BONO: MASCOT OF NEOLIBERALISM

May 22, 2013 – 4:01 pm


The few who dislike the mannerisms of U2’s Bono, now have a hefty body of evidence to refer to. The Rock & Rap Confidential man, Dave Marsh, reports.

In 1984 I wrote a hostile (to both music and words) review of U2’s Unforgettable Fire. Some weeks later, I found myself dragooned (by a force too absurd to mention) into a late afternoon conversation with Bono. It wasn’t an interview. He wanted to talk one-on-one about why I’d written such a negative estimation of the record.

I arrived bemused, only to become more so when I was sent to the hotel’s penthouse. I knew this hotel, the Who made it their New York headquarters (Keith Moon got the suites about to be remodeled to save on demolition costs). I’d interviewed some other famous rockers in their rooms there, too. But I had never been to the penthouse. Yet here sat a young Irish star, who’d never had a top ten album or a top 20 single in the States.

We had a conversation, not that either of us listened too much. I asked Bono if he knew why I’d brought him a copy of my book about Elvis. He didn’t. “Because, if you read it, you’ll know pretty much exactly what I think about Elvis,” I said. “But I’ve listened to that song, ‘Elvis Presley and America,’ a dozen times and I still can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.” He didn’t have anything much to add. Or subtract.

This is the part that’s hardest to believe: For roughly the next ten years, every time I ran into Bono, he tried to re-engage me about that review. Once, backstage at Madison Square Garden, he walked the circumference of a small knot of people that included Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel, in order to pursue Moby Reviewer. It was dumbfounding.

But after reading Harry Browne’s The Front Man: Bono (In the Name of Power), I think I understand. I had said no. The review called him out as at worst a fraud or at least an incompetent. Face to face, it may never have happened again in the last three decades.

The Front Man is about a boy who never grew up or faced facts. Through very careful accretion of detail it left me feeling that Bono resembled no entertainment or arts figure nearly as much as that other sad, sheltered boy, George W. Bush. In fact, what surprised me most about my reaction to the book was how my response changed as I read.

At first, the prose seemed too reserved, too cautious, incapable of capturing the outrageousness of Bono, one part talent to nine parts hubris. But as the pages turned, what engrossed me was another portrait: Bono as that little boy in man’s boots, surrounded by forces he fathoms no more than a five-year-old fathoms the perils of the sea.

In the end, Harry Browne’s Bono is not so much a huckster as a sucker; not a con man so much as a victim of the world’s greatest con artists; not an egomaniac but someone so insecure he has found ways to be shielded from almost all harsh realities (well, at least his own). If this were a movie, you might be able to measure the price paid just by the way he looks at himself in the mirror.

Most less than adulatory writing about Bono, including my own, is a blend of anger, contempt, condescension and frustration. The Front Man recognizes all these instincts, but keeps them under tight command. For instance, Browne allows himself to be angrier (in tone) at Bono’s wife, Ali, whose business machinations are real but comparatively trivial, than at Bono, himself.

There’s kind of a shadow behind such moments, as if we’re meant to glean that the book’s protagonist can’t be judged like other men, not because he is extraordinarily gifted or brave or empathetic, but because he’s so lost, frightened and pathetic. Bono may be the personification of all that’s evil about contemporary celebrity culture and all that’s worse than bankrupt about liberal capitalism (and liberal capitalists) but there’s also a real person in there, and he’s spent most of a lifetime making himself what history must surely judge - perhaps not with as much restraint as the author - as a fool.

I had said no. The review called him out as at worst a fraud or at least an incompetent. Face to face, it may never have happened again in the last three decades.

Does this make Harry Browne’s Bono less easy to despise? Probably but it also makes him easier to understand. Here, Bono becomes less the many-sided symbolic figure and more a fallible (sometimes likable, sometimes detestable) human. Think of the former Paul Hewson as the first self-created one dimensional man (all front, no back). Browne’s dug past the PR and the rhetoric and found… a Mad Men cliché for our times.

But that’s not why you need to read The Front Man. You do need to. Not because you want to better understand Bono, let alone empathize with his plight, but because what topples is not only Bono’s stature but the excuses his chosen trade, liberal philanthropic paternalism, makes for itself. Langston Hughes wrote that the animal that should be chosen to represent liberals is not a donkey or an elephant but an ostrich. This book could be subtitled Bono (With His Head in the Sand).

The Unforgettable Fire was just sort of a second-rate record by a pretty good but not great rock band, one of maybe a hundred records I reviewed that year. I wasn’t a U2 fan. I was disappointed because I thought the previous album was better. But U2, not its front man was my concern as a critic.

