In the name of cash: U2's Apple virus

Last week, 500 million iTunes users received a $100 million virus. Given without consent and received without gratitude, Apple’s gift horse of a new U2 album is surely the biggest gust of halitosis to blow from Ireland since Shane MacGowan was last permitted use of dental floss.

Nobody with an online opinion seemed to want Songs of Innocence for sundry reasons, not the least of which is that Bono, in song, sounds increasingly like the guy from Maroon 5, and, in the discussion of global affairs, like Sean Penn’s even simpler cousin. But the most consistent and valid objection was not just to the band’s current lack of discernible talent, ethics or cultural charge. It was, as Sasha Frere-Jones said in a New Yorker moment of virtuosic bitchiness, to the act of violation. Nobody asked for this, and a “lack of consent is not the future”.

A number of other music writers, including The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel, have called for restraint and advised that the album “won’t kill you”. We can only suppose the critic is yet to make it to track seven. In Raised by Wolves, a recording of deadly inanity such as to make Coldplay sound like music, Bono tells us “my body is not a toilet wall”. Sure, B. But neither is my iPhone. So why did Apple take a whizz on it?

Yes, we can wipe the warm piss of misguided corporate largesse from ourselves and yes, we can delete the files. But what we cannot expunge is the memory of having our collections torn apart by an unexpected blast. Zuel and others telling the privacy and taste freaks to hush would do well to re-read the famous Walter Benjamin essay on collections, “Unpacking My Library“. The collection remains in our digital age as it was in Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction, “a passion that borders on the chaos of memories”. The music collection, like the book collection, is a “disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order”. Which is to say, collectors build and live within their collections of reproducible artefacts with more than just the data themselves.

Benjamin talks of a taxonomy of the self within the world and frankly, I’m a bit surprised that so many old-school music critics, a breed so shamelessly made from the stuff of their own inquiry, were so ready to say “it won’t kill you”. An incursion in the collection does kill the collector whose self and work is made from memories.

But, not all of us are collectors and not all of us have passions that border on madness. Some of us just want to workout to Katy Perry and some of us have no trouble at all with the pro Bono disturbance in our iTunes. In fact, most of us are probably like that; at some point in the last decade, I stopped listening to albums, started copping suggestions from Spotify and gave up on being a collector. How I stopped being a Rock Snob is not clear but what is certain is that I now think of music more as the “soundtrack to my life” than my lifeblood. There was a time I lived in service to music and I spent hours of every day honouring it with the labour of arrangement. Now, music serves me. It lives even beyond chaos in the cloud and it just helps me burn up calories.

I can remember and appreciate the anger of the collector and even though I can no longer feel it, I’m glad that true collectors have the shits. But these people who live in a sort of self-service to reproduced art are endangered. The net neutrality for which good activists rightly campaign in law will probably only come to pass in the culture. It already has. All information is equal. And this, I think, is the real shock of the U2 violation; all information is equal. All art is of identical merit.

And this is why it won’t hurt Apple a bit to piss in the collections of products that contain them. Certainly, there are some funny, angry old-fashioned music collections who believe in the sanctity of connoisseurship, and we should love them for their rancour. But most of us care far less for the genius of the stuff inside our iPhones than we do for the iPhone itself.

I cannot think of a band that appeals to persons who are not 11 and female who excited the level of interest that Tim Cook did last week. He said the Apple Watch would change the world, and a room full of actual adult humans screamed. He said that there was a slightly bigger iPhone available, and journalists, people trained to be unnaturally cynical, reported it. He spoke of Apple Pay, and you’d think that an older dude in mum jeans had not just announced another iteration of electronic payment but that this was a pyjama party and he was One Direction.

Apple makes nice products, and it is all very well and good, I suppose, to applaud their release. That is,  if mild technological advance serving great company value is your kind of thing. The fanboys can knock themselves out. But what has also been KO’ed in an era where, truly, the medium has eclipsed the message is that old-timey fandom for popular arts. Information is equal. It’s only the devices that give us that information that are unequal.

