U2 and the Irony of “Permission Rage”

So U2, a band that has operated throughout its long career in an irony-free zone, has gone ahead and pulled what may be the single most ironic publicity stunt of the Digital Age.


So U2, a band that has operated throughout its long career in an irony-free zone, has gone ahead and pulled what may be the single most ironic publicity stunt of the Digital Age.

I would love to think that they planned it this way. That Bono is craftier than you may realize.

By now you know the basics: how Apple recently inserted the new U2 album into the music libraries, on the cloud, of all iTunes users, and how this prompted a powerful chorus of outrage from those who were unhappy with the liberty taken thereby. An atomic bomb’s worth of pent-up U2 hate seemed to be built into the reaction, I should note, since the band has taken the brunt of the hive-mind assault here (example), even as it is clearly Apple who was behind the whole thing.

Boil the negative reaction down to its core and it seems to be about permission. “How dare they put this album into my personal slice of the iCloud without my permission!” armchair critics across the internet have ranted and raved since Songs of Innocence appeared via Tim Cook’s magic wand on September 10th. The fact that the album seemed, at first, impossible to delete inflamed the naysayers all the more.

And I get this, I do. You don’t want trespassers sullying up your corner of the iCloud. No one likes having things done to their stuff, even their iStuff, without their permission. I mean, what was Apple thinking, right? And Bono too. Especially Bono.

Only, wait a minute. Let’s backtrack a bit. Say, 15 years or so. And let’s think about what has been happening since music has been widely available in digital form. An entire generation of young people has grown up with the understanding that music is simply out there, for the taking. Whatever you want, it’s there, it’s easy to find, and you can take it. I mean, right? If it’s there, why wouldn’t you just take it? Especially since, like, you don’t really have enough money to buy all the music you want. And who buys music anymore anyway?

Okay, now, class, let’s reintroduce the magic word and see what happens. The magic word is “permission.” All those folks busy downloading all that music for all those years that just seemed to be out there for the taking: do you think they were getting anyone’s permission? All the music sitting there on all the torrent sites, waiting to be taken, 24 hours a day—how much of that is up there with anyone’s permission?

But oh my goodness, dare to insert 11 U2 songs into my iCloud storage area and suddenly I am Lord High Minister of Permission?

Ironic, ain’t it?

But wait, there’s more. Mixed in with the “Get off of my iCloud!” criticism have been those who, apparently without irony, now accuse Apple and U2 of making music “worthless” because of this one particular album giveaway (example). But this is indeed a very ironic stance. So we have 15-plus years of pirated music on the historical record, but now, via an album the band was paid handsomely for, it’s Apple and U2 who have somehow, abruptly, made music “worthless”?

The ironies pile on. How about the concurrent gripe that the album could not at first be deleted—is this not its own kind of wry statement on the permanence of digital trespassing? A pirated album, after all, is pretty much impossible to cleanse from the internet, is it not? I never heard the pirates complaining too much about that little factoid. And, as ironic icing on the cake, think about how this whole thing was prompted by a gesture of goodwill, a band saying, here’s our new album, you can have it for free.

All that may really going on here is textbook projection. U2 seems to be resented, massively, by a vocal cluster of people in the generation that’s just behind them (for their status as the last arena-sized rock band? for the fact that they have stayed together, harmoniously, for so long? for their lack of irony??), and here the band has gone and done the very thing that so many in this generation have been doing, without apparent self-awareness, for the entire length of their young adult lives: moving digital property around without permission. And so sure: let’s get disproportionately enraged by U2, so we still don’t have to face down the wrong we ourselves have been doing.

I can’t wait till some of these folks begin to work it all out in a therapist’s office. In the meantime, get some popcorn and enjoy the show.

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