U2 have become a very small subplot in the follow up to the attacks in Paris. They are nearing the end of their tour and their Paris concert was set to be broadcast live on HBO. Now that show has been cancelled (as have all concerts in the city by orders of the French government) and the band chose to honour the victims by laying flowers outside of the Bataclan.
The pictures of the band paying their respects have been widely circulated, and seem to be touching a nerve with people, in part because U2 have a strange knack for getting entangled in hardships and tragedy taking place in the world. There's little doubt that they see themselves as a band with a calling beyond the music world, with a duty to mankind to publicize injustices and to aid in the healing process during tough times. There was Live Aid (1985), the Salman Rushdie dial-ins (early 90's), the concert in Madison Square Garden after 9/11, the appearance at Live 8 (2005), and now the Paris concert, which will surely be rescheduled and draw a far larger viewing audience than it would have had it proceeded as planned. Finally, there was arguably the most famous concert of their career, at the Superbowl halftime show in 2002.
That show has been praised and ridiculed in equal measure -- a microcosm of the polarizing opinions that U2 have generated for virtually their entire career. It regularly gets ranked among the best Superbowl halftime shows ever, if not the very best ever, because of its importance as a cathartic moment at the most intrinsically American cultural event only a few short months after the 9/11 attacks. It gets ridiculed for ... well, mainly for Bono's hokey reveal of the American flag inside his jacket at the end of the show. And for the "America ... fuck yeah!" jingoism of telling the country that everything will be OK in the context of a football game that means nothing in the life or death grand scheme of things. And for being U2 by the usual people who don't like U2.
The truth is, I never really understood the hate. Like it or not, the halftime show of the post 9/11 SB was going to be an event forced upon some band that would be expected to deliver in the moment. It wasn't the time or place for a solemn ceremony, but getting on with business as usual wasn't what was needed either. That middle ground is almost impossibly difficult to inhabit -- acknowledging the events without getting preachy, conveying emotions without getting emotional, projecting dynamism from the stage without falling prey to jock rock tropes. If not U2, then who? Which band could hit upon precisely the appropriate tone, on that big a stage, with that size of a viewing audience, with songs that most of the country was familiar with, and accomplish it all in twelve minutes or less?
Today I watched U2's Superbowl halftime show for the first time in nearly fourteen years.
At the time I could barely focus. I scarcely believe that the Patriots were not only playing in this game, but had taken a big lead into halftime. I was at a party with people who were not very emotionally invested in the game, and was in general somewhat distracted in all the usual ways that parties can distract you from what's happening on a TV in the corner of a room.
And yet, even without having seen the concert since it was aired, I felt I could recall its key moments in vivid detail -- the heart shaped stage, the scrolling names, the setlist, the American flag in Bono's jacket. Of course there were plenty of small details I missed. The crowd on the field looked at genuine as Superbowl crowds get. They were energetic and very very loud. This was not a crowd of people who were there to look happy on TV. There was not a single American flag on display as part of the show, with the exception of Bono's jacket. Simple, classy. The roll call of names only reached the "C"'s, which actually helped to underscore the scale of the tragedy. There were absolutely no dancers, special guests, projections (other than the names of 9/11 victims at the end), complex light shows, or anything even remotely frilly or garish. It was just U2 and their perfectly chosen three song set. The significance of the second song -- an interlude of "MLK" as the intro to "Where the Streets Have No Name" -- certainly eluded me at the time.
The backstory is also more complicated than I realized at the time. Apparently Janet Jackson was originally booked, but pulled out. U2 originally wanted to put on a much more extravagant show, but those plans were nixed. It's hard to believe they could done better than they did. They hit upon all of the proper subtleties that turned their set into one extended poignant tribute without smashing you over the head and declaring "this is a tribute!" like many bands would have.
So it shouln't come as much of a surprise that U2 touched so many people in Paris today without playing a note of music or saying a word.