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U2’s Disappearing Act: Age Against the Machine

U2's video screen for Innocence + Experience Tour

LAST September U2 released its 13th album, “Songs of Innocence.” Critics lauded the collection’s lush ballads and rhythmically angular reminiscences of boyhood in 1970s Dublin. But, because it was released as part of a surprise iTunes giveaway, the backlash from users who found the album appearing unbidden on their devices overwhelmed reactions to the record itself.

The Apple stunt should not have come as a complete surprise. U2 has sought again and again to use technology as no other band has. A year after the iTunes imbroglio, with another recording on the horizon (“Songs of Experience”), U2 has taken to the road. The “Innocence + Experience” tour, which arrives in Europe next week after ten sold-out stops in North America, challenges the music industry’s stagnant arena concert model by pitting tradition against technology—a face-off between stage and screen. Many of today’s top touring artists, including Taylor Swift, One Direction, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Beyoncé, use huge catwalk stages and expansive video displays. But none of them has shared their spotlight with gadgetry in quite the way U2 does during “Innocence + Experience.”

At New York’s Madison Square Garden in July, band members climbed inside a 96-foot-wide LED cage to perform a few songs while suspended above a stage shaped like a lower-case “i” and “e” (resembling, fittingly, an exclamation point). The 480-panel cage transmitted live images to the audience, but it also functioned as the band’s advocacy tool, hiding place and chapel. The earnest lyrics and mammoth screen are surprisingly congruent: in the middle of the swirling mid-tempo ode “Iris”, Bono dropped to his knees in tribute to the mother he lost at 14 while her digital incarnation skipped across the screen above his head. While performing “Cedarwood Road,” the singer entered the cage to interact with an illustration of the home in which he was raised.

The theatrics onstage, which are synchronised with the technology, tie the band’s political, philanthropic and spiritual endeavours into a symbiotic whole for the first time in its career. Psalms from the Bible fell out of the ceiling like confetti during “Until the End of the World” (1991); the crowd was urged to “sing for the peacemakers in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston” after the Martin Luther King Jr. homage, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984); and in revamped lyrics to “Bullet the Blue Sky” (1987), Bono slams capitalism while admitting to cavorting with billionaires at the World Economic Forum. A cartoon clip onscreen chronicled the triumph of global AIDS treatment distribution—an achievement in which Bono’s political lobbying played a role—and afterward, during the main-stage finale of the ballad “One” (1991), the singer curtsies jokingly when the audience sings the line, “Have you come here to play Jesus?”

U2 has always relied heavily on both its performance antics and visual iconography. The band set a Guinness World Record for largest video screen during its 1997 “Pop Mart” tour, it was also known for the flags from its 1983 album “War”, Anton Corbijn’s stark portraits (like that on the cover of the “Joshua Tree” album), variations of the logo of Amnesty International (a longstanding charity partner) and East German Trabant cars. In the 1990s and 2000s, this lexicon expanded to include videos of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s opposition leader, and a message from space sent to earth by American astronaut Mark Kelly. In 2002, as part of a halftime appearance at the Super Bowl, U2 projected all the names of those killed in the 9/11 attacks; and in 2011, when the band played the final gig of its “360” tour underneath a video curtain and giant claw rig, it set the record for highest-grossing concert tour of all time, bringing in nearly $750m.

Now U2 has circumvented the pressure of topping past successes by disappearing into video screens altogether. About halfway through the “Innocence + Experience” set, when the 2014 song “Invisible” is performed, the band is nowhere to be found. Suddenly, the screen becomes translucent, revealing the four inside the cage. By the time the audience realizes what is going on, U2’s point has already been made. Did the band need to be there at all?

If the traditional guitar, bass, drum and vocals of rock and roll are no longer enough to satisfy a digitally-savvy crowd, then no one can blame U2 for attempting to pre-empt what comes next. The use of technology in “Innocence + Experience” marks the genesis of macro entertainment, a leap into the post-performer realm—a glimpse into rock and roll’s afterlife. While other artists continue to pander to fans who expect the sequined leotards and backup dancers that have become the hallmarks of superficial showmanship, U2 is the first to turn an LED display into an X-ray of its heart. Like the Gothic architects who strove to connect the terrestrial world to the celestial one by building stone cathedrals to the sky, this band has erected its fair share of tour-prop artifice over the years for the world to see. This new concert suggests U2’s faith now lies more in the evidence of things unseen.


Photo: Kristi York Wooten




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