A year and a half ago, ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote a column saying that U2 had no "athlete eqivalent."
Meaning that U2 are so good that you can’t possibly compare them to an athlete, like you can with Bruce Sprinsteen and Larry Bird, Ali and the Stones, the Police and John McEnroe, etc, etc…
Well, he is and was wrong, and I wrote this really long thing to prove as much. Been meaning (and forgetting to post it here). Here it is…
I’ve been an avid reader since the old BSG days. Over the last few years, when something important, exciting, repulsive – or most importantly, hilarious – happens in the sports world, one of my first thoughts is “I can’t wait to find out what Simmons will have to say about this.” When the Sox went on their playoff run, causing The Biggest Choke in Sports History, you were one of the few writers/fans who captured the moment perfectly. The same with the Pats Super Bowls. And the C’s. And the NBA draft. And…well, the list goes on. Bill, when it comes to sports…you know your stuff. When it comes to television…you know your stuff. When it comes to relationships…you know your stuff. When it comes to being a “guy”…you know your stuff. When it comes to movies…you (generally) know your stuff. But please, as a reader, a fan, and a friend of a few friends…when it comes to music…you have no idea what you’re talking about.
I’m sorry. I hate to say it, but it’s true. I first questioned your music knowledge/taste a long time ago when you bitched about how The Counting Crows sound different live than in person. The Counting Crows, Bill? The Counting Crows are the chick flick of bands. I was a freshman in college in the fall of 1994. You have no idea how many times I heard “Anna Begins” wafting out of the dorm room of some emoting Freshman girl who missed her boyfriend. “A Long December?” There might as well be a Meg Ryan movie with that title. Bill, if one of your friends copped to enjoying a movie where one character says to the other “Every time she sneezes I believe its love,” you’d buy him the Doug Christie jersey in 6.3 seconds. When I think about the Counting Crows, I always come back to one thing. Back when my ladyfriend was in college, I remember talking to her on the phone. She said her and her best friend had come from a CD store where her best friend bought some rap CDs and a Counting Crows CD? “Counting Crows?” I asked. “Yeah, she likes to listen to them when she’s PMSing” my girlfriend told me. PMSing. She couldn’t even handle them in a normal mood.
But this isn’t about how lame Adam Duritz is. This is about your column about U2. But before we get to the sports equivalent of U2, let’s first take care of something else you wrote in the column…
“With sports, there is nothing to do but argue about this stuff. If music were sports, Kornheiser and Wilbon would be fighting to the death over "Who’s better: Franz Ferdinand or The Killers?" But we don’t approach music this way…
Now by “we” I can only assume you mean “you.” I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about music with friends – as a good amount of people in New York do. At the bar, playing cards, watching baseball…it doesn’t matter where. And as for the Kornheiser and Wilbon thing, each week in Chicago, music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot do the same thing on the radio with “Sound Opinions” – “The world’s ONLY rock n roll talk show.” And considering both Kot and DeRogatis have the Franz Ferdinand record in their top 10 of last year and NOT the Killers record tells you something about how people who follow music see the two bands. But to put it into terms you’ll understand better, let’s go back in time to the NBA of the mid 90’s.
Franz Ferdinand are Grant Hill. They’re seasoned, intelligent and stylish. They take the best bits of players from the past and spin them in new and original ways. While there are elements of Franz Ferdinand and ’95 Grant Hill that remind you of those that came before them, despite being rookies, they’ve already cemented a place in music/NBA lore.
The Killers? The Killers are Glenn Robinson. They’re a complete and total product of the era. Sure they’ll give you 20 and 10 for a few years and make a few all-star teams, but that’s about it. Their "style" (Duran Duran keyboards, Strokes chic and songs about androgynous sexy people) is as calculated as Robinson’s (a shaved head and baggy shorts). Not to mention that you refer to Robinson as Glenn “I stole Antoine Carr’s nickname” Robinson, while most music fans think of The Killers as “that band that completely rips off Pulp.” At best The Killers will be another Stone Temple Pilots of the 00’s to The Strokes’ Nirvana. Totally catchy and worth listening to, but in 10 years they’ll be a footnote. In other words, you’ll be telling your kids about Grant Hill and not Glenn Robinson, while I’m playing my kids the first Franz Ferdinand record and not the first Killers record.
Now as far as U2 goes, you can’t possibly take a subjective look at the issue because you’re a rabid U2 fan. Obviously you think no athlete – not even Jordan (aka The Beatles) – can compare to them. The same way that anyone would have a tough time convincing me that Pavement aren’t the equal of Sandy Koufax.
But U2 has a perfect athlete equivalent. Bill, you’re just too much of a U2 fan – and not to mention too much of a NON-fan of their jock doppelganger.
U2 is Cal Ripken Jr. That’s right, Cal f’n Ripken Jr.
Right now you’re head is exploding. You’re filled with rage because I compared the band that shaped your life with an athlete you think is overrated and deserves much less attention than he deserves. This is how you feel as a REAL SPORTS FAN. The same way a lot of REAL MUSIC FANS feel that U2 is overrated. And by REAL FAN I mean someone that spends as much time listening to and/or reading about music as you do with sports.
And I know you think people don’t argue about music, but let’s check this out for a second.
1960: Both Bono and Cal Ripken Jr. are born. Coincidence? I think not.
1980-1982: U2 become big in Ireland and the UK before finally breaking into the American music scene with “I Will Follow” and “Gloria” – becoming one of the biggest “up and coming” bands around. Meanwhile, Cal Ripken jumps from the Rochester Red Wings to the big leagues, winning the 1982 American League Rookie of the Year award.
