Shooting Craps

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

But, musically, there is many a dull moment--the ballad "Please," the long intro to "Discotheque," and the false start on "Staring at the Sun" (which can probably be blamed on first-night jitters). When the Edge sings "Daydream Believer," it feels like a time-waster, easy kitsch. Yet such older songs as "One," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and--especially--"Bullet the Blue Sky" are spectacular.

But was it worth going to? It depends what you want from U2 these days--a band, something more, or something far less. As visual art, the tour succeeds brilliantly, but as a mere rock concert, I'm not so sure that, if stripped of the visual power, it wouldn't have been just mediocre. U2's techno-disco fails on the same level that all dance music fails: It works as body music, but as an intellectual statement, it's stagnant.

The vast scale of the video screen makes U2 completely anonymous--which may well be the point. After all, irony and distance are easier to act out than passion; by relying on themes as detached as those of alienation and consumer culture, the band members have found a way to rationalize the waning of their own commitment to rock. And, really, who can blame them? In the past few years, the public has seen others copping techniques that superstars have perennially used in the face of aging--remaking their images, turning to drugs, committing suicide. In comparison, U2's reaction--to subsume itself in soulless technological artistry--is by far the best one yet.

Still, it's hard to feel entirely good about what the POPMart tour says about the state of rock. I'm going to miss the Bono who waved that white flag--and I don't think Zack De La Rocha (or Liam Gallagher, whose band Oasis will be opening some U2 dates this summer) can cut it in comparison. Frankly, for rock to succeed, it has to have a message--and, even more important, a sentient message-bearer.

At least there's something kind of heartening in knowing that however complex and fabulous technology gets, a listener is still thrown back on the bare bones of music and its ever-so-mysterious ways; that was true of ELO in 1978, and it's true now. I never thought I'd say that what I liked best about a U2 show was its special effects. But, then, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd walk into a Hard Rock Cafe--site of the tour's official after-show party--and see a sign that reads, "The only notes that matter come in wads," signed by the Sex Pistols. Somehow, that seemed a fitting statement to end the evening--detached, ironic and utterly conflicted.

U2 is scheduled to perform on Friday, May 9, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, with Rage Against the Machine. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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