About a decade ago a nice guy I knew showed me how to download American TV. I looked through his Seagate hard drive — a real brick, and the greatest number of gigabytes I’d seen anywhere outside a company server. He had just about every movie and album made that year. “Are you going to get to all of these, Anton?” I wanted to know. “Of course not,” he said. “But I need to put something on my hard drive.”

When much-loved comedian Robin Williams died last month, a multi-gigabyte package of all his films shot to the top of illegal download charts. I doubt that many downloaded these films with the intention of watching them all; the guy was OK, but RVMoscow on the Hudson and World’s Greatest Dad are unbearable. This act of impotent piracy was nothing more, or less, than a respectful gesture. This wasn’t about  wanting to steal or wanting to watch. It was a memorial for a man who had gone, and a time (when we actually had taste in movies) that is fast disappearing.

The worst Williams film or the most indulgent U2 record or the hits of One Direction as reinterpreted by Katy Perry and the Walter Benjamin Chipmunks. It doesn’t matter what artefact you launch the next iPhone with, it’ll never be as good as the device that plays it.

41 responses to “In the name of cash: U2's Apple virus

  1. On a side note: “World’s Greatest Dad” is unbearable? Really? I thought it a great black comedy. Robin Williams did make some horrible movies, but that was not one of them.

  2. Oh and it is pretty darn cool to hate U2 these days. I hate cool things. And yet I love U2.
    I mean let’s face it. Music is dead. All pop music is spew.

  3. It’s pretty funny how people still love Apple and keep buying into them. “No choice” is their whole outlook.
    U2 did business with the wrong kind of a**holes. I don’t see it as their fault. They can release what they like. Apple is the one at fault here.

  4. On a related rant… As U2 albums go the content of this one is reasonably inoffensive (omitting comment about method of delivery). The completist in me is going to buy the physical album anyway because hey, when you own the preceding 12 albums you’re gonna buy the next one. Ddon’t judge, I’m in my mid-40s, they provided part of a very serviceable soundtrack all through high school, finishing with The Joshua Tree in Year 12.

    No, my complaint is I downloaded it to my phone but can’t transfer it my iPod. Short version – by and large because iTunes is a diabolically god-awful program. Once again Apple is trying to control my music. The memory of DRM still burns deep.

    I own a lot of music. iPods and therefore the compulsory iTunes have never really cut it for me. Do you know how hard it is to get a player over 32 gb these days? And even that’s not enough. Neil Young’s Pono player can’t come soon enough.

  5. A crotchety American anesthesiologist responded this way: “I’d love to join in the panic over the vile stealth U2 album… But my raccoon has hepatitis”

    He’s an old man and quite out of touch; but, while I would give him failing marks for punctuation, his point seems valid enough. I’m sure there were many of us who spent those precious hours nursing our sick raccoons scarcely aware of the duffer in mum jeans desperately shoveling unwanted bits toward our Apple branded smartphones.

  6. The U2 album hysteria barely even rates as a First World Problem. People didn’t get this bent out of shape when phone books were tossed for free at their house. “Oh no! Someone gave me a free thing that I don’t want! Privacy invasion!”

    Possibly folks should check the Terms & Conditions that they agree to when signing up for stuff, and remember that although they may own the music in their iDevices, they don’t really own the cloud where it might be stored.

    I get that the situation might annoy some people. But methinks it’s been blown out of proportion a smidge.

  7. I’m with you Helen, I wouldn’t have been so miffed if the release had been half decent. Old men making MOR crap. I’m going back to listen to War or The Joshua Tree. (On CD, through my Stereo)

    1. U2 is communication speak for “You too”. The true background is that Apple secretly recorded millions of their customers singing in the shower etc. and then computer-processed these recordings into an “album”. This album was subsequently downloaded by Apple, without permission, into their customers’ music collections (to test a new marketing idea). When Apple realised they had overstepped the big-brother relationship they have with their customers, they found an irish folkband who fortuitously were called U2. Apple paid the band a huge amount of money to accept responsibility for the album. This was intended to get Apple off the hook. It kind of worked.

