U2: Local Act, Global Horizons (Part III)
By Justin Kavanagh | Tuesday, September 15, 2009
U2 has reached a new generation of music lovers with its iPod and Blackberry campaigns — thus avoiding the fade into irrelevance usually suffered by aging rock stars. In the conclusion of his three-part series, Justin Kavanagh explores the performance art and marketing behind U2’s stage shows.
In the 1990s, U2’s stage sets embodied a new world order in which global consumers lived passively in 2-D. Zoo TV was a mobile television station warning against the dangers of brainwashing by TV. Banks of screens subjected the audience to an onslaught of sensory overload with sound bites and advertising-speak. In the arena of marketing, U2 inverted the rules. The band received no payment for use of their 2004 single “Vertigo” in ads for Apple’s iPod.
The 1997 PopMart extravaganza used an even larger wonderwall of imagery and illusion, crowned by a huge yellow arch to parody the age of mass consumerism.
The band embodied the parody, dressing as cyber-age Village People to stride cockily into the heart of another irony. They were the biggest band in the world — bigger now than Led Zeppelin — and they were caricaturing their own iconic stardom. Still, some in America assumed that the tour was sponsored by McDonald’s or Wal-Mart.
But if the medium was super-sized kitsch, the message remained uniquely subversive for a rock band. The Pop album asked aching questions about the absence of Jesus in the modern world. The lyrics had Bono “looking for to fill that God-shaped hole.” “Mofo” remains the darkest song in the U2 repertoire, a breathless scream for identity, for the love of a dead mother and ultimately for salvation of the soul. This was music and theater of the absurd so loaded with role-play and risk that it seemed bound to confound.
PopMart defied every cliché about rock ‘n roll by exposing its excesses under megawatt illumination. “Let’s go to the overground” was the band’s creed in the 1990s, a stance that challenged the standard rock star pose of embracing an illusory underground community. And yet, the band has stayed connected to worldwide audiences in a way that transcends the years and the sheer scale of these shows. At a 2005 concert in Chorzow, 70,000 Polish fans organized a massive mosaic flag in red and white for the early 1980s anthem “New Years Day.” The song was U2’s response to the communists’ brutal crackdown on the Solidarity trade union in December 1981.
“Mofo” remains the darkest song in the U2 repertoire, a breathless scream for identity, for the love of a dead mother and ultimately for salvation of the soul. The Poles’ act of flash-mob solidarity was organized by Internet and text messaging. This show of viral techno-savvy demonstrated U2’s success in attracting newer audiences and in connecting generations.
By the new millennium, the band had given their blessing to Apple’s iPod and the BlackBerry. In the arena of marketing, too, they inverted the rules. The band received no payment for use of their 2004 single “Vertigo” in ads for Apple’s iPod. Instead, they rode the popularity of the portable media player to bring their music to a new generation. Likewise, the current single and tour have been widely previewed on U.S. TV and Internet ads for BlackBerry. Typically, the campaign inverts the standard artist/product endorsement routine — its tagline is “BlackBerry Loves U2.”
But if the band — or the brand — has charmed the world, their hometown often remains curmudgeonly in its begrudgery towards U2’s success. A 2006 decision to move part of its business to the Netherlands, in order to lessen its Irish tax burden, brought allegations of tax-dodging. Bono argued that Ireland has long sought to attract international investment in its financial services sector, but now cried foul when an Irish entity decided to make a similar investment abroad.
The Edge also defended the band’s global approach to finance. “[W]e do business all over the world, we pay taxes all over the world and we are totally tax compliant,” he said. But once again, it was Bono, as spokesman for the earth’s poor, who drew the real heat for what critics label as his hypocrisy.
If the band — or the brand — has charmed the world, their hometown often remains curmudgeonly in its begrudgery towards U2’s success.
Broach the topic in any Dublin pub these days, and you’ll soon hear a searing critique of the multi-millionaire behind the DATA and ONE campaigns. These initiatives aim, respectively, to combat poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa, and to increase U.S. government funding for international aid programs.
Bono, if present, would defend his work for Third World debt- and hunger-relief on practical terms. He has been quoted as saying, “If you look into it, you think, ‘This guy works two-and-a-half days a week at this, not being paid for it, and at cost to his band and his family, and doesn’t mind taking a kicking.’” For all the local criticism, the band have always lived in Ireland, employed locally and invested in hotels, nightclubs and properties in Dublin. Their success has also driven the establishment of a thriving music industry. The city’s next big thing won’t want for local inspiration — and Dublin now appears on the back of most European Tour t-shirts.
The U.S. tour
In terms of spectacle, there now seems no limit to U2’s ambition. This year’s show takes place within what can only be described as a spaceship. How far can you take us, Bono? This is rock’s largest ever stage set: a 164-foot high, four-legged “claw” in centerfield. It gives stadium-goers from all sides open views of the band. A conical screen hovers above the stage. From this huge multimedia shrine, U2 will beam their gifts of sound and vision to the faithful. Onscreen, U2 will project to the masses their positive propaganda for a better world. In Europe this summer, crowds heard a message from Bishop Tutu and watched recent scenes of protest and repression from Iran. In place of the crank phone calls, Bono called up the captain of the space station to ask for the view from above… the state of the world through the eyes of God, perhaps?
At a 2005 concert in Chorzow, 70,000 Polish fans organized a massive mosaic flag in red and white for the early 1980s anthem “New Years Day.” And what of their music from outer space in 2009? Few bands of their vintage play anything but oldies on such tours, but U2 climb aboard their space-age magic carpet to explore new boundaries. They will open with four songs from the new album, No Line on the Horizon.
The encore promises to reveal a band that still treasures “vision over visibility,” in the words of their most visible frontman. U2 will invert Oscar Wilde’s famous artistic creed about living in the gutter but looking at the stars. In the new song “Moment of Surrender,” Bono takes a crawl through the gutter in the persona of an alcoholic confessing his sins.
Despite the “War of the Worlds” spaceship stage, it is the band’s ability to relate to a crowd on a human level that still makes a U2 concert an extraordinary experience.
In Washington this week, the song “Walk On” will bear witness to the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi. It will shine a light onto the mendacity of her incarcerators in Myanmar. A line of local volunteers will walk onstage, each wearing a mask with the face of the incarcerated Burmese opposition leader.
“Walk On” echoes one of the world’s great soccer anthems, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Its message of hope for finding one’s way home in the world resonates with every crowd. It’s a simple human message, best delivered in person by fellow-travelers. Wherever you are in this world, you’re not alone…Walk On.
Spaceships may offer us the view from the gods, but at ground level it is local acts that lead to global change. And when the 49-year-old Bono walks onto his spaceship stage this September, I’ll think of the young singer from Dublin asking all those years ago, “Have yous far to go?”
Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series on U2. Read Part II here.