Shooting Craps

U2 takes over the world--and turns it into a commercial

When it comes to Las Vegas, the gambling and the naked showgirls and the 99-cent shrimp cocktails aren't really what make it seem so different from the real world. It's the bizarre architecture: Huge public buildings the size of Versailles or Blenheim Castle or the Kremlin abound--while outside is America, the place U2 has been obsessed with for years.

What these Irishmen like about America are Elvis, neon and the Delta blues, but a glance down Nevada's Boulder Highway toward Sam Boyd Stadium on April 26, the night of U2's first concert in three years, showed a glimpse of another America--one that has been laid waste by consumer culture, one full of L-shaped shopping malls and Mac Frugal's and Home Depot stores. It's a place where even the luxury condos look like the worst kind of Russian gulag.

This is the unbeautiful, unromantic America of the '90s, and it's up to U2 to imbue this horrible landscape with glamour and significance. That, after all, is the self-appointed task of rock 'n' roll and all pop culture: to make the mundane seem meaningful and bright so we, the people, can take some sort of pride in our era.

U2 has always taken this responsibility seriously, whether by waving a white flag and shouting freedom from atop a speaker stack, as the band did on Under a Blood Red Sky, or by launching the pointed Zoo TV tour, which aped and magnified the conventions of television in order to expose its evil machinations. And now with the POPMart tour, U2 aims to explore consumer culture and its part in it--a somewhat disheartening theme, however cleverly done.

U2 has done it by inflating familiar corporate images into fiber-glass icons, spending lavishly on special effects and opening the tour in Vegas, the spiritual home of crass commodification. The result: Instead of commenting on the commodification of American culture, U2 now seems to be competing with it. The tour was launched in a K mart and is symbolized by a giant golden arch that will top every arena on the tour. U2, the Los Angeles Times and the ABC television network--whose prime-time one-hour special called U2: A Year in Pop broke basement records last week for low ratings--all have proclaimed the tour the biggest and most costly blah blah blah ever.

In addition to the 100-foot-high fiber-glass arch, the 110-foot-high fiber-glass olive on a toothpick and the 35-foot-high spinning disco ball disguised as a lemon, there's a 150-foot state-of-the-art video screen that uses 22 miles of cable, 120,000 connectors and 150,000 pixels made up of one million colored LEDs.

The tour also uses a traveling crew of 200, plus about 250 local workers on each site. Like ELO's 1978 tour (in which the band played from inside a glowing spaceship), Pink Floyd's The Wall tour of 1980 and the Rolling Stones' 1991 Steel Wheels tour, U2's POPMart is more about spectacle than it is about music. But because it's U2, there is a sense--or perhaps it's just a hope--that the spectacle itself will be imbued with meaning.

In theory, at least, U2 is trying to contextualize the loss of passion, commitment and intimacy that growing older (not to mention playing stadiums) engenders in rock stars, and starting the tour in a consumer heaven such as Vegas--under the shadow of a 110-foot fiber-glass olive, a 35-foot lemon and a golden arch--is all part of this recontextualization. But starting in Las Vegas has other implications as well: Since its release on March 4, the band's latest album, POP, has undergone the same surprising sales slump that has afflicted other name-brand groups (Pearl Jam and R.E.M.), dropping out of Billboard's Top 10 in a mere three weeks.

Moreover, many of the 62 stadium shows the band has booked through December have yet to sell out, including the Friday, May 9, show at Sun Devil Stadium. The POPMart tour is the first American-stadium tour by a rock band since the phat-rock year 1994, when the coliseums of the Earth were filled by such bands as the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Dead. U2 had hoped to net $400 million, but it's costing the band $1.5 million per week to keep the tour on the road. Good initial press is essential to the success of this phenomenally costly tour, and U2 has done all it could to get it.

Thus, tonight--April 26, 1997--is D-day for U2. The band has spent the past two weeks in Vegas rehearsing, counting down to this opening. People have been tailgating in the stadium parking lot since 5 p.m., entertained by the Blue Angels practicing aerial maneuvers. The atmosphere is happy and mellow, by Vegas standards, a church picnic.

Maria and Tony are two people who came to party and stayed to listen, and now they're having a run of luck. A bubbly Hispanic couple in their mid-30s, they drove here from Palm Springs--about four hours--without tickets just to party outside the stadium and listen to U2. To their delight, 500 tickets have just been put on sale at face value ($54), augmenting the 500 put on sale two days ago.

The gesture--announced on every local radio station--has caused the scalpers who have been lining the Boulder Highway since 2 p.m. to take a huge bath, though it has made Maria and Tony's weekend. "We would have been happy to be outside just to feel the emotions of everyone here," says Maria, as Tony forks over $108.

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