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[whitespace] U2
Bono and the boys embrace the commercial beast.

Et Tu, U2?

Super Bowl halftime shows supersuck--not this time

I HAVE A FRIEND who just arrived here from Spain who attended the East/West Shrine game at Pac Bell Park a few weekends ago. She and her husband had never been to a sports stadium of any kind before, and when I asked her how it was, she was enthusiastic. "We didn't know who the players were, and we didn't understand the game they were playing. But it was still fun to feel the atmosphere and hear all the cheering."

And it's true. Stadiums full of screaming people can be lots of fun, even when you don't know what the hell is going on. At least, that's how I feel when I attend arena rock concerts by bands that I really have no interest in. Football, however, is a different matter. You want to know how much I hate the game of football? I hate it so much that one year, when my favorite band of all time asked me, personally, to attend a Super Bowl party with them, I refused. I hated football more than I loved their music.

Still, I do occasionally tune in to the Stupid Bowl (as I like to call it) around halftime, to see what idiocy they've mounted in the middle of the field. Usually, it's something pretty hokey, but a look at the chronological development of the thing was instructive. For the first 20 years--with the exception of Super Bowl VI, which featured a Salute to Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald and Carol Channing--most of the Super Bowl halftime productions were either university marching bands or Up With People extravaganzas. Super Bowl XXII featured Chubby Checker, then XXV showcased New Kids on the Block. Super Bowl XXVII seems to have been a turning point--it boasted Michael Jackson and 3,500 local schoolchildren in a Heal the World-themed spectacular.

The next few years were aesthetically confused, as Super Bowl producers tried desperately to perfect the right combination of sheer lousiness and massive popularity, mounting vast, horrid, shows featuring the likes of Diana Ross, James Brown, Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Phil Collins and finally Aerosmith and 'NSYNC together.

Yes, Super Bowl halftime shows--which are generally blurry, busy and, from a camera's point of view, even more difficult to follow than a tricky football play in a snowstorm--are the height of absurdity, which is why this year's choice of U2 augured badly. Offhand, could you think of anyone less appropriate? Maybe Fugazi, but that's about it.

In the past, U2's outdoor stadium shows have been somewhat pageantlike--particularly 1998's not very thrilling PopMart tour and 1994's quite brilliant Zooropa. But I always thought they were making fun of that kind of thing, not reveling sincerely in it. Indeed, given U2's past aesthetic commentary on stadium extravaganzas, it's hard to imagine why they agreed to do the Super Bowl. Between the hysterically expensive production values of the low-class on-field pageantry and the high-end commercials, the Super Bowl represents the two extremes of American artistic ingenuity gone wrong far better than even the most over-the-top heavy-metal concert. Not only that, but professional sporting events used to be the antithesis of everything rockers represented.

The Super Bowl should have been a place that a band with any pretensions toward credibility would avoid like the plague. Against all odds, however, U2's performance Sunday was wonderful. Instead of a busy pastiche of songs and styles augmented by legions of dancing girls, U2's performance was a straight shot to the heart. They performed two songs ("Beautiful Day" and "Where the Streets Have No Name") and did exactly what they do in concert: mesmerize stadiums. As they sang, a screen behind the stage ran a list of the known victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the end, Bono lifted his black-leather jacket to reveal an American flag.

It was immensely dramatic, corny, touching, moving, bombastic--and absolutely spot-on right. According to projections, the show was viewed by 800 million people worldwide, which is a darn sight more than the 3 million who bought U2's last LP, Elevation. Presumably, even more people will be watching the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Olympics this Friday, which will feature the services of LeAnn Rimes and Staind, among others, but I doubt those lesser acts will be able to achieve what U2 managed to do: that is, capture, in a few short minutes, both the spirit of the evening, and the spirit of the age.

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From the February 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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