If you’re looking to make a splash in the oversaturated social-mediasphere, nice is the new rule of thumb. The trendlet—officially dubbed the “Nice Internet” by no less an authority than the New York Times—encompasses videos devoted to cute animals, precocious kiddies, paying it forward, and elders reliving their youth. One particularly upvoting-friendly genre is the “blessing-in-disguise” video, which features headlines such as “Thousands of People Walked By This Man and Didn’t Know He Was a World-Class Musician.” That goggle-eyed title, for the record, refers to virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, who helped pioneer the Nice Internet boom back in 2007, when he went unrecognized while performing a mini-concerto in a crowded D.C. train station.
Along with creating a warm glow for viewers hovering over their “Like” buttons on Facebook, the blessing-in-disguise video promotes the idea that our society is moving too fast—and that we need to take time to appreciate the simple things in life. That’s why they’re typically set in bustling sites of commerce or mass-transit, like the train station. The comparative anonymity of such settings has also sparked the related subgenre, which might be dubbed the “megastar-in-disguise” prank video. Here, super-celebs don unflattering makeup and odd gear in an effort to confuse, entertain, and strategically humanize their own overworked brands. Pepsi Max’s “Uncle Drew” series, starring Kyrie Irving as an elderly hooper, and Jeff Gordon’s test drive series were insanely popular. Jimmy Kimmel’s Fake Drake interview, in which the rapper dressed as a poindexter and interviewed people who said disparaging things about him, spread like wildfire, or like a viral video of unenthused cats. (Or as the champions of the burgeoning online positivity sector might put it, they spread like smiles, or the good vibe that comes with giving compliments.)
And so it came to pass earlier this week that U2 combined a bunch of sure-fire signifiers from the Nice Internet when they disguised themselves as street performers and busked on the subway platform of New York City’s Grand Central Station. The performance, which doubled as a public rehearsal for their upcoming appearance on The Tonight Show (and a promo for their Innocence + Experience world tour), featured the comic disfigurement of the “blessing-in-disguise” and “celebrity-in-disguise” videos, together with the simple altruism of the “paying-it-forward” strain. Here, after all, was a mega-successful, internationally known stadium band playing for free, for nothing more than the shock-and-awe benefit of subway passersby. Since the aging rockers were in disguise, they were playing without the built-in adoration that stardom brings, and thus were reliving their hardscrabble, ambitious youth, just like the 102-year-old dancer watching iPad videos of her performances alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
It’s unclear, though, just how much residual goodwill toward this particular celebrity brand can be leveraged into warm-and-fuzzy, pay-it-forward digital renown. U2’s name has lately become a watchword for promotional excess, warning that you, too, no matter your fandom or affiliation, will find yourself annoyed by the Irish rockers. Their recent publicity stunt—colluding with Apple to dump a compulsory copy of their latest effort, Songs of Innocence, into iTunes users’ libraries in September. They don’t promote their latest projects; they invade your space. The notion that the combo intends to conscript you, too, into their global fan base, regardless of your own taste preferences, lends a new layer of menace to a band name that already awkwardly sought to meld the acronym for a Cold War era spy plane with the connotation of DIY punk inclusiveness.
Even for New York’s notoriously pushy, in-your-face populace, it felt like the band was stepping on toes, if only the ones belonging to real buskers. Despite its fun premise and feel-good tone, the subway video comes across as cloying and a downright shameless marketing ploy. Far from being just a good-natured trick, it exposes the desperation of the aging rock band that’s no longer sure about its continuing relevance. The video also inadvertently documents the strange privilege of the vanishing cohort of successful musicians to slum, essentially—and thereby to reassure both themselves and their following that they’re still down with whatever form of authenticity they now think an effective proof of concept, as they say in the venture capital world.
Venture capital, indeed, represents the love that dare not speak its name behind the cheerful scrim of the Nice Internet. The signature site in the genre is Upworthy, which, according to tech mag Fast Company, is the “fastest growing media site of all time.” Like the Nice Internet’s regular content, which drives more web traffic than any other kind, and thus more money, the kind of nuisance-based, click-bait marketing that keeps putting Bono into your feeds generates a lot of money for U2. Indeed, Bono’s entire brand is of a piece with the misleading appeal of the “blessing-in-disguise” viral video: he’s a rocker who, instead of just settling for standard-issue radio dominance, has magically morphed into a philanthropist in ripped jeans and superstar-shades. Bono’s brand—the benefactor with a rough brogue, the one-man global eradicator of poverty—has made him rich. He even has that least rock-and-roll accessory of all: a venture-capital firm, named Elevation Partners (another anodyne moniker that, like U2 itself, now seems a flourish of the Nice Internet avant la lettre).
Fittingly, the adventure down in the subway has many of the earmarks of a venture capital gimmick: a bid to entice market-making investors eager to cash in on a key trend, startup, or coding platform before it breaks big. The only trouble here, of course, is that U2 broke big long ago. U.S. ticket sales are down for the band’s pending Innocence + Experience tour—a troubling development, since America remains firmly among the band’s biggest markets. U2, who arguably hadn’t had anything go viral since 2004’s classic iPod commercial, were now merely angling to qualify as one of the offerings referred to in Upworthy’s motto: “Things That Matter. Pass ‘Em On”—a humbling downgrade from the band’s eighties salad days, when the ambition of most earnest punk rockers was to be “the only band that matters.” In truth, the band’s designs would be better served by the Nice Internet’s trademark click-generating headline formula: “These Guys Haven’t Had A Hit In A Long Time. What They Do Next Will Shock You.”
Even so, shock value, like content-related relevance, is hard to come by on the Nice Internet. So maybe U2’s next scheme should be to walk around NYC in their busking garb until the itinerant do-gooding photographer Brandon Stanton takes notice. Stanton’s wildly popular Humans of New York (HONY) photoblog is one of the Internet’s go-to sites for instant inspiration. Like other stalwart sites of the Nice Internet, HONY is known for its short, insightful captions. Picture Bono, cigarette pinched between his fingers, looking bemused: “You know, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”