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U2, Apple, and the Strip-Mining of Punk Rebellion

“Wasn’t that the most incredible single you ever heard?” asked Apple CEO Tim Cook as the last note of The Edge’s guitar died away. He was playing U2’s new single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” to the audience at the end of a press conference this month for the new iPhone 6. “We would love a whole album of that.”

As George Orwell knew, totalitarians have a thing for grammar. Cook’s two-sentence shift from the second person singular to the first person plural neatly encapsulates the dystopian core of Apple’s new alliance with Irish rock bores U2.

“The question is now,” replied Bono, “how do we get it to as many people as possible, because that’s what our band is all about. I do believe you have over half a billion subscribers to iTunes, so–could you get this to them?”

Indeed they could, and indeed they did, with the whole Songs of Innocence album magically appearing, several seconds later, on the devices of Apple iPhone users the world over.

In retrospect, the alliance between U2 and Apple seems almost inevitable, not least because they’re both grappling with a late career slump. Throughout the post-Jobs era, Apple has struggled to live up to the expectations of its fanboys. This year, CEO Tim Cook faced the unenviable task of generating the customary buzz around an iPhone not appreciably different from earlier iterations.

As for U2, its fortunes have been on the slide for decades. Remember the 2009 album No Line on the Horizon? No? Neither does anyone else. In the United States, it shifted, as they say, 1.1 million units, a significant decrease from the 3.3 million copies of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 4.4 million of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The band has seen “a steady decline in sales even steeper than the overall industry trend,” says the Wall Street Journal.

But the iTunes deal represents more than a convenient lash-up between two businesses on the fritz, because it also highlights the aesthetic compatibility between the band and the brand.

Famously, Apple badged itself as the computer company associated not with nerdy IT-types but with cutting-edge artists and rebellious freethinkers. “I’m a Mac,” explained Justin Long in the iconic commercial, inviting viewers to contrast his own laid-back demeanor with the dorky and uptight PC guy beside him. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” toasted Steve Jobs, Apple’s LSD-gobbling CEO, “the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes.”

In reality, Jobs’s shamanistic persona depended upon the mostly invisible labor carried out in Foxconn factories in Chinese free trade zones, where the manufacture of iPhones and iPads takes place according to a system so regimented that workers cannot move their stools away from a yellow and black striped line. As the (mostly) young women perform the same tedious tasks, over and over again, they’re invited to contemplate quotations from the philosophy of Foxconn’s CEO, Terry Gou. “Growth, thy name is suffering,” reads one. “A harsh environment is a good thing,” says another. “Outside the lab, there is no high-tech, only execution of discipline,” explains a third.

So much for the misfits and the rebels.

Similarly, U2 have built their career upon tropes of rock rebellion entirely divorced from any radical content whatsoever. The casual listener might mistake “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as a response to the infamous civil rights massacre but Bono famously assured crowds that “this song is not a rebel song.” The iconic photo from that period shows him soulfully waving a white flag, in a kind of symbolic protest that’s neither for nor against anything at all.

In the song “Pride,” Bono sings, in that prophet-on-the-mountain-top voice, about Martin Luther King, earnestly informing us that…what? Love is good–and so are Jesus and MLK? The banality of the lyrics correlates inversely with the fervor with which Bono emotes them.

The new album–the one that turned up uninvited on millions of digital doorsteps–carries all of this a step further, as U2 strip-mines the punk acts of their youth. Hence the invocation of Joey Ramone in the tune that Tim Cook likes so much, a track about as distant from the bratty nihilism of The Ramones as it’s possible to get.

With “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” U2 even channel Sandinista-era Clash. “After we saw the Clash, it was a sort of blueprint for U2,” Bono told Rolling Stone. “We knew we couldn’t possibly hope to be as cool, and that’s proven to be true, but we did think we could get behind a sort of social justice agenda.”

A sort of social justice agenda? Could anyone imagine U2 titling a record after a Marxist insurgent group that the White House was actively seeking to crush?

U2’s career has coincided with the steady retreat of the Left, something that’s facilitated the deployment of empty protest signifiers. But Bono and Co. are also now confronting the demise of stadium rock, as popular culture fragments and diversifies in ways that make traditional pop stardom increasingly untenable.

So, with the iTunes deal, U2 attempts to appropriate rock and roll itself. That is, Songs of Innocence offers a simulacrum of the old-fashioned rock blockbuster, an album that (because it colonizes millions of electronic devices) will be as ubiquitous as any record in musical history. At the same time, it renders traditional fandom entirely redundant, since the songs appear whether the device-owners like them or not.

It’s form without content, a musical experience that seems like rock, except without everything that rendered rock important. Teenage lust, the vagaries of fashion, obscure subcultural identifications: all of those components of musical taste have entirely vanished, as Tim and Bono simply make your choices for you. “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” sang Joe Strummer. He didn’t know the half of it.

The U2 tie-in might be seen as a high-tech version of those old-timey promotions where you get a free toy with your cornflakes–except that unwanted content appearing in your music collection inexorably prompts much more complicated considerations of the peculiarities of digital ownership than a plastic whistle. The Apple giveth–and the Apple can presumably taketh away, too. In what sense, then, is either the music or the machine that plays it actually yours? Furthermore, if Tim Cook can reach through your screen and rummage around in your record collection, what else can he do? What can other people or government institutions do? (Hello, NSA!)

Like rock itself, the digital revolution once promised unbridled freedom. As another old punk once said, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”