So I didn’t start writing about Bono - not U2, Bono - and talking about him on the radio because he seems charismatic. (Too desperate for attention and adulation for that.) Bono proves a useful tool for understanding the forces around him because his behavior exemplifies the way that liberals, especially neoliberals from Clinton and Blair to Obama, not only played into the hands of reactionaries but vanished every time they got a chance to act like liberals are supposed to act.

Liberals have usually not lived up to their rep. They derive the bulk of their glory by taking credit for the achievements of radicals. The current crop, whose respect for civil liberties is nil and whose attitude toward the suffering is STFU, sets new lows.

It is now easier to name a liberal Supreme Court Justice who thinks Roe V. Wade a mistake than to find one who will make any meaningful effort to stop illegal detention, de facto segregation in everything (schools, housing, jobs, the Obama cabinet), or prevent the incarceration, even murder, of political opponents without trial. Liberals claim the entirety of the moral high ground as their turf, but at best, they’re absentee landlords.

Harry Browne reserves his sense of outrage in The Front Man for a rendition of the liberal and neoliberal subversion of human rights. He pays especial attention as that subversion is accomplished under cover of noble goals as articulated by Bono and his guru, the austerity (for others) loving pinhead Jeffrey Sachs, one of the early proponents of TINA (there is no alternative).

The TINA doctrine almost literally forms the wool over Bono’s eyes. It boils down to the rich should rule the world, and the richest become the most powerful. The portrait here of how Bono, a man of only marginally inconceivable wealth, has been passed around, mostly without compensation to the suffering or often even himself, resembles a nonfiction Sister Carrie. If I knew how to get my remaining liberal friends to accept evidence-based political journalism, I’d say this book has redemptive power. Alas, there is that ostrich and an abundance of sand, already forming a dune around the person of the former Goldwater volunteer.

The Front Man is, in addition to being an important book about Bono and celebrity, one of the few books about contemporary music that understands issues of colonialism and white privilege, especially in regard to Africa. But Browne doesn’t spend enough time on religion, and in defining the Christian humanism that informed all of Bono’s early work and still empowers his evangelical rhetoric about TINA. This is why Bono is not a unique figure. Actually, he’s a type and the type is not all that new. Consider a paragraph that C.L.R. James wrote in 1950:

“The Christian Humanists have a systematic political economy. They propose decentralized self-governing corporations of private property with every worker in his place. They have a philosophy of history. They believe in the eternal ambiguities of the human situation and the impossibility of ever attaining human freedom on earth. They have a theory of politics. The natural and ideological elite must rule, the masses must not have absolute sovereignty. Since evil and imperfection are eternal, they say, the alternatives are either limited sovereignty or unmitigated authoritarianism.” (From State Capitalism and World Revolution)

Even Browne has given us no better way to account for why Bono misunderstands the meaning of his own successes (there have been some, and not only onstage) and why he cannot recognize his most significant failures, either as a rock star or as a political figure.

Browne also doesn’t talk enough about music, which is especially disappointing because he’s insightful where he does. He was probably prevented by neoliberal copyright laws from quoting many of Bono’s lyrics (a mixed curse in this case) but there are elements of the group’s music, the way it is powered and the way it is manipulated, the sources it draws upon and who it is (and is not) aimed at that merit inclusion in this discussion. So far, no copyright act prevents one from describing and drawing conclusions from guitar licks and drum beats and vocal phrasing. So far.

But that’s not much to complain about. For the activist beginning to confront the obstacles neoliberalism places under all of our footsteps, as well as the rock fan trying to imagine a world without charity records and broadcast benefit concerts, and especially for those who still revere Bono and his many works, The Front Man serves as both an effective cautionary tale and an excellent how-to-book on avoiding the traps of neo-liberalism. On top of that, it offers the tale of a mannish boy who’s genuinely incapable of grasping why some folks just plain don’t like his act.

Maybe Bono himself will read it. It might be painful but even that couldn’t hurt.

Note: Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: [email protected] Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/. The above article was posted at CounterPunch.

Click here to order The Front Man.

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  1. 17 Responses to “BONO: MASCOT OF NEOLIBERALISM”

  2. Pulp sludge.

    Although I’ve never been a fan of Bono or his band, (I couldn’t stand to see another photo of them with pursed lips and knitted brows, self aggrandizing, as if they’d taken on the weight of the world) Marsh’s piece is a convoluted and thoroughly unsatisfying miss-mash.

