Well, I know what I’ll be doing on May 17.”
That was my off-the-cuff Instagram comment to a friend who had posted about U2 embarking on a 2017 tour to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. My first instinct was, “Yes! I will do whatever it takes to be there!” That thought was almost immediately followed by, “Meh. If it sells out too quickly or if tickets are too expensive, it’s not the end of the world.” I’ve seen U2 twice, and both times, I’ve had such mixed feelings about the show. The more I thought about it, the more I leaned towards not even bothering to try and get tickets at all.
But it’s The Joshua Tree! It’s not only my favorite U2 album, but it’s also their best selling record; in fact, as of this writing, it’s the 48th-highest selling album of all time. It’s what turned U2 from being just a promising Irish rock band into a global powerhouse. Even the most ardent U2 haters I know—and I know a few—agree that The Joshua Tree stands on its own as a phenomenal and influential album.
Despite my love for The Joshua Tree, I’ve always had mixed feelings about U2. I think a lot of people do. They’re one of those bands that is unquestionably talented and influential, yet I dare you to mention them in a group conversation without getting at least one heavy eye roll. It’s not “cool” to be a U2 fan, and that is even apparent at their shows.
The first time I saw them was in 1997 on their PopMart Tour, and then I saw them again in 2015 on the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour. Both shows, despite being 18 years apart, felt similar. The connection between the crowd and the music was lacking, and that disconnect was palpable even just walking around the venue before and after the show. People seemed to be there just to… be there. No one had to stop me and tell me about “that one show in ’87 where they played that one song”—no conversations around me seemed to be about U2 or about music at all.
It didn’t help that both U2 shows I attended were high in concept, but fell short in delivery (a criticism that has plagued them on every tour since their Zoo TV tour in 1992). For the PopMart tour, they constructed the largest LED screen that had ever been built, along with several way-larger-than-life set pieces (among them: a 100ft.-tall cocktail olive on a stick, a mirrorball lemon, and a giant yellow arch). The whole Pop album, along with the obnoxious set design, was intended to be a parody of the over-the-top persona U2 had developed over the years, and they were trying to show their fans that they didn’t take themselves as seriously as they appeared to.
Unfortunately, the show I saw in Washington, D.C. fell flat. Rain caused technical problems. Groups of pixels went dead on the screen, and the set pieces seemed over-sized and out of place. It seemed like they’d attempted to do something that was too ambitious even for them. I didn’t understand the irony angle they were going for, and after reading reviews of it the next day, it didn’t seem like critics got it either.
As for the 2015 show I saw in San Jose, CA, the biggest disappointment was the fact that they offered 360-degree seating for a show where the visuals were inaccessible to large sections of the arena. I was sitting directly behind the stage (which I admit, is never the most ideal seat to begin with), and the arena-long LED screen “cage” that the band walked through, creating interactive videos, was perpendicular to my seat. For a decent portion of the show, I couldn’t see anything at all. The band was inside the screen and not even on the stage. It was an awesome effect—I’ve seen photos and videos from a better angle—but about a third of the audience entirely missed out on it.
They started strong, and after ten songs, the band left the stage. The house lights stayed dark, and an image of Johnny Cash appeared on the screen. “The Wanderer” began playing from a record over the PA system, and Johnny’s image was singing along. At first, it seemed like an innovative way to transition from the high-energy “Until the End of the World” into something mellower. I expected the band to return to the stage after a verse and a chorus, and join the Man in Black to finish out the song. They didn’t. The record continued to play for all five minutes and 41 seconds of the track.
I started looking around, and noticed others were doing the same. My husband leaned over and said, “Something must have happened. I bet there’s a technical problem, or that someone’s gear is messed up and they’re buying time.” I agreed. I couldn’t imagine that they’d planned that awkward moment. I found out later that it was intended to be an intermission.
Don’t get me wrong—it was an interesting idea, but the execution was odd. Disruptive, even.
