What’s wrong with the song? Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you were to present it to someone who had no other context for the song or the band, it would probably come across as a nice, chunky rock song. It’s solid if not spectacular, the sort of song that a band with a long discography would trot out at the two-thirds mark of a concert. It’s the song that’s no one’s favorite but that everyone likes well enough, to pad the playlist until they get to the songs that will build to the end of set. It’s not a song one would put in the encore. It’s good! Which is fine. Or more accurately, it’s fine! Which is good.
In context, it’s the sound of U2 standing pat. U2 became the Biggest Rock Band in the World in the late 80s with The Joshua Tree, then freaked out a bit about that in the 90s, releasing a trio of albums (Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop) that increasingly strayed from their previous iteration before releasing 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which married the two previous eras into a “return to form” album that got them back to Biggest Rock Band in the World status.
So what did the band do for Atomic Bomb? Well, they stayed where they were and just worked that for a while.
“Vertigo,” the album’s first single, typified that. It’s a U2 song that sounds like a song that songwriters and musicians who were not U2 would make if they were told to make a song that sounds like U2. Bono is in full “arch lyric” mode, the Edge is sawing away but also doesn’t forget to drop in his signature chiming guitar in the right places, the rhythm section is doing its uncomplicated but solid thing. The video is grandiose and also tongue-in-cheek about it, to variable success.
All of which was a solid commercial choice: Atomic Bomb sold ten million copies, won nine Grammys (three for “Vertigo” alone), and started the band on its profitable relationship with Apple, which would culminate rather infamously with the band’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence being stuffed into everyone’s iTunes collection whether they wanted it or not (this was the uber Dad Rock maneuver, the tech company equivalent of making your kids listen to the classic rock station against their will as you drove them to school in the minivan). No one could fault U2 either for “Vertigo” or Atomic Bomb. From a sheer numbers point of view it kept the band on the top of the rock heap.
But for me it also meant U2 stopped being a band that would surprise or inspire. They became predictable, and comfortable, and less memorable. And indeed that’s where the band has stayed in the sixteen years and three studio albums since. The albums since have varied from “meh” to “not bad,” and each has a song or two worth revisiting. But when I think about the band, “Vertigo” is a hard frontier for me: What came before it could be flawed (boy, could it!) but wasn’t boring; what comes afterward might be good but isn’t essential.
And fundamentally this is what “dad rock” means to me: it’s when a rock band whose audience is mostly male stops challenging that audience and starts maintaining it instead, even if they release new work. Or as Bono himself might have put it, in the bridge to “Vertigo,” speaking as U2’s audience: “Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt.”
I’m noting U2 here because it’s a band relevant to my own life, but certainly they are not the only example. The Rolling Stones went Full Dad with Undercover in 1984; Genesis in 1987 with Invisible Touch; Metallica with Death Magnetic in 2008; Coldplay with Viva la Vida, also in 2008. Paul McCartney went Full Dad the instant he left the Beatles; likewise the Foo Fighters (who, by the way, I love) appear to have been intended as Dad Rock from day one. Most bands associated with the Album Oriented Rock era of music have been Full Dad since the early 90s; Journey, which was one of my favorite bands growing up, has a concert playlist that is stuck in amber — the band members call their greatest hits “the dirty dozen” and play them every show. Likewise pretty much every heavy metal band that started up in the 80s; when I went and saw Iron Maiden’s Legacy of the Beast tour last year; that “greatest hits” concert format, while entirely awesome, was also the epitome of Dad Rock.
(Let us not speak of KISS.)
Dad Rock is clearly used as a pejorative, and my personal definition of it isn’t particularly complimentary either, but allow me for a moment here to give at least a half-hearted defense of dad rock. First, look: There’s nothing actually wrong with producing a reliable creative product for an identifiable audience, said the man who got a thirteen-book publishing contract specifically because he is able to produce reliable creative product for an identifiable audience. If the worst thing that can be said about your new work is that it’s rather a lot like your old work, only more so, you’re probably going to be able to make your house payments (or castle payments, in the case of U2).
Second, it’s not just the bands and musicians staying pat. Rare is the music listener who is as adventurous with their tastes at 38 as they were when they were 18; even more so at 48 or 58 or further on. At a certain point people know what they like and they want more of that, and if the bands they already like keep putting out work that’s in the same vein, album after album, then guess what? Those fans are going to stick around.
Which brings us to a third point, which is that after a certain bend in the demographic curve, most musical artists aren’t picking up new listeners anymore, or at least, younger listeners; they work with what they have. If you’re lucky you become retro, or (in the case of U2, the Stones and probably Coldplay) you were so big at one point you could lose much of your audience over time and still fill stadiums. But most performers work with who they accrued in their heyday. Those kids who were your fans became dads, your music became Dad Rock, and you know what? That’s fine. We can’t all be David Bowie, innovating literally until the day we die, and it’s worth remembering that even David Bowie went Full Dad for a while there (See: Tonight and Never Let Me Down), and otherwise benefited from a catalogue that gave him the wherewithal to do other things later without regard as to whether an audience would follow.
Finally: Hey, combining constant innovation while maintaining a non-trivial level of popularity is hard. Shit, producing merely adequate creative product while staying popular is hard, which is why so few people actually manage even that, particularly in music, in which what is popular can become obsolete almost literally overnight (See: The extinction event of 80s hair metal bands known as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991). It might be unfair to demand constant innovation from musicians, especially when coupled with their need to, you know, move units (or, these days, shift streams) in order to eat.
To go back to “Vertigo,” it might be the sound of U2 standing pat, but it’s also the sound of U2 being as U2 as they could possibly be, for an audience who wanted that and was, for the most part, glad to keep getting it. It might be that U2’s greatest moments of creativity, innovation and popularity are behind them and they just keep doing more of the same between now and whenever. But let us also acknowledge that there are worse fates, for both a band and its audience, than becoming Dad Rock.