The Pinnacle of Power

What I saw at the U2 concert.

This article originally appeared in Q Blog: Ideas That Create a Better World, 17 September 2009.

Sometime in high school, I acquired the idea that attending a rock concert, for a middle-class kid anyway, was a transgressive act. It was a step out of the sedate norms of suburban life into an exhilarating, dangerous netherworld, an intoxicating haze of smoke, primal rhythms, and throbbing sensuality—throwing off the shackles of predictable conformity and throwing down the gauntlet of rebellion.

Well, earlier this week I joined 60,000 Midwesterners at U2’s 360 Tour concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field, and can report, with faint disappointment, that the most transgressive act I managed to commit, or indeed witnessed all evening, was talking with some friends in the narrow stairway of section 443 before the concert began, thus impeding the path and incurring the wrath of the vendors of Miller Lite. (“ONE CAN LIMIT,” their coolers proclaimed.)

The concertgoers streamed into the Chicago Bears’ home stadium in attire that can best be described as Apple Store Clientele—casual cool with an extra helping of organic sustainability. Befitting U2’s long and protean career, they were strikingly intergenerational. Four teenage boys wearing school T-shirts from the Near North Side, cleancut and fresh-faced, stood right in front of me, singing every word through the whole show. A couple rows down, two late-40s parents escorted their teenage daughter and preteen son. Or was it the other way around? I saw lots of parents accompanying pre-driving-age teenagers, making me wonder whether the parents or the children had been the ones to make the case for going to see U2. Perhaps the predominant demographic, at least in the nosebleed seats, was twentysomething couples, few of whom betrayed the nervous electricity of first dates: my bet is they were either married or contentedly cohabitating. All in all, it was a perfectly domestic evening.

U2 seems to have found a way to wield tremendous power without being consumed by it.

The show was spectacular, of course—conducted in the round under a superstructure that was part circus tent, part spacecraft, part church spire, with a pantographic video wall whose versatility was probably the best surprise of the evening. (It’s hard to remember or believe that rock acts used to fill stadiums without using video, so essential is the medium for bringing the tiny figures on stage to life.) Perhaps my experience was affected by the third-rate sound at our level (one friend said that given the multiple echoes, it was like we were attending three concerts each two seconds apart), but what captured my attention most of all was the visual drama of the night, not the music. And what really began to captivate me was what was happening in the seats, not on stage.

The scene, it dawned on me, was straight out of a Leni Riefenstahl film—the stadium, the adoring crowd, the fists pumping the air, the coordination, not to say manipulation, of emotion, music, volume, noise, silence. The performance was masterful in every sense of the word, including its more sinister sense. The mastery was not just that of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr.—it was also, even more so, that of a great unseen crew of engineers, designers, videographers, producers. They used every trick in the book, and several tricks destined to be added to books yet to be written, to usher four men, and above all one man, to a position of power.

The tempter in the gospels suggested that Jesus throw himself from the pinnacle of Herod’s Temple—perhaps 150 feet high—in order to gain the admiration and worship of the masses of Judea. But U2’s stage set (which rises to 164 feet if the scarily comprehensive Wikipedia article can be believed), with all its technological wizardry, makes the Temple look like an elementary-school swingset. To be sure, Bono did not ascend its central spire and throw himself down, but if he had, I suspect the crowd would have gone wild.

For what became clear, and increasingly distracted me from the brilliant performance, was that the crowd wanted it all. They wanted to look alike (each, of course, alike in their own individually expressive way—each judiciously sized tattoo, placed where it would be covered by business attire, a personal statement). They wanted to pump their fists in unison. They wanted to vicariously exult, suffer, die (at the conclusion of one song Bono lay sprawled on the stage, motionless, just long enough for the crowd to catch its breath in anxiety), and triumph. The boys in front of me—was it so long ago that I was their age, their stage, full of their improbable joy and rage?—were almost palpably desperate to be drawn in. The right man, I thought, could have transmuted all this fervor into something genuinely powerful, genuinely transformative in the world beyond the stadium. Or the wrong man. Ask Leni Riefenstahl.

It is curious to think that in this postmodern age of pluralism, individualism, and self-expression, fascism may not be as far removed as we think. Perhaps it is not incidental that Apple, the ultimate merchant of cool (for whose products I am daily, insanely grateful), enforces its own sort of velvet-fisted uniformity on its devotees. I cannot be the only person to have occasionally wondered if I am worthy, not to mention appropriately dressed, even to enter an Apple Store. But enter it we do, in search of simplicity, beauty, and predictability—a bit of control in a complex and chaotic world. Which is pretty much what all gods offer their worshippers.

All of which makes me glad and a bit amazed that such power has fallen, in the case of U2, into such humble hands. Bono would be the first to protest that he is anything but humble, but of course that is one of the signs of humility. For all the posturing, for all the 30-foot-high closeups on the screen, after much wandering and experimenting (including a phase where Bono dressed up as Mephistopheles) U2 seems to have found a way to wield tremendous power without being consumed by it. They have done so by choosing to spend their power on others, and on pointing to Another. The two emotional highlights of the show, for me at least, were a performance of the sublime anthem “Walk On” dedicated to Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, with a simple but effective bit of crowdsourced theater on behalf of her cause; and an a capella rendition of the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” The crowd knew the words, and they sang along.

If it is possible for as outsized a personality as Bono to recede from awareness, in those moments he was just one of us, leading us beyond himself to what truly matters. This is something that Steve Jobs, for all his brilliance, has never done—his rare public efforts to address any topic larger than the latest insanely great Apple product, such as his much-quoted 2005 Stanford commencement speech, are no more and no less than a distilled version of the Western cult of self-realization. Steve Jobs has never led a crowd in singing “Amazing Grace.” Maybe someday he will, though perhaps first he will have to go through a phase where he dresses up as Mephistopheles.

As it happens, U2’s 360 Tour was, in a dramatic shift, sponsored not by Apple, which sold umpteen million devices to the throbbing soundtrack of “Vertigo” back in 2005, but by a much humbler fruit, the Blackberry. No doubt that decision was made primarily for commercial reasons (though Bono has also said that Apple wasn’t interested in collaborating creatively with U2, which tells you something about Apple’s corporate confidence). But it’s interesting in its symbolism nonetheless, and suggests that U2 will continue to turn their unparalleled cultural power in unexpected directions. If all the stories hold together, it was Mephistopheles who tempted Adam before he tempted Christ, urging him to take a bite. Against all odds, U2 keep telling that old, wily fool to get behind them, turning the vast unquenchable human thirst for worship toward someone worthy of it. Walk on.