U2 is a band with an extensive catalog spanning multiple decades, so their setlists will always disappoint someone. At any given U2 show, you’re for sure going to hear some of the classics from The Joshua Tree, and also the big hits from Achtung Baby, but what if you’re more into their early October, War, and even Unforgettable Fire years? You may not hear as many of your favorites. The experimental years of Zooropa and Pop are almost completely forgotten now.
At the 2015 show they played a bunch of the tunes from Songs of Innocence, the album that tour was supporting, but I don’t really love that album. I appreciated the songs from it more after hearing them live, but I would have much rather heard more from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which they didn’t touch that night, save for “Beautiful Day.” I was moved to tears when they played “Bad” right into “With or Without You,” but I found myself getting restless during “Iris,” “Cedarwood Road,” and “Song for Someone.”
Though I might have chosen slightly different setlists at both performances, what they did play, they played well. No matter the size of the venue, Edge’s guitar tone cut right through and stabbed me in the heart every time. Bono, for all his preaching and aggrandizing, is a charismatic and high-energy performer, and he’s impossible not to watch. The band looked like they were having just as much fun on stage in 2015 as they did 18 years earlier. I’ve never doubted their passion.
That brings me to the other elephant in the room. It’s difficult to talk about U2 without addressing their public perception, and the fact that their music is often overshadowed by their grand gestures of charity and humanitarian work. Some see it as a passionate and successful band using their resources for the greater good—others see it as self-righteous attention grabbing. For example, most people are glad to see all the things Bono’s co-founded (RED) organization has done; they simply wish he would be quieter about his own role and involvement.
When the band distributed Songs of Innocence as a free, automatic download to all iTunes customers, people across the board were offended. Customers resented the idea that they had no say in whether U2’s new album would become part of their collection, and other musicians saw it as a move that devalued music. I likely would have bought the album anyway, so I was happy to have it for free, but many people I know delighted in deleting it.
The backlash was severe, and all too familiar to them. After the Zoo TV and PopMart tours, and to a lesser extent, the Elevation and 360 tours, they had garnered a reputation as a band that tended to overpromise and underdeliver. The Songs of Innocence fiasco was right in line with the kind of overzealous marketing stunts that had become synonymous with U2. According to the band themselves, they just wanted to be part of something revolutionary and subversive—they hadn’t thought about the potential consequences. And while it did end up being successful from a business perspective, it was a PR nightmare for the band.
I want to believe U2 has good intentions, and I sincerely hope their efforts have been more helpful than harmful. But I see the argument. At what point should artists and entertainers “stay in their lanes” and stick to making art? Is it really a good deed if they’re so public about it? This aspect of U2’s career has turned a lot of people off of their music, and I’ll admit that even I went through a time when I was sick of seeing Bono’s sunglassed face all over everything.
All of these points of contention enter my head when I think about U2, and it’s hard for me to listen to any of their music without the mixed feelings and complicated issues rising to the surface. It’s not just “easy listening.” This is why the decision whether or not to spend some extra money to see a tour commemorating one of my favorite albums of all time is actually a difficult one.
So, no. I don’t actually know what I’ll be doing on May 17. On one hand, I want to feel that joyous shiver down my spine when the opening riff of “Where the Streets Have No Name” rings out across Levi Stadium. I want to support a band that I genuinely like and that I believe has paved the way for so many others who have come after them. I also just love concerts.
But on the other hand, I worry that they’ll take the pristine simplicity of The Joshua Tree and turn it into an outlandish marketing spectacle. I wince at the idea of another apathetic crowd that is using the show as a backdrop for a social gathering rather than the other way around. I’m concerned that there will be technical glitches and awkward moments that pull me out of what should be a magical experience.
This tour has the potential to be spectacular, and it pains me to imagine U2 getting in their own way with it, as they’ve been known to do. I want to be ecstatic about it, and I feel guilty that I’m not. It’s an uncomfortable feeling as a music fan, and I’m not yet sure which side will win out.