360 Degrees Of What, Exactly?

[Or: an old fart ponders the significance, or otherwise, of U2’s 360 Degrees performance, Friday November 26, Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland]

“Regardless of what you think of their music, this show definitely sets a new standard for large scale multi-media spectacle.” – Facebook friend

He’s right, sort of. For sheer spectacle, I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s something thrilling in witnessing an event of this magnitude all right, and it magnifies the communicable hysteria that accompanies any large gathering of humanity. New Zealand audiences, too, are starved of the splendor of the really big shows, making this a rare night out for many.

If the audience had been surveyed, it would have been interesting to know how many of its numbers were real U2 fans, and how many were mainly there just to take part in the ritual. Then again, what is a real U2 fan, these days, and were the real U2 themselves even on the premises?

The enormous and impressive (if faintly ridiculous) set design of the 360 Degrees gig just exposed the nagging emptiness at the heart of this institution called U2. When they were young bucks pushing their rabble-rousing sermons in the guise of ‘new wave’ music back in the early 1980s, it was possible to see the group for what it was: their music was a pulsing, surging, orgasmic populist clone of other groups from that era like The Associates and Echo & the Bunnymen, but with Bono’s messianic bearing filling in the dots where the interesting musical bits were supposed to be. Listen to those records now, and they sound like empty bluster, rabble-rousing rugby-fodder; nowhere near as good as The Associates or Echo & the Bunnymen.

Later, they took their overweening Irish hearts, blown up to stadium size, to the American market. Perfect: the group never really developed its rudimentary sound, just turned up the volume, providing a fantastic background for Bono’s church sans God. As Bono explored American roots music, he even wrote a few good songs, if not great ones.

You could hear on the Achtung Baby album way back in 1991 that the group was, effectively, over. Never popular with fans, the record saw the group mucking around with their personal musical fetishes, producing something that at least sounded like an attempt to map out new territory. Subsequently, technology came to their aid in the form of massive themed concert experiences, so no matter how dull their music got over the subsequent 20 years, they remained a concert draw-card.

Unlike previous U2 mega-shows, the 360 Degrees tour does not appear to have a theme. There’s a concept, but no idea – just a giant War Of The Worlds/squid/monster with a light-pulsing erection on top, a massive screen and down below, where the increasingly craggy-looking rock stars carry out their routine, a circular stage, with moving bridges to an outer catwalk. It’s impressive, and utterly meaningless.

I didn’t mind that the group ignored many of their bigger hits in favour of lesser-known tunes, because that’s their prerogative, and anyway, was anybody really here for the music? Where previous tours may have achieved some kind of balance between U2’s big empty musical gestures and their big empty stage productions, this 360 Degrees show sees the music consumed, overwhelmed, by the spectacle. The “wow” effect of the visuals made the U2 catalogue seem slimmer than it is, made the songs small, almost inconsequential.

As I watched Bono strut and reel out his “message” with all the conviction of a rock’n’roll Brian Tamaki, I found myself feeling sorry for them. This spectacle is so far removed from what music performance is really all about that it’s become a kind of grand guignol in which all the interiorizing of authentic writing/performance has been aborted, and songs that may have started out with real meaning to its makers have become distorted, shallow representations, a circus for crowds that may as well be at some big sports event. When Bono talked about the West Coast mining tragedy (and a list of the deceased was shown on the screen) or the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, it felt ineffectual, rote, the kind of rock statesman role Bono feels he has to assume but in fact, comes across as self-righteous, patronizing, glib and boring.

Yes, the 360 Degree show “definitely sets a new standard for large scale multi-media spectacle”, but where are U2 in there? By the end of the show, I was thinking they should go back to playing club dates to a few hundred people at a time, just to rediscover the idea of connection, purpose, and the notion of an audience/performer relationship that isn’t based on the worship of false gods. If I want to see a show that’s all spectacle, I’d rather see Michael Jackson, whose show is at least inherently entertaining. He’s dead? You don’t say. GARY STEEL

PS, the sound, you say? My decibel reader clocked it at a pretty constant 102dB (apparently anything above 85dB is dangerous). The huge speaker banks put out an impressively clear sound, but because of the circular design, there was no conventional “stage” characteristic to the sound, and worse, it bounced around the stadium like crazy. In other words, the imaging was off, and the sound was frequently harsh at the top end, but at least it was less muddy than many big gigs.

4 Comments

  1. Maybe less grand guignol, more circus maximus?

  2. Only this time they’re throwing the lions to the christians!

  3. So true Gary. I went for the spectacle only (thanks to the $40 tix that were upgraded to side stage). I found the music predictable and contrived. As U2’s chopper flew back to the luxurious confines of Great Mercury Island estate, while the masses herded ourselves back to our cars, I think I could hear them laughing.

  4. I couldn’t be bothered. Went to see ‘The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain’ the week previous and thoroughly enjoyed it. Fun stuff with great interpretations of modern tunes and missing Bonobo’s usual ‘put your hands in your pockets’ diatribe.
    Fab Ukelele’s – 1
    Dull YouToo – 0

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