Shooting craps

U2 takes over the world--and turns it into a commercial

When it comes to Las Vegas, the gambling and the naked showgirls and the 99-cent shrimp cocktails aren't really what make it seem so different from the real world. It's the bizarre architecture: Huge public buildings the size of Versailles or Blenheim Castle or the Kremlin abound there--while outside is America, the place U2 has been obsessed with for years.

What these Irishmen like about America are Elvis, neon, and the Delta blues. But a glance down the Boulder Highway toward the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl on April 26, the night of U2's first concert in three years, shows a glimpse of another America--one that has been laid waste by consumer culture, one full of L-shaped shopping malls and MacFrugals and Home Depots, one lined with one-story beige stucco buildings. It's a place where even the luxury condos look like the worst kind of Russian gulag.

This is the America of the '90s--unbeautiful, unromantic--and it's up to U2 to imbue this horrible landscape with glamour and significance. That, after all, is the self-appointed task of rock and roll, and pop culture itself: to make the mundane seem meaningful and bright so we, the people, can take some sort of pride in our era.

As a band, U2 has always taken this responsibility very seriously, whether by waving a white flag and shouting "freedom" from atop a speaker stack, as the band did on Under a Blood Red Sky, or by launching the pointed Zoo TV tour, which aped and magnified the conventions of television in order to expose its evil machinations. This time around, U2 has taken on the task of exploring consumer culture and the part they themselves play in it--a theme that is, alas, somewhat disheartening, however cleverly done.

U2 has done it by blowing up familiar corporate images into Fiberglas icons and spending lavishly on special effects, and they chose to open this tour--which pulled into Dallas last Monday, May 12--in Vegas, the spiritual home of crass commodification. The result, however, is that instead of commenting on the commodification of American culture, U2 now seems to be competing with it. The tour was launched in a Kmart and is symbolized by a giant golden arch that will top every stadium at which it arrives; it is, according to the band itself and prepublicity in the Los Angeles Times and on ABC (which recently broadcast an hour-long prime-time television special called U2: A Year in Pop--the lowest-rated hour-long special in network TV history, excluding paid political programming), the biggest and most costly blahblahblah ever.

In addition to the 100-foot-high Fiberglas arch, the 110-foot high Fiberglas olive-on-a-toothpick, and the 35-foot-high spinning disco ball disguised as a lemon, there's a 150-foot state-of-the-art video screen that uses 22 miles of cable, 120,000 connectors, and 150,000 pixels made up of 1 million colored LEDs.

The tour also uses a traveling crew of 200, plus about 250 local workers on each site, leapfrogging three stages across the country. Like E.L.O.'s 1978 tour (in which the band played from inside a glowing spaceship), Pink Floyd's The Wall tour of 1980, and the Rolling Stones' 1991 Steel Wheels tour, U2's PopMart is more about spectacle than it is about music. But because it's U2, there is a sense--or perhaps it's just a hope--that the spectacle itself is going to be imbued with meaning.

In theory at least, U2 is trying to contextualize the loss of passion, commitment, and intimacy that growing older (not to mention playing stadiums) engenders in rock stars, and starting the tour in a consumer heaven such as Vegas--under the shadow of a giant olive, lemon, and golden arch--is all part of this recontextualization. But starting in Las Vegas has other implications as well: Since its release on March 4, the band's latest album, Pop, has undergone the same surprising sales slump that has afflicted many other name-brand groups (Pearl Jam and R.E.M. come to mind), dropping out of Billboard's top 10 in a mere three weeks.

Moreover, many of the 62 stadium shows the band has booked through December have yet to sell out. The PopMart tour is the first American stadium tour by a rock band since the phat-rock year 1994, when the coliseums of the earth were filled by such bands as the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Dead. The band had hoped to net $400 million, but it's costing U2 $1.5 million per week to keep it on the road. Good initial press is essential to the success of this phenomenally costly tour, and U2 has done all it can to guarantee it gets it.

Thus, tonight--April 26, 1997--is D-day for U2. The band has spent the past two weeks in Vegas rehearsing, and now the countdown is on. People have been tailgating in the parking lot outside the stadium since 5 p.m., entertained by the Blue Angels practicing their aerial maneuvers overhead. The atmosphere is happy and mellow, quite unlike your usual stadium-parking-lot scenes; compared to the rest of Vegas' public events, this is a church picnic.

Tony and Maria are two people who came to party and have stayed to listen; unlike most who come to Vegas, they're having a run of luck. A bubbly Hispanic couple in their mid-thirties, they drove all the way here from Palm Springs--about four hours--without tickets just to party outside the stadium and listen to U2. To their delight, 500 tickets have just been put on sale at face value ($54), augmenting the 500 put on sale two days ago.

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