Monsters of rock facing extinction in pop age
It says something for U2's precarious grasp on the title of world's biggest rock band that their recent Golden Globes victory – at the expense of a Disney show-stopper performed by a singing snowman – was deemed a significant triumph. By winning the gong for 'best original song' for the astonishingly workaday Ordinary Love (from a new Mandela biopic), the feeling is that U2 have announced their return – setting a gauntlet down to a new generation of stadium pretenders.
Without question, the pat on the back will have been appreciated. Five years after the fact we can proclaim their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon, a catatonic irrelevance: bloated, tepid, bobbing along on aimless swells of portentousness. Like REM and the Rolling Stones before them, it suggested U2 had entered their creative dotage – from here on, we suspected, the quality of their records would be measured by the degree to which they reminded us of older, more accomplished output. The spark was gone.
Of course, from a certain perspective No Line's lacklustre qualities were irrelevant, as the tour that followed smashed all records to become the most successful in history. Still, it is well known that U2 do not take kindly to second place and putting out a duff LP (even Bono seemed to subsequently admit that it was a low point) will have hurt their pride.
Whatever about U2's desire to reclaim top place, it is notable that their absence left a enormous void. With the band out of the spotlight, the genre of stadium rock – arguably popular music's grandest, if also its silliest, manifestation – has threatened to shrivel up and expire. You may not like U2 – you may, indeed, experience the urge to shove your fist in your mouth and scream whenever you see Bono on television. Nonetheless, you must concede that as advocates for the pomp, pageantry and ardent silliness that makes stadium rock so vital, they have few equals.
There is a notion – propounded by, among others, noted rock philologist Simon Reynolds – that, after 60 years, rock music may be slouching towards its expiration date. Surveying the wobbly lipped assemblage of new (ish) acts capable of filling an amphitheatre, the wisdom of the theory is plain.
After 'Radio Gaga', 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and 'Sweet Child O' Mine', perhaps there are no generational anthems left to write. Broadly, the younger generation of stadium acts divides in two: those wholeheartedly indebted to the excesses of U2, Springsteen, Queen et al. And those who, thoroughly embarrassed by artistic overkill, wish to push in the opposite direction.
In the first camp are acts such as Coldplay, Muse and Elbow (who have a new LP on the way). Such bands are not without their charms – what they do lack is any talent for making us believe their music matters outside of the immediate context in which we experience it. Twenty years hence, will anyone be listening to 'Yellow', 'Knights of Cydonia' or 'One Day Like This'? In the second category, meanwhile, you will find The National. Five stoic 30-somethings from the American mid-west, The National are typical of musicians coming of age post-Nirvana, the first multi-platinum group to feel guilty about being a multi-platinum group. At the O2 in Dublin last winter, lead singer Matt Berninger thumped himself with his microphone so hard blood sluiced from his brow. It was as if he was giving penance for being successful.
Should we simply give up on stadium rock? Write it off as another passing phase in popular entertainment, like silent movies and skiffle bands? Perhaps not. For lovers of spectacle, glimmers of optimism can be discerned amid the gloom. Though Arcade Fire's latest long player, Reflektor, failed to follow through on its advance billing, there was something satisfying about its ability to balance intellectual ambition and bug-eyed preposterousness (check out their Saturday Night Live performance of the title track where singer Regine Chassaigne is encased within a mirror-lined glass cage).
Nor can we overlook the fact that Ireland's biggest stadium, Croke Park, will play host to three sold out shows over the summer. Tellingly, however, there won't be a battered leather jacket or flying V guitar in sight. The headliners are One Direction whose success reminds us that in 2014, it is pop not rock that owns the zeitgeist.
With U2's next album expected within months it is possible the band may retain the unofficial accolade of world's biggest band. It is equally plausible that, in an age where Beyonce, Rihanna and 1D enjoy uncontested supremacy, such an honorific may be all but worthless.