1983: Both hit the big time. Cal Ripken wins the AL MVP award and his Baltimore Orioles win the World Series. He’s well on his way to becoming the most POPULAR baseball player of the 1980s. U2 relase “War,” becoming international superstars thanks to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” and “40.” They’re well on their way to becoming the most POPULAR band of the 1980s.
1984-1987: Now this is where U2 fans will throw their arms in the air and get as frustrated as Bono talking about genocide and fair trade. They’ll say that this is where the similarities end. That in order for Cal Ripken to equal U2, then he’d have to have pantheon level seasons in 1984 and 1987 to match “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree.” But again, that’s just the way U2 fans will look at it. To the rest of us, it’s simple…
From 1984 to 1987 U2 was the MOST POPULAR rock band on the planet while Cal Ripken Jr. was the MOST POPULAR baseball player on the planet. And yes, you can also make a case that during this time U2 was the best band, and Cal the best baseball player. Though you could more accurately say that U2 were the best mainstream rock band and Cal Ripken was the best shortstop. As for fame, U2 would routinely sell out stadiums, while Cal pretty much led all of baseball in all-star voting for all of these years.
During these years, players like Andre Dawson, George Bell, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn, Don Mattingly, Mike Schmidt and others put up equal and/or better numbers than Cal, but he was more “popular” than all of them. Also during these years, bands like Sonic Youth, The Smiths, R.E.M, The Replacements, The Cure, Metallica, Echo and the Bunnymen and others ALSO released great music that stands the test of time. Only none of them were as POPULAR as U2.
1988: The low points. Cal’s Orioles start the season without winning for practically all of April. They finish 54-107. Also, bad publicity for the Ripken clan as Cal’s less-talented brother Billy appears on a baseball card with “F@#$ Face” written on his bat. Meanwhile, U2 release the pompous movie/album “Rattle and Hum” and become caricatures of a superstar rock band. “Ok Edge, play the blues!”, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles, tonight we’re stealing it back.” Yuck. Meanwhile more exciting, drug fueled rivals such as Jose Canseco and Guns N’ Roses steal the spotlight.
1991: The comebacks. Given up for past his prime, Cal Ripken wins the AL MVP award for a second time and finds himself back on the cover of Sports Illustrated. U2 reemerge with the brilliant “Achtung Baby.” Meanwhile, Cal’s reign as the most POPULAR player around starts to fade as a new breed of player – Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. – takes shape. Meanwhile, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and eventually Nirvana and Pearl Jam t-shirts take place of all the U2 ones in my high school.
1992-2000: Cal tarnishes his reputation as he plays (often poorly) everyday just to break Lou Gherig’s streak of the most games played. In 1995, he breaks the record and is celebrated (rightfully so) for his past accomplishments. Meanwhile, U2 release the annoyingly experimental “Zooropa” and then in 1997, the rather unlistenable “Pop.” They go on an enormous, big selling tour where they are celebrated (rightfully so) for their past accomplishments.
2001: In the weeks after September 11 th , Cal Ripken retires, cementing his place as a hard-working, All-American hero and touching media story. Around the same time, U2 releases “Beautiful Day,” and become similar American media heroes – despite (I’m pretty sure) still being Irish. Again, U2 fans will take offense to this comparison because U2 released a “great U2 album” and Cal Ripken simply retired. However it can be argued that U2 simply releasing a “great U2 album” is hardly revelatory.
2002-2004: Cal Ripken enjoys retirement, only coming out to appear in annoying commercials for (among other things), potato chips and a budget electronics store he’ll never step foot in. Meanwhile, U2 resurface in the form of an annoying ipod commercial. Bill, you know how you felt every time you heard “You’re risking a patient’s life!” during the 2004 playoffs? Well I thought about smashing the few U2 records I owned every time I heard Bono yell “Hello, Helooooooo” between every inning silhouetted in purple. Cal and Bono don’t need the money, they just share the sentiment of not wanting to be forgotten.
Which brings us to, as you put it, “the success of ‘Vertigo’.” Bill, do you really find it surprising that a song by a famous band that appears in a commercial every five minutes became a major hit? Are you kidding? And forgetting about the last three pages, “Vertigo” actually sums up the correlation between U2 and Cal Ripken, in that…
“Vertigo” is a great song to people who like U2, while Cal Ripken is a great baseball player to people who like Cal Ripken.
It’s that simple. Both U2 and Cal Ripken have rabid fans, but are better known to “casual” fans of baseball or music. From 1983-2001, if you asked a casual music fan what they listen to, chances are they’d say, “well I kind of like U2.” And during the same time if you asked a casual baseball fan who they liked, chances are they’d say “well I kind of like Cal Ripken.” U2 and Cal Ripken are the safe, sanitized, mainstream choice for people who don’t bother digging deeper. And that’s not a rip against either of them.
Both U2 and Ripken are first ballot hall-of-famers. Both U2 and Ripken were the face of their resepective crafts for the 1980’s. Both U2 and Ripken faded for the better part of the 90’s. Both had a bit of the spotlight in 2001. And now? U2 is still milking the act of being U2 and Cal ripken is still milking the act of being Cal Ripken. You think Cal Ripken would be playing baseball if 45-year olds could still play? Instead he just announced that he’ll be doing a radio show on XM Satellite radio with his brother Billy. And if satellite radio becomes a success, do you think there’s any way Bono WON’T be promoting the new U2 record on it in 2009? Bono and The Edge will pop up on an internet radio station to play some exclusive songs from their new album that U2 fans claim as a “return to form?” And Bill it doesn’t matter if you’ll have XM or not. U2 will be there with Cal Ripken. With or without you.