November 18, 2009

Is it still cool to love U2?

If I told you that U2 is one of my favorite bands, what would this tell you about me?

A) A lot (since U2 fans tend to exhibit certain distinctive attributes)


B) Basically nothing (since everyone and their mom likes U2 these days)

When your stadium-sized concerts from Moscow to Vancouver are selling out in minutes, attracting fans from nearly every stripe of the politico-religious spectrum (born-again evangelicals and agnostics alike), it's safe to say that people love you. U2's concert last month at Pasadena's Rose Bowl not only drew an estimated 97,000 fans, it was also the most-watched live webcast in YouTube's history with 10 million streams coming in from 188 countries. In fact, you can still watch the entire thing for free if you missed it.

Particularly interesting have been the ways in which evangelical Christians have taken to the Irish foursome. In addition to mainstream radio, TV commercials and supermarket playlists, I've been hearing U2 increasingly played in Christian bookstores and yes, even mixed into the CCM rotation on Christian radio. Theological seminaries have offered courses on U2. It's not uncommon to find advertisements and reviews of books written about U2's journey of faith and activism in Christian periodicals like Christianity Today, Relevant, Sojourners and Books & Culture, whose current issue includes an article examining "the state of U2 studies," as in, like, the study of U2. Last month, the first ever academic conference on U2 was held in Durham, North Carolina, exploring the band's music, work and influence.

Not that I'm complaining. Whether their millions of fans (including yours truly) are drawn by crowd-pleasing anthems dripping with blatantly Christian imagery or the band's passionate activism in fighting extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS, there's no denying the connection so many have experienced. Seriously, can anyone familiar with U2's body of work, both on and off stage, resist their magnetic charm and refreshing authenticity? Or have we all just been brainwashed by 30+ years worth of The Edge's signature digital delay guitar effects ringing in our ears?

Indeed, if any rock group has discovered a way to blend widespread commercial success with artful innovation and critical acclaim, it's U2. But as their fame and influence continue to expand, I wonder if we're approaching the point of U2 saturation. Just how much "bigger" can this iconic rock band become? Will there ever be such a thing as "Bono fatigue?" Will U2 eventually come to represent the epitome of a mainstream product packaged for the masses or will they forever be seen as non-conforming innovators who transcended the patterns of commercialism? In other words, will it always be cool to love U2?

For my sake, I hope so.

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