U2 played at Soldier Field a couple nights ago.
Posted 7/7/2011 by cal
To be a music critic and a U2 fan, you have to fear for your credibility. At some point, maybe around the time of Rattle & Hum, it started to become increasingly unhip to believe in Bono. Nowadays, a fun and socially admirable thing for writers to do is to point out the hypocrisy of a man who stretches himself thin to help and bring joy to people uncool enough to like him (at the perceived expense of his band), to suggest that his humanitarian efforts are merely fuel for his massive ego, to scoff at him for daring to work with world leaders from whichever side of the political spectrum you don’t agree with, and for the audacity of working for environmental causes while toting around umpteen tractor trailers worth of equipment to build a monstrous stage from city to city. Less famous but more credible musicians maintain aloofness toward their fans, spend their time committing varying degrees of statutory rape, abandon their families for drugs, spread messages of violence or misogyny or self-loathing, or simply don’t bother to take a stand publicly about what they believe in, but these private hypocrisies are easier to look past than the benevolence of an enviable superstar riddled with contradictory impulses just like the rest of us.
There’s also the matter of U2’s instrumental skill, which each member of U2 has gone to considerable lengths to acknowledge a lack of, but that only counts as integrity if you’re a punk band or Wayne Coyne. Then there’s Bono and The Edge’s endlessly problematic foray into Broadway, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and the unevenness of the band’s recorded output since the early 90s. When they experiment, they’re irrelevant old men stepping out of their depths; when they revisit elements of their classic sound, they’re has-beens trying to recapture old glory. Whether it’s a slippery moral or artistic slope, U2 seems to be either at the top or the bottom, with everybody else in between.
Yet it seems to always be an argument about intentions rather than results; for U2, no ends ever justify the means, nor vice versa. U2 may be an example of a band whose image has forever sabotaged its luxury to be judged purely on the impact of its music. Like atheists and evangelicals, pop culture arbiters assume ignorance or dubious intentions when faced with otherwise decent people whose beliefs or motivations they can’t share or comprehend. When regular citizens are misunderstood, a handful of people might be offended but they will quickly move on. When U2 puts its new single in an iPod commercial, thousands and thousands of people accuse the band of selling its soul beyond redemption (again). The more popular U2 gets, the more stringent the rules of indie cred become, the more egregious U2’s trespasses are, until a band that has written almost nothing but pop songs since its inception becomes the band that sold out for wanting its music to be heard.
Nobody dares to publish a review that says “I just don’t really care for U2’s music”, and rightfully so; a perfectly acceptable response in every other life situation would be an absurd shirking of duty for a writer. The goal of most music writers is to be clever, to passively belittle folks who enjoy what we don’t or who don’t get what we love, to compare and contrast apples and oranges and hope not enough of the audience realizes they’re different fruits, to drum up a buzz, the more vitriolic the better, about the things we’ve said, to break our passions down into cold reasons, to account for our tastes. I do these things all the time, even though I fight against the urge. What I want more than anything is to inspire people to listen to what I love, but there are instances when the craft I’ve learned offers a quick and grudgingly suitable solution, and there are times when I just don’t realize what I’m doing. And sometimes, admittedly, it’s just fun to be clever, and I don’t get caught up too much in worrying about the people I might offend because I know they’ll quickly move on.
So I go on and on about mind-altering improvisational prowess and painful, discordant missteps and superior technical virtuosity and patently inept musicianship and viscerally inspired performance and rote, lifeless pantomime and gorgeous original melodies and blatantly derivative chord progressions. I assess the sound quality in the room, and the visual display, and onstage charisma, and how much the beers cost and what the weather was like. How cool it was that they played this song, how I wish they’d played that one. How similar this show was to that one, or how different. I’ve done all of these things already to try and describe Tuesday’s U2 show at Soldier Field, and if I tried, I could cobble together a respectable piece of journalism, but it all felt silly and hollow to me. The professional in me cringes at all the great points I was making that are now going to waste, but they didn’t convey much about my actual experience.
I sit down to review a U2 show and all I can think about is how good it felt to be there, and how I would do just about anything in my power to get that feeling back, and the only way to get it is to go to another U2 show. The songs that they play and the way they play them and the way Bono sings them are more powerful to me, more connected to what my soul feels is the truth, than any other sound there is. The presence of those four guys combined with the tens of thousands of other fans in the stadium who feel the same way is overwhelming in a way that’s far beyond what any descriptive language can evoke. The band’s intentions are clear, and for those in tune to it, the results are perfect almost every time. So, I don’t know what this is; certainly not a concert review, even though that’s what I set out to write. For two decades I’ve tried to convince people of the power of U2’s music, but I suppose I always knew that words couldn't do that. In regards to U2, I simply can’t do my job.