Does U2 still matter?

With Bono musing about retirement, we asked music industry veterans if they’d miss the Irish foursome


Barbara Streisand, Cher, Jay-Z, Garth Brooks, Frank Sinatra—all of them “retired” at some point in their careers before miraculously returning to the music world, not coincidentally surfing a tsunami of cash all the way to their favourite banking establishments.

So one would have to look at U2 lead singer Bono’s recent comments to Rolling Stone that “We’d be very pleased to end on No Line On The Horizon” with a certain amount of cynicism. The band, not coincidentally, are set to release a 20th anniversary deluxe edition reissue of their Achtung Baby album on Oct. 31. On top of that, they’ve reportedly been recording new music.

Why even bother dangling a retirement then? After all, the only thing you’re doing is taking your fans on a ride that’s just going to alienate them. But that’s nothing new for the Irish foursome. Some people got that feeling long before No Line On The Horizon.

For me, it was March 24, 1992.

That’s the night that I broke up with my favourite band, the biggest rock band in the world, U2.

Bono and crew were playing Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens as part of the Zoo TV tour following the release of Achtung Baby. In a gesture equaled in rock music’s pantheon perhaps only by Dylan going electric, Metallica getting haircuts, and Radiohead turning their backs on “songs,” U2 had just abandoned earnestness in favour of glamour, spectacle, and worst of all, irony. The flying cars, the television screens, Bono’s turns as “The Fly,” “Mirror Ball Man” and “MacPhisto.” It was meant to be A SHOW!

But it wasn’t my show. I wanted protest songs, but got wraparound shades instead, so I dropped U2 and never looked back.

When U2 came to the Toronto International Film Festival in August for the premiere of the documentary From The Sky Down, which is being packaged as part of Achtung Baby‘s deluxe reissue the frontman said the following:

“U2’s been on the verge of irrelevance for 20 years. We’ve dodged and we’ve dived and made some great work along the way and occasional faux pas, but this moment where we’re at, to me, feels really close to the edge of irrelevance.”

Are U2 really on “the edge”? Should they quit? Certainly, their discography at the 30-year mark remains better than The Rolling Stones’ at 30 (No Line On The Horizon vs. Voodoo Lounge), but for every one of the 7.2 million people who took in the band’s recent 360° Tour, surely there are just as many who have fallen off along the way.

To find out if and when U2 lost their mojo, Macleans.ca polled 50 prominent Canadians with an ear for music, from Juno Award-nominees like Danko Jones and Cancer Bats lead singer Liam Cormier, to MuchMusic alums like George Stroumboulopoulos and Ed The Sock, to writers like Pitchfork scribe and This Book Is Broken author Stuart Berman, and asked them this simple question:

Are U2 still musically relevant?

Unfortunately for Bono, it appears his band is no longer on the edge; they fell over the wrong side of it about 15 years ago.

No Support On The Horizon

The ‘No’ vote was overwhelming, with 66 per cent of respondents saying U2 have indeed jumped the shark. While, panel members were encouraged to identify when—and with which album—U2 lost its relevance, things like age, musicianship, charity work and tax havens also factored into the mix.

“As soon as a musician starts attracting more attention for things other than their music, it’s time to hang-up the auto tune. Also, they actually play instruments, which today is seen as superfluous to a career in music.” — Ed The Sock

“A band that started off representing the face of a new Irish generation in a time of political instability has turned into the epitome of global capitalism, with music instead of mutual funds as its vessel. Just look up corporations such as Not Us Inc., which operate alongside U2 Limited to maximize profits while minimizing taxes. I can understand looking to make a solid living off your trade, whatever it may be, but when you’re taking employees from KPMG and making them your financial director, you’re not just looking out for your own interests, but making a statement that profit is your number one priority above everything else, quality music included.” — Simon Becker-Sadava, Black Skyline Media

“In many ways, I have more respect for them as people. Rather than harp about their shoddy musical output after The Joshua Tree, I would applaud their campaigning for human rights and activism, and for the paths they have personally decided to follow. I think a lot of musicians that financially succeed could learn a lot from the members of U2.” — Phil Kylgo, Weewerk Recordings

