I was afraid this question was coming.
“Can you put in words why U2 lost their glow?”
Jesse Jackson asked me that while we were recording an episode of his Bruce Springsteen podcast, Set Lusting Bruce. Mind you, I’d never met or spoken with Jesse before and we were literally 20-30 minutes into our first conversation. In hindsight, I think it’s good that a stranger asked me. Not sure I would’ve answered so candidly if it was a friend or someone I knew.
For whatever reason, when he asked, I kinda started processing things in my head as quickly as I could and then decided to just start letting the words come out. In the month or so since we recorded that conversation, I couldn’t even remember what all I said. If you want to listen, the podcast conversation is here and he asks the question at about the 15:50 mark; my reply and the subsequent discussion go on for probably 20 minutes.
To be clear, why anyone — me, you, our co-workers, rich people, poor people, etc. — stops liking a musical artist really doesn’t matter. Why should anyone give a shit why I stopped liking U2? I don’t know. And if you don’t give a shit about that, you shouldn’t be reading this — feel free to bail right now. Wouldn’t blame you at all. But it’s something U2 fans have asked me on many occasions and their interest sort of fed my interest.
What happened? It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out since … it happened. I’ve settled on 3 main factors.
1) I Changed
This is first here because it’s the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s not what I talked about first when chatting with Jesse, but I should’ve. Later in this essay, I’m gonna say things that might sound like I’m blaming the band, other people, events, etc., for me losing interest in U2, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that I changed dramatically over the past few years.
The death of my parents (Dad in 2015 and Mom in 2017) impacted me more than I ever expected they would. I was a ship without a rudder. I didn’t know it at the time, but I went into situational depression — it’s when you struggle to adjust to a traumatic event(s) in your life. It generally lasts shorter than clinical depression.
Adding to that was an extreme form of anxiety I was dealing with on the subject of death. The thought of dying someday was mentally paralyzing me. It began probably 10-15 years ago and was getting worse every year. Around the time all this was going on, there were days when I couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything, and couldn’t think about anything else. I was just stuck inside my head, fearing death.
In short, my mental health was in bad shape for a period of a couple of years. If you want the longer version of this aspect of the story, see my post Standing in the darkness, laughing with my heel on its throat.
2) U2 Fan Problems & @U2 Problems
Starting, running, and being part of @U2 is one of the great joys and accomplishments of my life. But my last few years doing it were pretty miserable, and those were the same years that I was dealing with the personal/mental health issues I mentioned above.
Confession: I did an awful job of running the site the last 5-6 years I was running things. We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3 dozen people working on the site, depending on various comings and goings. As leader, I failed to take the necessary steps to keep the team active, moving ahead toward common goals, and working together in harmony.
We had people on staff who weren’t contributing. And that made the ones who were contributing angry and frustrated. We tried to implement minimum contribution levels, but I didn’t have the will to follow through on making those stick.
Cliques had formed over the years and there was a lot of snark and sniping towards one another. We tried to bring on new staffers a couple times, but they usually only lasted a couple months with us because the environment wasn’t welcoming to newcomers. Not everyone on the team was involved in this, but as I learned in the month or so after I told them I was leaving — when they suddenly had to figure out who would be in charge — it was a lot more prevalent than I knew. We were much more divided than I thought, and that’s a failure on my part as leader.
In fact, I wasn’t leading. I had buried myself in the massive redesign project that ran for ~2 years. I was letting the group run itself, and that’s usually a recipe for problems. I’d hear complaints every now and then about someone’s behavior, but I usually brushed those aside either because it was about someone I personally liked or it was something I just didn’t want to deal with.
All of that’s on me. I accept responsibility for it. And it all contributed to the bigger picture — what was supposed to be a fun and joyful distraction had become something I dreaded. Like so many other things going on around me, it had become mentally and emotionally draining.
We did have some enjoyable conversations and discussions as a team, but even those often turned negative, at least for me. During the Joshua Tree Tour in 2017, when I talked about not liking how heavy the show was on politics, some on the staff started mansplaining and womansplaining to me about how U2’s always been political. They questioned my U2 fandom for having an opinion like that. (I have a half-finished draft of a blog post here on my personal site offering proof that U2 shows were never as political as they were on that tour and the one that followed; maybe I’ll finish it someday and publish.)
And topping all of the struggles I was having with being part of @U2 was that, in 2018 when I told the group that I was having some personal struggles, that I wasn’t myself, and that I had found a new favorite band, a frequent response that I heard was along the lines of, “It’s a phase. You’ll get over it.” (Not from everyone, mind you — there was some genuine support and care, and that meant a lot to me.) But I’m not gonna lie: It hurt to see some friends react that way when I was acting differently and said I wasn’t in a good place. Especially since these were friends who often championed mental health issues on Facebook and Twitter.
Making matters worse was what was going on in U2 fandom itself.
