics supposedly up for discussion at the Lough Erne confab. A member of the Irish parliament even called Bono “Mr Tax Exile”; in fact, he and the other members of U2 are apparently still tax resident in Ireland — their controversial tax issues are about corpor offshoring rather than any dubious residency.
Meanwhile, that same night in New York City my own teenage daughter Cara was seeing (at a steep discount) Bono’s show Spider-Man: Into the Dark, and discovering that in its third year on the stage, Spidey can still be left dangling helplessly from the theatre’s ceiling, the show can stop for a half-hour to repair the effects, and the climax can still be ruined by complete web-slinging failure (all without any offer of a refund).
Any sympathy I might have had with Bono over his apparent G8 sidelining, his Broadway catastrophe and the scurrilous things being said about him in Dublin was, however, tempered by the simulacrum of “protest” he cynically whipped up around the G8.
The public activities of his ONE campaign over the last couple of weeks, called (painfully) “agit8”, consisted of a project to assemble a whole lot of mostly good political songs, and get them covered by fairly hip young artists, all in the name of protesting… basically nothing at all. It certainly won’t have
discommoded Mrs Obama on their lunchd8. On the contrary, this soothing “protest” soundtrack was designed to ingrati8. But as for what it represents for the tradition of artists who genuinely have something to say about real, vital issues of life and death, the words that come to mind are castr8, denigr8, desecr8 and misappropri8.
ONE’s trivialising, domesticating classification of the music is itself interesting: who knew, for example, that John Lennon’s bitter “Working Class Hero” was an “anti-poverty song”?
Oh, ONE pretended it was busily “protesting”. And the organisation, as is Bono’s wont, declared victory when the G8 summit was over. ONE appears to regard me as a member because I once sent a journalistic query (unanswered) to its website, so I got the l8st celebratory email from the campaign’s European director Adrian Lovett: “What an amazing two weeks – 350,406 ONE members called on world leaders to back Africa’s food revolution and unleash a transparency revolution, and they acted!” The email comes complete with a photo of a suited Lovett himself (no sunglasses and leather pants for this guy) with British prime minister David Cameron, who happily receives the ONE petition demanding that the British government and G8 do exactly what they were planning to do anyway.
Not so much protest, in other words, as “protesty”: “In Paris, President Hollande personally received ONE’s petition, and European Commission President Barroso even took our record of protest songs all the way from Brussels to the summit!”
All that was missing was a Bono-led chorus of “2-4-6-8, Who do we appreci8?!”
It was a faint echo of 2005, when Bono helped turn what should have been a huge protest against war and injustice at the Gleneagles G8 summit into a welcome party for the global elite, led by Bush and Blair and the then-new World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz. In that year, development organisations accused Bono and Geldof of “hijacking” the Make Poverty History campaign, and declaring victory when the summit outcome conceded little of substance for developing countries.
As George Monbiot explained in two recent pieces for the Guardian, ONE’S underlying agenda nowadays is the new face of imperialism in Africa. With its elite board of directors and sneaky corpor agenda, ONE, wrote Monbiot, “looks to me like the sort of organisation that John le Carré or Robert Harris might have invented”.
Ironically, Bono has previously told a story of how, in 1985, he worked in an orphanage and helped teach Ethiopian children a few songs about how to save seeds for the next planting season. Now, working through ONE alongside companies such as Monsanto, he helps ensure that someday African farmers may be legally forced to buy new seeds every year to grow their crops.
Stating such things about Bono, taking him seriously rather than simply mocking him, has proven to be somewhat difficult in Ireland’s media. My new book on the subject, The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) has had a couple of savage reviews and has not, to my knowledge, been mentioned on RTE, the national broadcaster for TV and radio. In the tabloids my argument has been called “loony” and my book “shameful”. The Irish Times declared: “Unless you really hate the U2 frontman you probably won’t want to spend precious hours on a book that is so negative it almost makes you want to defend him.” However, that review appears to have led to a spike in sales, so perhaps Irish people do hate (or even h8) him.
As for me, the truth is out: I don’t hate Bono. In fact we have lots in common. We’re roughly the same age and height — I am a tad younger and taller, but don’t look it — and we even broke our collarbones in the same week in 1987. As I learned more about him, I found myself looking at him and saying, ‘There but for the grace of God…’
If I’d had anything like his talent and luck I might have ended up so close to the powerful that I started to see the world from their perspective; from where I’m sitting now I can’t imagine a less enviable position.
In the course of researching and writing The Frontman, I confirmed that much of the widespread criticism of Bono, as seen in a thousand internet threads, is ill-informed. I don’t believe, for example and as noted above, that he pays no tax in Ireland; that he shafted other Irish bands to maintain U2’s hegemony; that ONE squanders money on salaries while pretending to be a charity; that he does anti-poverty work just to get publicity for his profitable music; that he is, in short, a fake. I don’t even know or care whether he really merits the label “hypocrite”, such a lame and easy term of abuse anyway. Attacks like these on his character and record are not merely wrong; they distract from his genuine significance.
His significance, however diminished, is as a frontman, witting or not, for those who want to maintain and extend their dominion over the earth, and to make that dominion less and less accountable to the assembled riff-raff. That’s why it’s so important that he is not allowed to take ownership of the protest song in the same way he has previously seized, say, the color red or the idea of making poverty history.
As the great journalist, polemicist and orator Eamonn McCann said at last week’s Dublin launch for my book: “Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be the collective joy, the collective effervescence, the collective militancy that people feel when they’re in a vast crowd somewhere…. Bono, Geldof and the rest of them have come close to snuffing it out.”
Harry Browne lectures at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is the author of Hammered By the Irish (CounterPunch / AK Press) and The Frontman (Verso). He can be reached at: email@example.com, Twitter @harrybrowne.