    By weitrhino on May 22, 2013

  3. Marsh has always been a lousy writer but I hate Bono, so I’ll forgive him in this instance.

    By Ted Baxter on May 23, 2013

  4. marsh has long wanted to go to bed with springsteen and it makes one’s flesh crawl (mine anyway)seeing him in the audience at some awards show sucking down alcohol like he truly is somebody hisself.

    the self-proclaimed ‘dean of rock critics’ is a close second…

    By matt the cat on May 23, 2013

  5. Pretty simple: Marsh has the same narcissism that he condemns his subjects for. The only difference is that his subjects’ names will be remembered and his will not.

    By kingpossum on May 23, 2013

  6. Who’s Bono?

    By elvislives on May 23, 2013

  7. At the end of the day, both Marsh and Bono are too full of themselves.

    By datdemdar on May 23, 2013

  8. So does the book even mention the reasons why Bono was friends with Bush? That the Bush administration sent a record amount of money to Africa to fight AIDS, saving millions of lives? Or is the idea that just mentioning Bush causes a Pavlovian puking reaction among impotent, cranky liberals like Marsh? The photos are supposed to make everyone cringe without even thinking, as if Bono were hanging out with Pol Pot or Goebbels? Yeah, Bono can be preachy and annoying, but I’m pretty sure that he’s helped (and entertained) more people than Dave Marsh or Harry Browne. Basically, Marsh and Browne seem to be irritated that Bono is a liberal who doesn’t hate capitalism and conservatives as reflexively and dogmatically as they do. They seem to be reduced to spouting generalities and putting words in Bono’s mouth - does anyone really think that Bono would agree with positions like, “they propose decentralized self-governing corporations of private property with every worker in his place?” I guess that’s what Bono gets for daring to stray off the liberal reservation. Burn the witch!

    By none more black on May 23, 2013

  9. @none more black:

    Well said, mate. I’m a fan of neither Bono’s music nor his arrogance. But I am a fan of success with good intentions. And a fan of understanding duality without duplicitousness, And a fan of thoughtful debate. Thanks for the comment.

    By kingpossum on May 24, 2013

  10. Bono is not perfect, but I’ve been a huge fan for over 30 years and will continue to be.

    By Paul on May 24, 2013

  11. You can do something, or you can piss and moan about the people that do something.

    By Chris on May 25, 2013

  12. or you can do something behind the scenes instead of tooting your own horn and being a pretentious ass and being a hypocrite

    By bootlick sarge on May 26, 2013

  13. @none more black - couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve always regarded Bono as pretentious but Marsh has definitely upped the ante.

    By MrBill on May 26, 2013

  14. What an odd book review, or outright attack on Bono. What exactly did Bono do to deserve such moral outrage? Unfortunately Mr. Marsh simply does not say — the review is almost all judgement, no evidence. One anecdote about Bono’s supposed obsession with Mr. Marsh does not make a convincing indictment. Nor does a gratuitous slam at “Mrs. Bono.” Characterizing someone as nefarious in business dealings without any examples is basically slander, indirect slander since the line is supposed to describe what is in the book, but still not convincing. Inexcusable in a review of this length. Why “publish” this Big O?

    By jania on Jun 13, 2013

  15. I just finished a discussion with friends regarding philanthropy of ‘rock’ bands - why the Stones get away with charging $600 a tix and have never been associated with any sort of charity and therefore I refuse to pay their fee. I really didn’t care as much for U2 until they became so heavily involved in Human Rights and AIDS charities and Bono began ‘preaching’ love and peace in concert. If you have a voice or the means ($) to help even one person, then the point is not whether you have your head up your arse, but whether you are a decent human and actually put your money or time where your mouth is. These guys slamming Bono have obviously never once given any thought to ‘giving’ to anything but their bank accounts, bet they give Mick and Co. rave reviews! If the world isn’t a better place because of your existence, your life has been without purpose. Bono has definitely made this world a better place, which is way more than I can say for either of these two clowns.

    By Nonsensely on Jun 18, 2013

  16. I have a love them, hate them feeling about U2 and Bono but mostly now I just try and ignore what I see and can read about them … I have possibily more respect for Dave Marsh and been reading his copy for a long time … I think after reading this I come down on his side … What was it Bob said: don’t follow leaders and watch parkin’ meters ….

    By Canute on Jun 18, 2013

  17. U2 sucks.

    I have heard many better garage bands.

    By mc pete on Jun 22, 2013

  18. The Stones were/are a much better band than u2 could even aspire to be. Case closed.

    By jukin'bone on Jun 30, 2013

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