“The 2000s ushered in new technology, new music, new access, new media and U2 did their best to stay on top of all of that. But kids didn’t care because the one thing that stays the same is kids need their own music to define themselves, not their parents’ music. It’s just a band’s life cycle and lots of them go through it. I think U2 have at least done all of this very well and with respect.” — Joel Carriere, Owner/Operator Bedlam Music Mgmt/Dine Alone Records/DA Foods

Yes, I’m Still Running

They may have been in the minority, but the 34 per cent of voters who believe U2 are still relevant are steadfast and loyal. Their support appears undying and their arguments, from the amount of tickets they sell, to their altruism are solid, too.

“They still push themselves and they try not to record the same album all the time. And when you see the band play live they don’t look like a dinosaur rock band. You go to a U2 show for the experience, not the nostalgia—they’re not a casino band. They’ve also done a really good job of making the world a better place.” — George Stroumboulopoulos, George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight

“U2 is a pop music juggernaut. They adapt with the times and put out records full of singles that people constantly want to buy. They’ve also pushed their live show to new standards in an age where most other pop acts a third their age are cancelling due to low ticket sales.” — Liam Cormier, Cancer Bats

“U2’s musical relevance is based on the fact that they can write giant, anthemic songs that appeal to millions of soccer moms and frat boys alike. They’re a boy-band for adults; a man-band. They’re the band that inspires suburban couples to hire a babysitter, get drunk on white wine and head to the big city for a rock concert. Based on the fact that their most recent 360° Tour was attended by over seven million fans and grossed over $700 million it would appear that they’re as relevant as they’ve ever been.” — Barry Taylor, comedian, music journalist

“The very fact that such a politically-charged alternative rock band could emerge from the Irish punk scene of the 1970s and become unparalleled worldwide superstars makes them relevant. Where is the rest of that punk scene? They’re either dead or playing reunion shows with the surviving members at local pubs. U2 transcended it all, on a global level, to become genuine rock superstars. When they emerged at the stadium level in the 1980s, arena shows were dominated by hair metal bands and meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll. Many of those acts have fallen by the wayside, and only a mere handful can still play an arena, yet U2, 35 years, 22 Grammys, and an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame later, still pack ’em in, and vocally stay true to their political beliefs. And they have the wherewithal to remember where they came from, giving bands like the Arcade Fire their first taste of stadium rocking. U2 = forever relevant.” — Grant Lawrence, CBC Radio 3

Boomerang: The Backhand Yes

Not all ‘Yes’ votes were enthusiastic. In fact, they were outright begrudging in some cases.

“U2 have never bothered me, but past The Joshua Tree I couldn’t hum you a tune. They’ve always been musically relevant, but mainly to the lowest common denominator and the lowest common denominator is usually made up of people who don’t consider music’s relevance in the first place.” — Danko Jones

“They may no longer be musically innovative, and they’ve certainly done well by returning to their early sound on their later albums. But they’re still one of the most popular and commercially successful bands in the world today. When you’re that big, you’re relevant, no matter how redundant you might sound.” — Matt Blair, writer/DJ


Zooropa is officially the worst U2 album. At least according to the whopping 24 per cent of ‘No’ voters who cited the 1993 album and its singles “Numb,” “Lemon” and “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” as the reason why they gave up on the band.

“You never really hear anyone in an awesome band say things like “Yeah, Pop by U2 changed my life,” or “I went out and bought a guitar and started writing songs after having my mind blown by Zooropa. Achtung Baby seems to be the self-respecting cutoff point for most people who don’t shop for their music at Walmart.” — Adrian Popovich, Mountain City Studios producer/engineer

“Sure, it’s not easy following a timeless classic like Achtung Baby, but Bono couldn’t even be bothered to try — and hasn’t since. Where its Berlin-recorded predecessor offered heartfelt ruminations about Euro-life on the knife-edge of monumental change — as the Soviets collapsed and the media rose up—Zooropa boasted Bono singing about lemons in an ironic falsetto. It also came off as an excuse to prolong their Zoo TV tour, sullying a legendary road show with superficial songs. Zooropa added no hits to their canon and subsequent albums have all similarly paled against U2’s iconic early efforts. Achtung, indeed.”— Joshua Ostroff, Spinner Canada

Achtung Baby

“The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the undeniable ballad “One,” this 1991 album was the turning point. U2 became a pop band and there was no turning back, though 18 per cent of ‘No’ voters did.

