Shooting craps

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

In a show almost identical to U2's Monday-night stop in Dallas, the band marches on stage at 9:15, escorted through the very heart of the crowd onto a catwalk. They open with "Mofo"--a song whose chorus goes, "Mother mother, sucking rock and roll/bubble poppin' sugar dropping rock and roll"--followed by "I Will Follow," while behind them, a giant screen broadcasts giant color images that have been pixelized. On-screen, the band members look like cartoon figures.

For the next 90 minutes, that screen is the show, hypnotizing the viewer through music that ranges from the incredibly familiar ("Pride," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Mysterious Ways," and "Daydream Believer," the latter as rendered by the Edge) to the nine new songs from the album Pop. Visually, it is breathtaking. From the graphics inspired by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring to more abstract images exploding on-screen, there are moments when the images on the video screen are so absorbing and so beautiful they leave you stunned and breathless.

But musically, there is many a dull moment--the ballad "Please," the long intro to "Discotheque," and the false start on "Staring at the Sun" (which can probably be blamed on first-night jitters). When the Edge sings "Daydream Believer," it feels like a time-waster, easy kitsch. Yet such older songs as "One," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and--especially--"Bullet the Blue Sky" are spectacular.

But was it worth going to? It depends on what you want from U2 these days--a band, something more, something far less. As visual art, there's no doubt the tour succeeds brilliantly; but as a mere rock concert, it's by no means certain that, stripped of its vivid visuals, it isn't just mediocre. U2's techno-disco fails on the same level that all dance music fails: It works as body music, but as an intellectual statement it's stagnant.

The vast scale of the video screen serves to make U2 completely anonymous--which may well be the point. After all, irony and distance are easier to act out than passion; by relying on themes as detached as those of alienation and consumer culture, the band members have found a way to rationalize the lessening of their own commitment to rock. And really, who can blame them? In the past few years, the public has seen others copping techniques that superstars have perennially used in the face of aging--remaking their images, turning to drugs, committing suicide. In comparison, U2's reaction--to subsume itself in soulless technological artistry--is by far the best one yet.

Still, it's hard to feel entirely good about what the PopMart tour says about the state of rock. The Bono who waved that white flag is going to be missed, and Rage's Zack De La Rocha (or Liam Gallagher, whose band Oasis will be opening some U2 dates this summer) seems unlikely to cut it in comparison. Frankly, for rock to succeed, it has to have a message--and, even more important, a sentient message-bearer.

At least one can take heart in knowing that however complex and fabulous technology gets, a listener is still thrown back on the bare bones of music and its ever-so-mysterious ways; it was true of E.L.O. in 1978, and it's true now. I never thought I'd say that what I liked best about a U2 show was its special effects--but then, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd walk into a Hard Rock Cafe--site of the tour's official after-show party--and see a sign that read, "The only notes that matter come in wads," signed by the Sex Pistols. Somehow, that seemed a fitting statement to end the evening on--detached, ironic, and utterly conflicted.

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