    1. It is instructive, Dr Robert, in that it indicates that this was a piece of editorial on the state of our relationship to reproducible art and not a music criticism. I’ll leave that the the folks who understand musicology!

  8. What I’m loving is that I just read an interesting and thought provoking article by Ms Razor… then an interesting conversation between the writer and her readers… (for and against…) and not a troll in sight…there is hope for this intermernt thingy yet
    I think I’ll go and buy the U2 album now just cause I can… peace and love to you all .

    1. You’ve jinxed it now! By morning, there will be fifty comments from fanbois high on red-drink and poor reading comprehension screaming that we are all demonising Apple.

  9. As a collector of music, with all the memories that go with, I was incensed to have my playlist interrupted by the U2 virus. Its more the fact that it was flung at me and downloaded without consent onto my phone, who owns my phone/music, me or iTunes??

    Loved this piece by the way, excellent writing.

  10. Oh yeah I noticed that U2 album in the “recently added” section of my itunes, come to think of it. Amongst all the other accumulated junk, flotsam and jetsam, litter and gifted ACDC in my itunes “collection” I didn’t give it a second thought.

  11. Do you think the over-the-top hostile response to another U2 record of bland sticking-it-to-the-man-but-in-reality-not-even-gently-tickling-the-man corporate rock has to do with the fact that, even in the era of instantaneous access to very nearly the entire recorded output of our age, our music “collection” somehow speaks to who we are? That by painstakingly curating our iTunes libraries we are living up to the Greil Marcus ideal that consuming (or more pointedly not consuming) some cultural output means we’re not like the others (you know, the passive consumers)? That what we let through our earholes and into our iTunes libraries speaks to our discernment and cherished notions of critical superiority?

    1. Well, yes. And I think I kinda said that to a degree. But I don’t know if I am entirely on board with the idea of “cultural capital”.
      I totally appreciate your assessment that taste acts as a class filter; or even as a means by which to purchase one’s way into a class. The distinction theory is a really good one.
      But I also really like the Walter Benjamin essay, which is quite a bit less harshly Marxist, about the understanding of collections.
      I think that the act of collection can be a much more intimate process. It has to do with one’s building of the self. Especially when it happens so privately.
      This is not to say that people do not choose things in an effort to cultural wealth or that liking a particular thing does not mark you as a particular thing. But I do think, and I haven’t thought this through all the way, that some of us make very private second selves with the reproducible art-works we consume. I guess I mean that it works in a psychoanalytic sense as well as a social one.
      But Benjamin kind of has this covered, I think.

  12. I would have been more impressed if I’d woken to find a new U2 cassette in my Walkman. But no, forever catering only to the “kids”.

  13. U2 named themselves after a war plane. Their music has always sounded rather military to me. That they call this drop a ‘gift’ is not surprising as their lead singer seems to think he is as important as any other deity.

  14. Yeah, the BS over a watch was a bit much. I’m an Apple user (iPod, iMac) but the tone of “we are the source of all human happiness” in their ads really gives me the gripes.

    What is this “U2” by the way? Some sort of “beat combo”? Are they “with it”?

    1. U2 is made up of The Bono and The Edge, oh yeah, alright, woohoo!
      I think U2 may also have a couple of other not-so-famous guys, without cool nicknames. But The Bono and The Edge are amazing… rock on!

  15. If Apple was giving away “Game of Thrones” episodes, Australia would not be complaining.

    Just take your freebie with some dignity will you! Complaining about being “violated” by free music, when Australian’s are at the top of the illegal torrent users, makes us look pretty ordinary.

    1. Well, the complaint is international and not really Australian in origin at all. Moreover, the removal of the album from one’s music library whose physical space is not yet unlimited was so difficult, Apple today released a “one click” button to get rid of it as per global demand.
      I think maybe you read only the first par or so? Which is fine and quite standard these days but if you would like your question of “why get angry” addressed, then perhaps read the rest of the piece.


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