I got a message on Facebook last night asking my opinion on acts like Springsteen, U2, and Tom Petty’s longevity and why they matter to younger fans. I ended up writing a whole lot more than what’s in this post and in the response but I was so intrigued by this stream of consciousness essay that I had to post….
It seems that bands now are living past the old expiration date. While none can quite match those dinos of rock The Rolling Stones for sheer longevity, a lot of artists are getting on up there in age. Springsteen and Petty were out in the 70s making music and still seem to be holding on great.
U2 is now 31 years old, R.E.M. will celebrate 29 years this April 5th and they still strike a chord with audiences. Sure, they have the benefits of having their fans grow up with them. Those fans now have kids roughly the same age as they were when they first started playing. All that creates a huge fanbase and new lifeblood for the bands. But something interesting is happening…
Just like Michael Stipe looking to Patti Smith or Bono looking to John Lennon, musicians and fans are now looking to U2 and R.E.M. for inspiration. The two groups are brother bands, growing and touring throughout the 80s, releasing worldwide smashes in the early 90s, hitting a rough patch around the end of the century and releasing new, energetic, and future-looking albums in the past year.
U2 is THE band of the world. It would be easy to argue that they have never lost popularity, never hit a sour note (though Pop is considered a low point), never moved from that spot on top of the heap. Their last effort, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” was very similar sounding to their first album “Boy”. Any fans they may have lost during their experimental albums (Achtung, Baby; Zooropa; Pop), they gained back quickly with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and “Bomb”. Now we’re on the verge of a new U2 record, dropping on March 3rd, called “No Line on the Horizon” and U2 seems as big as ever. The album sounds like the familiar U2, whether that is good or bad depends on the listener. Regardless of time, they still retain a stunning level of popularity.
R.E.M. hasn’t had the same good fortune as U2. After drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997, the remaining members were left to figure out how to be a trio. What resulted were three albums (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun) that were fiercely experimental in nature and polarizing to fans. This was not the same band that released “Losing My Religion” but then again, they were still amazing to see live. Those who had faith enough in R.E.M. to stick around were rewarded with “Accelerate.” The latest album was hailed by nearly everyone as a return to sound, a cross between hard rocking “Document” and the debut album “Murmur.” Fans who had grown up listening to R.E.M. on college stations suddenly came back and, for good measure, brought the kids too. While U2 never hid their aspirations to conquer the world, R.E.M. has always had a secret vibe around them. They were the original indie band and the way they conduct themselves still gives them an incredible amount of indie cred, despite being worldwide rockstars. U2 seemed to have the pleasant route, R.E.M. had to climb mountains. Yet both still thrive.
So what is the appeal? One thing could be the cyclical nature of the music business. Old is new again. Rock is the new alternative which was the new punk which was the new rock…and so on. Another could be admiration for the personal lives of the artists. U2’s Bono is just as comfortable talking about AIDS in Africa to state leaders as he is singing “Mofo” in front of thousands. R.E.M. and their staff have always been involved in human rights issues and other charity organizations. They quietly fund hundreds of events and organizations each year, keeping to the motto of “Think Global, Act Local.” R.E.M.’s done more for Athens, both structurally and publicity wise, than any other band could do for any other town.
Both bands have done a lot to keep themselves in the public realm. U2 recently started streaming their new album on myspace.com and will appear on lots of shows to promote it. They’re trying to reach out to new fans. Their policy on downloading and file sharing, however, may turn out to bite them later. You don’t want to be seen as the enemy to your fans. U2 has been a little slow to incorporate new technology into their fanbase, but hopefully the band will remedy this soon.
R.E.M. has taken considerable steps to reach out to fans, especially young fans, with technology. They made video from their first single “Supernatural Superserious” available to fans to remix, edit, and create however they wanted. A twitter account was set up by the band to allow fans to follow the shows each night on the tour and get live minute by minute updates of setlists, funny happenings, and general atmosphere surrounding the tour. They invited concertgoers to take pictures, video, and twitter messages and combine them on a site to create that “show” feeling for anyone who couldn’t attend. It was documentary by crowdsourcing. And the young fans came out in droves.
But when you come down to it, the reason that fans still care about U2 and R.E.M. is the music. It makes you think, feel, move. When a teenager picks up “Murmur” or “Boy”, he can relate to the confusion and frustration. Someone can pick up “The Joshua Tree” or “Automatic for the People” and find comfort there. The songs matter. Young or old, a fan will stand by a band if the music continues to reach them in a way that nothing else can.
On June 21, 2008, R.E.M. had just finished a playing a song to their home audience in Atlanta. The crowd (and to some extent, the band) was trying to catch its breath. Michael Stipe walked up to the microphone and conducted a survey…
“If you were born before 1985, please raise your hand” About half the crowd lifted an arm.
“If you were born after 1985, please raise your hand” The other half jumped up in glee.
Stipe glanced at his bandmates and smiled. They launched into “Harborcoat,” a song that was written before most of the audience had been born. And every last person sang along.