By Brian Shea
[Editor’s Note: With apologies to Ned Bitters, today we bring you a special guest column by Brian Shea.]
Just a few hours after R.E.M. broke up last week, I saw the most important question of the day posted on a friend’s Facebook wall: “Who is more overrated: R.E.M. or U2?”
Before we analyze the answer, let’s take a good look at the question. The author asked who is more “overrated,” meaning that we intend to examine something completely colored by personal perception. There is no right or wrong answer, except for the fact that the right answer is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, U2.
Like I said, this relies completely on a personal feeling. You cannot measure music objectively no matter how much you try. Except when you try and determine which of these two bands is better.
As an R.E.M. fan, I completely acknowledge the band’s shortcomings. Michael Stipe, between the times he is obfuscating the meaning of his lyrics or texting photos of his junk, continues to write the same three or four songs over and over again. And no one can ever forgive them for half the songs on “Around the Sun.”
Those things still come nowhere close to the pact with the devil that U2 made somewhere back in the early 1990s. Sure, “Bad Day” is just the early draft of “It’s the End of the World,” which was re-tooled when R.E.M. needed to fill out a greatest hits album, but at least the men from Georgia don’t need to drink of the blood of a virginal goat once a week to fulfill their pact with Satan.
I’m not saying that the four members of U2 have to do that. I think it’s restricted to just Bono and the Edge because the other two guys – who I think have legally changed their names to “The Other Guys in U2 … Really” – are tied up in a basement somewhere in order to keep this pact secret.
(Sidebar: Shouldn’t we restrict taking guys in their 50s who use nicknames seriously to professional wrestling and porn stars? Just a thought.)
Anyways, the answer to the question truly boiled down to one very simple distinction for me. One band has a memorable catalog pocked by a few big misses in an attempt to explore different musical interests.
The other had a really cool stage for their last tour.
As I discussed the question at hand with some people online, I had to keep returning to that fact. Sure, U2 sold out a shitload of concerts last year and has a huge international profile, but when I talked to people who went to see their concert in Baltimore last year, that seemed to be the constant refrain.
“The stage was amazing.”
You can talk all you want about the necessity to build a big stage for a stadium show, but no one forced U2 to play stadiums. You can say the demand is there for that kind of crowd, but does the demand come from the spectacle or the music? You can say that the money earned on the tour “proves” that U2 is a better band, but declaring musical ability based on concert success is a slippery slope.
So basically you have two bands, one of which has released nine new albums since 1991; the other which has released six. One has remained close to its grass roots along the way, choosing to tour when it makes sense; the other has never met a corporate tie-in it doesn’t love. Both of them have maintained the ability to produce a chart-topping album, particularly in Europe.
Deciding which one is overrated really comes down to – as I said in the beginning – personal preference. And if you prefer a bunch of guys who drove album sales through an iPod commercial over a bunch of buys whose only real corporate tie-in came from a Chris Elliot television show, I don’t know what to say except I hope you know that virginal goats die for your choice every week.
Brian Shea used to write for HoboTrashcan, but like Gladys Knight, he left us Pips behind to write for his own site, Regular Guy Column.