“Growing up, I always thought of them as a pop band. I considered groups like R.E.M. part of my musical sphere, but Achtung Baby was just an album that my aunt wanted to order from Columbia House.” — Sarah Kurchak, Risky Fuel


And then Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton confronted those “pop” band accusations directly with songs like “Discothèque,” “Mofo” and “Please” on the 1997 album Pop. This album sent 18 per cent of naysayers overboard.

“Up until Zooropa (an underrated album, methinks), U2 were still writing the rulebook on how to be an intelligent, musically adventurous arena rock band, but with Pop they came off as desperate bandwagon jumpers, trying to compete with your Chemical Brothers and Prodigys or, worse, Oasis (“Staring At The Sun,” anyone?) The post-Pop era did yield one of their finest singles (“Beautiful Day”), but in retrospect, that was more a last gasp of glory than a harbinger of revitalization.” — Stuart Berman, The Grid/Pitchfork

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

For another 18 per cent of those in the ‘No’ camp, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its shimmering “Beautiful Day” and Tomb Raider-soundtracking “Elevation”, was, in fact, the exact point where they left Ireland’s finest behind.

“In my opinion, ‘Beautiful Day’ was the last relevant song U2 put out. That might even be a stretch, but I thought it was dope. They looked ridiculous in the video, but the song itself was pretty strong. To me, they fell off after that. I’m not sure if that was a ‘them’ thing or a ‘me’ thing, though. Either way, beyond that point, I was either clowning Bono for being a horrendous douche or not giving a shit.” — Muneshine, producer/rapper

“The point of no return — the singular moment at which U2 got bored with its own schtick — was the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000. Eleven years later, there’s nothing left but four middle-aged narcoleptics touring the world in a 50-tonne jungle gym.” — Philippe Gohier, Macleans.ca

“They stopped pushing the envelope, therefore becoming irrelevant to me as an artist who looks to songs and music and life for inspiration with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Nothing after Pop is relevant to anyone who enjoyed anything intriguing by them.”— Dylan Hudecki, Cowlick/The Dill

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Does U2 still matter?

  1. I left them behind with “All that You Cant Leave Behind”, when Edge decided to put down the guitar and become a piano player.  I was hoping to return with the later albums, but alas … U2 is now irrelevant (beyond the remaining U2 fanatics who would praise an album of Bono farting aka “every breaking wind”), so by Bono’s logic, it’s time for them to pack it in.  REM figured it out, why shouldnt U2? Sad, but true.

    • U2’s 2nd album October was loaded with piano – The title track of that record is built around one of Edge’s piano figures.  The lead melody of their first breakout hit New Year’s Day is played on the piano.  If you left them behind when Edge decided to ‘become a piano player’ you must have left them behind in 1982.

      • I wasnt even listening to them in 1982, I started with “Under a Blood Red Sky” and “War” in 83 like most U2 fans.  And “October” is considered to be one of their worst albums, because it is.

        • Which means you heard the Edge play piano on New Years Day…

  2. Yeah I am not listening to them and haven’t for awhile but recently saw them ( Bono & the Edge) do an acoustic duet on Letterman (I think) and it gave me shivers it was so good. So what does this mean? Their on spot, in the moment political relevance was amazing when they burst on the scene but that can never be maintained, ever, especially in this day and age. But that performance as musicians blew my mind as much as anything they have done for me.

    • I remember seeing that and found it interesting. The song they played “Stuck in the moment” has been mentioned as one of their most boring and conventional songs. While I wouldn’t put in a top thirty of their songs and probably not a top fifty, in hearing them talk about and perform it, it was the clear the musical process and motives couldn’t have been more pure. Contrary to what a lot of critics claim. 

  3. Hey, Macleans…  There is a not a single person you have quoted above that I have ever heard of, let alone whose opinion I care about.  How’s that for irrelevancy?  

