Stuck on an album you can’t get over?
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Stuck on an album you can’t get over?

By the next time I write a column, I will have heard in full – probably more times than is prudent – U2’s twelfth full-length studio album. “No Line on the Horizon” is to hit stores March 3, and I will purchase its tangible, CD manifestation at 12 a.m.

Everyone who knows me even moderately well will tell you I have either an undying love for or an unhealthy obsession with U2, depending on the extent to which the person is annoyed by my constant desire to talk about the band. And then there’s my insatiable desire to watch films of and about them (especially “Rattle and Hum” and “Elevation 2001 / U2 Live From Boston”). And I suppose I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time reading about them. Furthermore, I sing “With or Without You” when I am alone more often than I care to admit, have semiseriously considered naming my firstborn son Paul Hewson (Bono’s real name) Hardy, and am ready to defend “Pop” as one of the most underrated albums ever.

In other words, U2 is my favorite band. I’ve been listening to them since I bought “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” at CD Warehouse in the 8th grade, and I’ve enthusiastically told others that they are my favorite musical act since I was a high schoo senior. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what it is about their music that resonates so deeply with me. Maybe it’s their musical innovation (they’ve reinvented themselves at least two – arguably three – times in their now 30-year-long career). Maybe it’s their preoccupation with the Christian faith. Maybe it’s Bono’s literary-esque writing, especially on U2’s ‘90s albums. Or maybe it’s just that I started listening to them at a crucial point in the development of my aesthetic tastes and identity. Any way you cut it, U2’s music is, for me, the most beautiful music ever created.

Now, I’d like to draw your attention to the prepositional phrase “for me,” which I just embedded in that last sentence. Because that’s really what I’m writing about here. I have come to the revelation that my categorization of U2’s music as “most beautiful” is entirely subjective. In other words, while they are my favorite band of all time, that does not mean  they are the greatest band of all time.

That would be the Beatles. And I have to admit that there have been a number of musical acts who are more important and who have created more excellent music than U2: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Motown (as an artistic collective), and Tom Waits.

Furthermore, U2 is not without imperfections. Bono’s ranting is sometimes over the top and annoying (“Am I buggin’ ya? I don’t mean to bug ya!”). If the band broke up tomorrow, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., would not be able to find work as musicians – at least not based on their talent. “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” while still a “good” album, was a return to form that lacked the artistic depth and innovation necessary to be considered a “great” album.

All that to say, when you look at U2 objectively, you see an interesting, important, good band that has never and will never achieve the pinnacle of artistic excellence in popular music. And I do believe that one can look at music (and all art, for that matter) objectively. Not just in terms of influence or importance, either. I believe that artistic excellence, a work’s potential to communicate in a sophisticated manner and to edify its audience intellectually, emotionally, and even physically, is an objective quality.

It is possible, in other words, for a work to be categorically better than other works of its kind. “Great Expectations” is a better novel than any of the “Twilight” novels. “Starry Night” is better than the drawings your mother used to attach to the refrigerator. “Abbey Road” is a better album than “The Joshua Tree.” Period.

But the existence of objective excellence doesn’t mean subjectivity is not important in our experience of art and music. Since humans are different from one another, both culturally and personally, different works will affect different people in different ways. I like the Beatles’ music, but U2’s music hits me as an individual on a deeper level. Both our experiences and our inherent tastes determine what music we will relate to strongly, and the music that resonates most clearly with our identities may not simultaneously be the most objectively excellent music ever created.

So I don’t feel the need to apologize for admitting that “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which is simultaneously neither the greatest album of all time nor the greatest album of U2’s career (that would probably be “Achtung Baby”), is my favorite album. Nor should you apologize if your favorite band does not have an album in the top ten on Rolling Stone’s “Greatest Albums of All Time.” While there is such a thing as objective excellence, there is also such a thing as subjective preference, and if the two do not coincide for you, it does not necessarily follow that your aesthetic consciousness is underdeveloped. It just means that you are an individual human being.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to “No Line on the Horizon.” It will probably be a good album. It might even be a great album. Still, it probably won’t top the music magazines’ “Best of 2009” lists, and it may not deserve to do so. But I’ll probably like it better than any of the albums that do. And if you know me, you’ll hear about it. You have been warned.

Jason Hardy is a senior English writing major. Email: hardyj@pop.belmont.edu

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