U2's Popmart: Sincerity Masked by Artifice

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Las Vegas Popmart concert, April 25, 1997

U2's Popmart: Sincerity Masked by Artifice

By Jon Pareles, NY Times

LAS VEGAS -- Truth battles packaging in U2's Popmart tour, the stadium spectacle that the band unveiled here on Friday night at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl. The package is high-concept, high-tech razzle-dazzle: a superstar band shows off its big-budget prerogatives and flaunts its status as a consumer product. But the songs, new and old, tell a different, more introspective story, about private struggles to find faith and purpose. With the Popmart tour, U2 seeks to reclaim its old sincerity using all the artifice at its disposal.

The stadium here, with its 38,000 seats sold out, was one of the smaller stops on the tour. For most of its 14-month, 80-city schedule, U2 will perform in places with more than 50,000 seats, including the show scheduled for May 31 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. To please such large audiences, U2 provides visual pyrotechnics performing in front of a 170-by-56-foot video screen, under a 100-foot golden arch, next to enlarged cocktail accoutrements: a 40-foot-high lemon and a 12-foot-wide olive on a towering toothpick.

Popmart without the "m" is Pop Art, so to accompany various songs U2 has adapted images from Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and other artists who made commercial materials their own. Animated graphics on the video screen repeatedly showed humans as shoppers, and the golden arch self-consciously defined U2 as a product being marketed worldwide. In fact, the band has been merchandised with impressive skill. Its current album, "Pop" (Island), was No. 1 in 27 countries the week it was released. And on Saturday, the night after the tour's first show, U2 was the subject of a relentlessly promotional prime-time ABC-TV special. At a time when the recording business faces diminishing sales, U2 doesn't shy away from the hard sell.

While the tour plugs "Pop," U2 has also set out to top its own Zoo TV tour in 1992-94, which redefined stadium concerts for the 1990s. In that production, U2 presented itself as part of a media overload, treating the band as one of many competing signals, real and simulated. With that tour and its two previous 1990s albums, "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa," U2 broke away from its 1980s role as a band of painfully earnest idealists. Late in the show Bono, U2's lead singer, appeared in a gold lame suit, sunglasses and devil's horns, as a character he called Macphisto.

In the Popmart production, Bono is back on the side of the angels, or trying to be. On Friday night, U2 arrived at the end of a set of disk jockey dance music by Howie B, one of the producers of "Pop." The 1979 novelty hit by M, "Pop Muzik," segued into the pulsating electronic rhythm of "Mofo," from "Pop." But the first words of that song were, "Looking for to save my save my soul." Throughout the 130-minute set, U2 revived its most high-minded songs from the 1980s, including "I Will Follow," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." They went well with the nine songs U2 played from "Pop," which show a similar yearning.

Yet there were conspicuous differences between U2's 1980's anthems and its new songs. Larry Mullen's drumming and Adam Clayton's bass lines have shifted the beat from a triumphal march to choppy, sputtering hip-hop or a dub-reggae undertow. The Edge's guitar can still ring out open fifths, but also uses crackling, caustic distortion, while prerecorded material sometimes adds dance rhythms or surreal ambience. And in the lyrics, true love and transcendent faith have grown ever more elusive. "They put Jesus in show business," Bono sang. "Now it's hard to get in the door."

While the show's visuals drew oohs and ahs, U2's music suffered from apparent first-night jitters. Seemingly sure-fire songs, like the hits "Discotheque" and "Mysterious Ways," weren't solid in their grooves. And when U2 played its current single, "Staring at the Sun," the band couldn't agree on a tempo; after one attempt fell apart, Bono announced that the group was having "a little family row," and a second attempt was shaky. But there were also moments when ballads held the stadium spellbound, among them "Please" (from "Pop"), "One" and "With or Without You," despite distracting images of Warhol's Marilyn Monroe series. The song sounded like a plea to a lover, not to a pop icon.

U2 is still pondering the links between art and commerce; Popmart's solution is to delight the eyes while the songs brood at will. In the show's final image, the golden arch framed a big red heart. It was as if U2 wanted to insist that even the most commercial efforts can still be genuine.

Copyright © 1997 NY Times. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on April 25, 1997 4:33 AM.

Stylish 'Zoo TV' Blurs Fact and Fiction was the previous entry in this blog.

U2 Moves In Mysterious Ways is the next entry in this blog.

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