Mofo, I Will Follow, Gone, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Last Night On Earth, Until The End Of The World, New Year’s Day, Pride (In The Name Of Love), I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Bad-Ruby Tuesday, Staring At The Sun, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bullet The Blue Sky, Please, Where The Streets Have No Name. Encore(s): Discothèque-Staying Alive, If You Wear That Velvet Dress, With Or Without You, Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, Mysterious Ways, One, Wake Up Dead Man.
Pop Mart is over the top
by Morris Cooper
The veteran Irish band U2 has tried very hard recently to make serious music—while not appearing to take itself too seriously. Two examples are their latest album, Pop, released last year, and the Pop Mart Tour, which has kept them traversing the globe for the past six months.
With Pop, U2 incorporates the up-to-date sounds of techno beats and loops into its music, giving the songs, which have always been about searching for love, peace and the meaning of life in a troubled world, a fresh and sometimes even danceable sound. Pop can be seen as U2’s attempt to acquire a late 1990s relevance. Most of the time, it works.
The Pop Mart Tour, on the other hand, which stopped at Tokyo Dome last Thursday, is a gigantic convenience store that sells just one product: U2, live and in your face. Pop Mart is U2’s effort to send up the rock band as commodity, using an oversized, circus-like stage show that enables everyone in the house to feel like they are part of the action.
The visitor to Pop Mart was instantly confronted with the stage, which took up most of center field and was dominated by a giant “golden arch” (apparently lifted from a well-known hamburger chain) that stretched from one side of the stage to the other. The stage was framed in bright colors: yellow, pink and orange, with a yellow backdrop the size of a football field containing the words “Pop Mart.” From the back of the Dome, the guitars, amplifiers, microphones and a drum set appeared as tiny dots amid this gigantic landscape.
Most rock concerts begin with a set formula: House lights go dark, band takes the stage, stage lights go on, band begins to play. At Pop Mart, convention was subverted. The house lights went dark and the stage began to play. First came a jacked-up version of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s theme from the film Mission: Impossible. Next, the entire back of the stage became a huge video screen and light show extravaganza. Picture the biggest video screen you could ever imagine, and then double it, and you may be able to approximate the size of the screen that U2 brought with them to Tokyo.
Again dispensing with rock band tradition, U2 made a grand entrance through the middle of the crowd, making their way to the stage like a boxer and his entourage heading into the ring. All of this was on the screen behind the stage, so that it was possible to feel like you were right there with the band as they wove through the crowd. Bono, the lead singer, even wore a hooded purple robe. At this point, one could legitimately ask the question: Is Pop Mart a concert, or an elaborate pay-per-view event? And the answer would be, a little bit of both.
The band launched right into “MoFo,” one of the techno-inspired dance tracks from Pop, and followed that up with one of their first hits from the early 1980s, “I Will Follow.” With this opening flurry, the band simultaneously acknowledged its deep roots and demonstrated that it can play the psychedelic techno game as well as any underground rave crew.
This balance between new and old was the pattern throughout the evening; from new songs from Pop such as “Gone,” “Last Night On Earth,” “Please,” “Staring At The Sun” and “Discotheque,” interspersed with classics from the U2 repertoire, including “New Year’s Day,” “Pride” and “Bad.” However, despite the fact there was a real, live, super-famous band of rock stars right there on stage playing many of their greatest hits, most of the people in the nearly full arena focused intently on the video screen images.
Besides U2, who throughout the show played to the cameras, Pop Mart imagery included graphics of the evolution of man, with the mostevolved stage being man with a shopping cart. There was also an animated cartoon of a person in a convenience store; another cartoonshowing fighter planes; a space ship; and pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
While U2 is a band with four members, singer Bono (with crew cut and orange sunglasses), and guitarist The Edge (sporting muttonchops and a ten-gallon hat—was he one of the Village People?) got the most screen time. Clayton and Mullen, who are without a doubt essential to the musical mix, were only an occasional diversion in the large-scale visual essence of Pop Mart. Bono clearly understands the power of the image, and the camera angles are designed accordingly to achieve maximum impact. In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” as he sang about the impact of U.S. military forces on Third World countries, he spun an umbrella designed in the stars-and-stripes motif of the U.S. flag directly at the camera, until this red, white and blue image filled the entire screen.
And later, during “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Bono and The Edge stood at either side of the stage, hundreds of meters away from each other, while appearing as if they were side by side on the video screen. U2 became probably the world’s first virtual band.
With Pop Mart, U2 spared no expense in blurring the distinction between a real rock band and the image of a rock band, an effective way to reach out to the audience in such a large arena. But despite the visually stunning and crowd-pleasing bombast that made up most of the performance, the highlight of the show was when it was at its most stripped down.
Guitarist The Edge, who is better known for the echo-driven guitar style that forms the basis for the U2 sound than for his singing, stood alone on a small stage set into the middle of the crowd, and accompanied himself as he sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song the band rarely performs live. No video screen, no images and no techno beats. Just a guy with an angelic voice, a guitar and a powerful song to sing.
Despite the massive effort to appear as if they are trivializing themselves with Pop Mart, U2 is still a band with a soul.
© 1998 Daily Yomiuri. All rights reserved.