On the way home from Levi’s Stadium last night, my mind was swimming as I mulled over exactly what I made of everything I’d just witnessed.
Irish alternative pioneers U2 had performed to a totally stoked crowd at Levi’s Stadium, running through a litany of arena-rattling anthems like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” off of their 1987 hit record The Joshua Tree.
San Jose’s paper of record, I knew, would have a review for the following day’s edition. I couldn’t see how, in the time allotted between the end of the show and the early morning deadline, that such a review would ever serve as anything more than a surface-level recap of a performance so bombastic and run through with political implications—both overt and far more subtle.
I was right.
The performance itself served, in my mind at least, to verify the sentiment of U2’s millions of fans across the globe—they do, in fact, rock—and to quash the vitriol and dismissal of Bono- and Edge-haters. At 57 and 55, respectably, the lead singer and guitarist have still got it.
Bono belted out all the hits on pitch and with emotive inflection. And I was reminded that in 1987, The Edge’s shimmering, effects-heavy sound was indeed a new and innovative approach to the guitar. Using the available technology, The Edge carved out a novel sound that would go on to influence a generation of players.
And speaking of technology, when you’re the “biggest band in the world,” it makes sense, perhaps, that you would splurge on what had to have been one of the world’s biggest screens. The massive display was deployed to great, and often moving, effect—as on “Where The Streets Have No Name,” which featured a steady rolling shot of some a lonesome desert highway populated only by telephone poles, scrubby brush, wind-whipped sand and the occasional lonesome drifter.
That was the good part. But there was plenty for the bad column.
Some of it was logistical. People complained of sluggish lines and poor traffic flow inside and outside of the stadium. I personally have to wonder whether any concert that large would be able to dodge complaints like these:
— Tara R Wood (@taraRwood) May 18, 2017
There was also the flubbed intro to “With or Without You.” I’d say the blame for that should be aimed at the sound team, as the introductory backing track that leads off that song was played at a drastically lower volume than the band’s instruments and it was clear that The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton were having a bit of trouble picking up the drum machine beat in their monitors.
But I have to believe that some of the most cringeworthy moments from Wednesday night’s show had less to do with technical difficulties.
After finally wading through the slow-motion queue, and walking the long way around to my seat on the opposite end of the stadium—observing the punishing concession and merch lines the whole way—I arrived in my section to find a series of poems scrolling down the massive screen looming over the stage.
Two of these verses stick out in particular: “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Puerto Rican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, and “Wingfoot Lake” by African-American poet and essayist Rita Dove. Both poems deal with what it means live as a poor and disenfranchised person of color in America.
Now, as a white cis male, privileged enough to have been helped through college by his parents—and to have used my education to land a job that grants me free access to such in-demand entertainment spectacles as this U2 concert—I try not to act like I know what it means to be a poor, disenfranchised person of color in this country. I try not to act like I know anything about that experience because, frankly, I just don’t. But also, I do my best to keep my trap shut when it comes to topics like those addressed in “Puerto Rican Obituary” and “Wingfoot Lake,” because in the struggle for civil rights, context matters—and the speaker matters.
And even while U2 were ostensibly allowing the words of Pietri and Dove to do the talking, I had to wonder: who is really speaking here? And, furthermore, if I don’t know a damn thing about what it means to grow up poor and disenfranchised and discriminated against in America, what the hell does a group of white rock stars from Ireland know about the struggle?
I’m not here to rip U2. That’s cliché. And I’m certainly not here to rip their fans—I count myself among them. I’m just trying to get to the bottom of why some find the band so offensive.
Over the course of the last 18 hours, as I’ve rolled everything around in my head, I’ve come again and again to this: Bono, The Edge, and everyone else up on that stage are all great musicians, and their heart is likely in the right place, but it may be their overall inoffensiveness that makes them so off-putting to many.
It all seems so low-stakes for Bono to make his generalized appeals for world peace while wearing intentionally distressed designer clothing. It not only rings hollow coming from the mouth of a man of such privilege, it can even feel a bit like a commercial calculation—especially when considering how Bono hedges his political proclamations.
Sure, the band played a humorous clip from the 1950s TV show Trackdown, which featured a snake-oil salesman named “Trump” promising to ward of the end times by building a wall around an entire town. But again, context matters, and the speaker matters as well.
Bono wasn’t directly denouncing Donald Trump. He was allowing a clip from a campy Western TV show to do the talking—effectively putting at least a bit of distance between the implication of the snippet of video and the way he actually feels.
And how exactly does Bono feel about Trump? It’s hard to say. When the singer did pipe up on politics, he made an appeal for “the party of Lincoln” and the “party of Kennedy” to come together—saying that if we could just make our way to “higher ground” we might find “common ground.”
Say what you will about the anti-Trump rant Father John Misty made at WXPN’s XPoNential Music Fest last year. To be sure, both singers might be classified as suffering from varying degrees of White-Savior-itis, but for Josh Tillman (a.k.a., Father John), the stakes were a bit higher. He actually stopped his set, sat down and attempted to process his feelings on Trump in real time.
He called our current Commander in Chief an “entertaining tyrant,” drawing cheers as well as jeers from the audience, who had paid good money to see him and others perform. He put himself out there. And then he doubled down.
“Do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution that is won by hilarious revolutionaries?” Tillman asked the crowd.
But I’m not here to tout Tillman for asking a rhetorical question incredulously. It’s just that it leads me to what I think may be the central question:
What do we want of our entertainers? Do we want them to be thoughtful individuals, critical of groupthink—willing to challenge us to be thoughtful ourselves? Or do we want them to pacify us with pithy, meaningless aphorisms and wordless choruses, which seem scientifically designed to accommodate inoffensive stadium chant-alongs?
Check out photos from the show here.