    • You’ve never heard of George Stroumboulopoulos?

      • I have never heard of Matt Blair.

    • Whoa, whoa, whoa—hold on a minute. I’m not famous? How am I supposed to break this to my mom? 

  4. Strombo’s comment was the most illogical piece of tripe… oh wait… its was Strombo saying it, so one shouldn’t expect logic from a Stalinist.

    They push themselves?  How does that make them more or (gawd forbid) less relevant than Danko Jones, exactly?

    You go to a U2 show for the experience, not nostalgia?  Did he even see the 2nd leg of 360?  The had maybe 4 songs from the last 10 years on it in a 2 hr gig.

    • And yet the songs spanned from the early 80s right up to the late 2000s. Nostalgia maybe. But from what time period? You don’t have to go back very far to find something of meaning to people.

      Also, when you see them live you realize many of the songs could have been written yesterday. They’re still fresh. Minus Pop, which they don’t play from anyway.

      • Here’s their set list from Seattle…

        The full setlist was:Pre-1983 (i.e War)
        I Will Follow

        1983 – 1991
        Until The End Of The World / It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (snippet) / Where Have All The Flowers Gone? (snippet)All I Want Is YouEven Better Than The Real ThingMysterious Ways / Norwegian Wood (snippet)
        Pride (In The Name Of Love)
        Sunday Bloody Sunday
        Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (snippet) / Where The Streets Have No Name / All You Need Is Love (snippet)
        With Or Without You

        Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
        Beautiful Day / Space Oddity (snippet)
        Miss Sarajevo
        Crazy Tonight / Discothèque (snippet) / Life During Wartime (snippet) / Psycho Killer (snippet)
        Walk On / You’ll Never Walk Alone (snippet)
        Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me

        Get On Your Boots
        City Of Blinding Lights
        Vertigo / The Fixer (snippet) / Alive (snippet)
        Moment of Surrender

        So 5 songs from the last two albums. 3 1/2 songs from the last one.  I put Crazy tonight because it really was more of Discotheque in structure and sound than the song on the album.

        Is there older stuff meaningful and still relevant? yes.  Are they a spent artistic force. Sadly, yes.

        • Crazy Tonight was from NLOTH form 2009 (snipped of Discotheque hardly counts).  So that’s another new song.

    • Come on man – they played 7 songs from the last 10 years at every show on the 2nd leg. Sometimes up to 9 when they would throw in Magnificent and Stuck in a moment. Get those facts straight. U2 is untouchable. No other band has come close to accomplishing what they have for 30 plus years. They have re-invented their sound, look, and stage performances year after year. Don’t have to like them, but nobody is close to U2 in the last 30 years.

      • Get my facts straight, forgot about crazy tonight – that’s 10! 

      • Wait, wait, wait, I am a huge fan and I still enjoy their show.  I saw them in New York on the first leg of the 360 tour (where they were fantastic) and then in Seattle (where they were not) on the second.  Heck, I even own the Passengers CD!

        I appreciate that they’ve consistently tried to re-invent their sound to remain current, but at their core remain true to themselves – sometimes successfully (The Unfogettable Fire, Achtung Baby) other times not (Pop, No Line).

        But I recognize that their best days, in terms of creativity and relevancy, are behind them.  Since Achtung Baby/Zooropa they really haven’t tried to push the envelope creatively, but rather take the emerging or current forms of the art and adapted it to their style, structure and technique (as they did with Oasis & Blur in Pop, Coldplay (and the second generation of Brit rock) in ATYCLB & Vertigo, and Arcade Fire in No Line). 

        I do not accept that a band is still relevant when they tour and play less than a 1/4 of the allotted time with their current music.  If their new stuff is still relevant, that material would be pushed to the fore and their older material would support it – much as it was with the Elevation tour.

        U2 will forever be able to go on tour and fill stadiums & arenas playing their old stuff, only a handful of bands possess a body of work that fits those venues and is as timeless as theirs is.  That’s their right and good on them, but to say they are still relevant.

