U2's singer has evolved from heart-on-sleeve idealist to hopeful pragmatist, writes Brian Libby of Salon.Com.
In June, Bono of U2 delivered the commencement address to graduating students at Harvard. Before sharing his thoughts about AIDS, Africa and Third World debt, the legendary singer began with an Alcoholics Anonymous-style confession: "My name is Bono, and I am a rock star."
At 41, Bono is at an age when many rock musicians start exploiting bygone successes to keep feeding at the trough of fame. But with Bono, it's more than a rock 'n' roll career. Behind the black leather togs and wraparound shades, there has always been an earnest social crusader. Embarrassingly earnest? Perhaps. But, oddly, that's part of his charm. In a business where people sell their souls for success, he has constantly risked celebrity-cause cliché -- and he knows it. "The only thing worse than a rock star," he told the starry-eyed Harvard grads, "is a rock star with a conscience. I've seen great minds and prolific imaginations disappear up their own ass, strung out on their own self-importance. I'm one of them."
But as we accept the notion that the horrific attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on Sept. 11 have changed our world irrevocably, Bono looks better than ever; his earnestness suddenly feels a lot less corny. It's not to say that he has all the answers, but once again celebrities who crusade have less reason to fear ridicule. The great thing about Bono, though, is that he probably doesn't care whether he looks cool along the way.
Bono's humanitarianism has always been purchased on the credit line of U2's fame, which is precisely why it has made a noticeable return in the last year. Many U2 fans (and rumor has it even Bono and his band mates) had speculated that the band's best days were behind them. But now U2 have suddenly made their best album in a decade. "All That You Can't Leave Behind," released in fall of 2000, has received nearly unanimous critical acclaim and sold millions. The accompanying Elevation 2001 Tour has sold out arenas throughout the world, and U2 have racked up a slew of honors. Suddenly, it's as if they never stopped being the biggest band in the world.
"It's hard for rock 'n' roll artists to grow and mature and find ways to have long careers," says New York Times rock critic Ann Powers, an avowed fan of the band. "U2 figured out how to break out of that, and a lot of bands don't."
In the wake of "All That You Can't Leave Behind," Bono and U2 have been praised for coming back to the kind of guileless art-rock that originally gained the band acclaim before Ronald Reagan had even unpacked his bags in Washington. But like his band mates, Bono is not the same man he was 20 years ago. In U2's first several albums, Bono's lyrics exhibited uncommon faith in an era full of anger and gloom. But after the darker introspection of the band's albums from the last decade, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is particularly notable because Bono has again come to see the glass as half-full.
Yet when he sings "It's a beautiful day, don't let it get away," it's not youthful pie-in-the-sky optimism, but a faith that's been redeemed over time. That's something altogether more meaningful. And while that was already true before Sept. 11, it's even more relevant now. This is no time for idealism, but rather one in which defiant, profound hope is desperately needed. And that's what "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is all about.
As Bono has become a prominent spokesman for Third World debt relief and the related African AIDS epidemic, there's no doubt it recalls countless pet causes of years past. In the mid-'80s, as "War" (1983) and "The Unforgettable Fire" (1984) first carried U2 toward multiplatinum success, they were fixtures in the Band Aid and Live Aid campaigns to end famine in Africa. When "The Joshua Tree" (1987) was about to make them the biggest rock band in the world, U2 joined Sting and Peter Gabriel belting out hits for Amnesty International. Around the same time Bono joined the chorus of artists singing "I ain't gonna play Sun City," in an effort to end South African apartheid. Because it's easy to be cynical about high-profile celebrity causes, it's to his credit that such a high-profile star managed to maintain credibility while so actively utilizing the spotlight, however nobly, for his own objectives....
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