Fan forums and Facebook groups were filled with fans hating on one another over politics, over U2 stuff, over anything and everything. I had to turn off my own account in the @U2 Forum because moderating it — hell, just reading it — had become unbearable.
Fan site relations became a train wreck. To be fair, we had good relations with a couple other sites, but as social media grew over the past 10 years or so, the sense of cooperation that used to exist between all fan sites got replaced by a sense of competition. Frankly, I think with a couple other sites, it seemed like the relationships we had got much worse after half the band showed up at @U2’s 20th anniversary party. We’d get angry emails and social media messages on a pretty regular basis that I felt were completely unwarranted. I heard what other fan sites were saying about @U2 to the band’s associates. I thought it was all childish, like we were back in 5th grade.
We’d also get angry messages from @U2 readers who would demand that we cover the band differently. Half of them were pissed at us for being too mean to U2/Live Nation (about the constant ticket/fan club problems, or the constant touring of North America and Europe and ignoring the rest of the world) and the other half were pissed at us for being too nice. I always tried to be nice and respectful when readers would email with complaints like that, but it got to the point where I snarkily started offering them refunds if they didn’t like the work we’d been doing for 20 years for free.
There’s always been a sense of entitlement among some hard-core U2 fans, and it really seemed to get worse in the past 5-10 years. It extended to getting concert tickets, forming GA lines, getting on stage with the band, and lots of other aspects of being a fan. The hard-core, uber U2 fan community wasn’t something I wanted to be part of anymore.
And remember, while all this was going on, I was struggling with the death of my parents and other mental health issues. I remember often wanting to tell other fans to get over themselves, count their blessings, remember that life is short, and be grateful that U2 was still an active band. In fact, I tried to say some of that in my farewell message on @U2.
3) U2 Problems
With all that going on, I really wanted to turn to U2 and let the music right all the wrongs and lift me up when I was down. But I couldn’t do that.
Their last album, Songs Of Experience, just didn’t click for me. There were a few songs I liked in the early days/weeks/months — part of the rush and excitement of finally getting new music from your favorite band. But none of it had any sticking power. If I had to rank all their albums today, it’d be at the bottom of my list.
Worse, the live shows weren’t clicking for me, either. As I mentioned above, it was way too over-the-top political. And I don’t mean that in an I-disagree-with-what-they’re-saying way — I didn’t vote for our current president and think he’s an awful president (and worse human being). I mean it in the sense of … I was getting barraged 24/7 by politics, to the point where I had to rethink my entire approach to social media a couple years ago. I needed something else from U2 — an escape, something to take me away from all the B.S. going on in the real world. Instead, they hit me over the head with it for 3 hours during every show I saw on both the Joshua Tree 2017 tour and the Songs of Experience tour in 2018.
On top of all that was the non-music side of things. U2’s fan club has been awful for years and every time there’s a ticket pre-sale, it’s an absolute shitshow. The Joshua Tree 2017 tour pre-sale was so bad that fan sites around the world came together to call for changes in an open letter to the band and management. Guy Oseary, the band’s manager, replied with some less-than-pleasing explanations. But worse than all that, he promised to keep an “open line of communication” with fans to make sure things went better next time there was a pre-sale. We never heard from him again. (At least not before I left @U2 in June 2019.)
Between all that, plus the music and tours not clicking for me, it was hard to keep being a U2 fan.
Don’t get me wrong, though. In my decades of U2 fandom, I always said that the band should follow its own muse, and it’s our job as fans to either follow along or not. We don’t get to tell them what to do … and that’s not what I’m suggesting here. I’ve always said U2 should do what it wants. That’s what they did. And I chose to not go along with them anymore.
Last summer, about a week before I left @U2, I was hanging out with some of my “U2 friends” and it was kinda difficult when they were having these deep convos about the band. It was the kind of stuff I’d have loved to talk about in the past, but I did everything I could to ignore them and focus on something else. I had stopped listening to U2 about a week earlier — May 23, 2019, was the last time I intentionally heard a U2 song.
It’s been more than a year and I’m still trying to avoid U2. I don’t know when that’s going to change. I’ve come to realize that it’s a mental health thing. All of the stuff I’ve described above happened together over the course of a few years and was a key driver in a lot of sadness and depression. As I told Jesse on his Springsteen podcast, my fear is that listening to U2 again will re-open that door and bring back a lot of those feelings that I’ve managed to put behind me. I don’t want any of that in front of me again.
While all of that was going on, I discovered Gang of Youths. I wasn’t really looking for a new band, but they had songs that filled my needs the way U2 used to. They pretty quickly became my favorite band, and still are.
As I said on Twitter several months ago, being a Gang of Youths fan is better for my mental health than being a U2 fan was. And that’s really the best explanation for the “what happened with you and U2” question.
So to all who’ve asked, I hope that makes sense. I’m grateful for your questions; it’s helped me to sort things out and make sense of something I didn’t fully understand as it was happening.