        • Actually, NLOTH is one of their best albums since AB.  Unlike the supposed critics commenting in the article, many musicians feel songs like “Moment of Surrender” was one of U2’s best songs EVER.  That’s hardly U2 copying anyone – that’s U2 setting a new trend.  Also, most of the 360 tour featured 7 or 8 songs from the new album – something U2 has always done since the 80’s.  As they continue to release music and have hits (despite what the “critics” say, “Zooropa” did produce a few hits), they have to juggle the new with their catalog – and that gets mroe and more challenging.  Either way, the only album I look forward to is form U2.  If they retire, so be it – so will my pocketbook with regards to “new” music.  I don’t need some auto-tuned crap because it’s “relevant”.

  5. Without a doubt, The Joshua Tree was their musical high point. The last one I bought was Achtung Baby; I can’t be bothered with anything they did after that.

    • JT was a bit boring.  All the songs sounded the same.  I’m a huge U2 fan, but that album is amongst my least favorite by them.

  6. Of course these comments would come from a Canadian website. No offence but since when has Canada ever been relevant???

    • You must have taken your eyes away from your navel to type that.  Are you sure that’s safe?

    • Relevant enough for you to post a comment on that news website…

  7. wow, can i have however many minutes of my life i just wasted reading this… does U2 still matter? FUCK YES THEY DO!! and if they didn’t, you wouldn’t have written this to begin with!!

  8. I’m usually pretty annoyed by discussions like this but that said this was a solid article. I think the fact that this discussion even exists and obviously brings passion though is proof that they are indeed still relevant. As much as I love some of them, could you even imagine a discussion about whether Springsteen, Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Motley Crue, The Cure, John Mellencamp or Guns n Roses are still relevant? All the responses would be something along the lines of “no and why are we talking about this?”

  9. The fact that U2 is still as polarizing as ever is proof of their relevance.  Not “artistic” relevance, which is inherently subjective in any event.  They are still easily, and by a huge margin, the biggest band in the world and can tour a stage show globally that no other band could even dream of doing, let alone execute.  Just this past year they ended the highest grossing tour in the history of music.  700 million gross.

    To suggest they aren’t “relevant” anymore is laughable.

  10. As far as I’m concerned, U2 has never matter and never will. They’re not making music, they’re making money.

  11. The Cancer Bats….hmmmmm…..never heard of them.  Irrelevant acts calling U2 irrelevant.  How conveeeeenient…..

  12. Do you think that by sticking with the same style since Joshua Tee was released that U2 would have garnered favour from you and the 12 others like you?

    Couple of things to note if you even pretented to be knowledgable about not just U2 but any form of Music you would understand that by departing from the style of the Joshua Tree Rattle and Hum, that U2 took the balliest move in Autung Baby and it paid off, just look at the awards they recieved at the time.

    I know that by doing that,  that they did alienate a certain demographic but for the price of musical development I sincerely belive that they deserve the credit of at least taking the risk.

    “One” was and still is one of the most beautiful songs they produced, one of the most covered and recognisable, that was  on A.B.

    I admit that they have a difficult job now that they are in their Fouth Decade and something has to change their last offering and a few previous have not really inspired much in the line of Anthems or memeories but craft wise they are solid Numbers.

    For me personally I will always hold a flame for a  band that has done so much, and the Hope that they will continue, and with the next gift they blow all and sundry away with innovative and fresh music, something tells me they have it in them but the fear of failure is a force to grapple with.

    Bashing U2 for the their Charity Work annoys me so much because its a complicted and very detrimental thing for them to do Charity, Aid Africas Debt etc

    All of these things actually line U2 up for an even bigger fall, and Im sure that the band are well aware of their image on this front but still they insist on getting involved.

    Some call it Ego, some more call it nagging, some call it annoying I personally think that it can get in the way of the music,  it may even suffer but I recon that U2 see beyond the music see beyond the media the bashers and see that they have the actuall ability to get people to think about really hard situations that are so easily hidden forgotten, ignored or simply dismissed.

    They shine a light on  something that is  not popular and for a  band to associate themselves with unpopular themes, as a brand (ie the U2 brand) thats really bad,  as Humans thats really good.

    So we see Bono with  world leaders, and it irks me a bit but I do think about why he does that and the only answer is because he cares enough to use his Fame for good and puplicly gets bashed by those who also have celebrity status but know the risk he is taking with himself and his Band and the Brand that is U2 but they(the bashers with Celebrity) would never put their Brand out there like that, its not popular but its the right thing to do and thats what they are doing. 

    If Bono and U2  only ever gave anybody $1 for their  cause  would appluad them because for all the millions they have raised, giving their time energy and sarcificing their “Brand” for the good of the  many.

    If they exit Ireland because of Tax reasons then I support that becuase Business is Business and Companys do that type of thing all the time, Ask the Googles, IBMs, The Apples, Phizer, Jonson and Jonson,  why they operate in low tax rated countries?

    I pay tax and I do the same by figuring out the least amount I have to pay each year, you do the same its what everybody does. But when U2 do it they get ridiculed, even Charities, Big Charities have Tax accountants!!!!

    Anyway I’ll end this with a plea to focus on the music and hope that U2 can scare and excite me again with their music.  

    As for the rest that just U2 and thats also why I love them.

  13. Who?

  14. I think the comments of these a,legend music critics is CRAP, they don’t speak for the people who enjoy U2 music, other than George S, I have never heard of ant of these ppl talk about being irrelevant . Stick with your day jobs, leave U2 alone, and heaven forbid, ge out of your shells and tune into some decent music, like that of U2, don’t become music critics, you would week!

    • Totally aggree with you

  15. Hey
    Everyone.  U2 is going to exist with or with out this article, no need
    to slag the people who were asked to participate that just discredits
    what your trying to say.  The article had stemmed from Bono himself
    speaking about the bands irrelevance to contemporary culture.  Its not
    speaking to the great memories that you all have of the band.  When
    discussing the relevance or irrelevance you have to look at those who
    are being influenced. They simply are not acquiring new fans of this
    generation as they did previous.  There songs are classic rock to a
    teenager and teenage values U2 differently.  Their over all relevance
    to contemporary culture, who will shape our future, as depleted
    considerably.  Doesn’t mean they are not good, doesn’t mean they still
    are not the biggest band in the world, just means kids don’t care as
    much about a bunch of 50yr old men writing music they can’t relate to.  One of the irrelevant people apparently talking out of place because you all don’t know me :)

  16. Any band that can inspire not one, but two pie charts — plus
    a major feature in Maclean’s Magazine is pretty darn relevant, don’t you think?

    All great art divides, and that division of opinion, along
    with Bono’s bouts of creative self doubt, have long been the story of U2.

  17. Last album to my ears was great, I loved it, Pop may not be their best but they’ve made 3 great albums since. Saw 3 U2 shows in the past 2 years, they are a great meaningful and relevent band. Says me!

  18. Meh. Haters gonna hate. I loved the last album. As long as they put out new material, I’ll listen to it and judge it on it’s merits. I think most of the 7.2 million people who saw their last tour would still think they’re relevant. Most of the criticism cited in the article are from people who are disappointed that U2 isn’t what they want them to be, and would probably kill to be 1/10 as successful. Tough darts. If you just want them to redo The Joshua Tree, just listen to the Joshua Tree.

  19. The fact that I still listen to them makes them very relevant in my eyes. I can’t stand music snobs. I’ve never even heard of Ed The Sock, so why should I care what he thinks.

  20. I loved (and still love) Achtung Baby. What a great album, an amazing reinvention. After that, though, for me at least, nothing lived up to it. Is U2 still relevant? Not to me, but to their millions of fans, they are.

  21. I haven’t heard of a single one of the above people, so how are their opinions relevant? How can a band write a song like Moment of Surrender and not be relevant? Yawn!

  22. The people that think Zooropa is ‘officially’ their worst album are ignorant – just like the person who “wrote” this blah.

  23. Just you see the numbers and media coverage and records sold. It’s not logical to say they are irrelevant. Sounds like someone has a thorn to pull out.

  24. It is incredible to write a great song. The aim of any band should be the ability to write a great song. U2 are still capable of great songs. They have always been capable of album fillers. I would argue that two songs on their last album (“Fez”, and “Cedars of Lebanon”) would suggest that U2 still have the ability at least to write very very good songs. The rest is noise.

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