Last week, I went to see U2 perform two nights at the United Center in Chicago. Since seeing U2 perform live for the first time in Nashville in 2011, I make it a point to see them every time they play near me. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of their music, their live shows are incredibly entertaining and engaging with a production value that stands above the rest. You also get a heavy dose of reality as U2 injects political statements into their performance and adds urgency to issues that many are not aware of or choose not to engage with.
Since Donald Trump became the United States president in 2017, U2 has ramped up the political message of their live shows. Specifically, they have done so in a way that counteracts much of Trump’s ideology and the actions of his administration. Many of the policies that have come from Trump have been hurtful and directed towards the marginalized people of this country. By attacking women and people of color, Trump has made it clear that the America he envisions is one filled with white men who support him.
Before the show begins, the large screen that sits in the middle of the arena displays animated protest signs. The messages on the posters advocate for equal rights for women, refugees, those stricken by poverty, and other groups that have been affected by the increase of nationalism and white supremacy elevated by Trump. The signs have sayings on them like “#NeverForget,” “Freedom Justice Equality,” and “Refugees Welcome” displayed over imagery that promotes the idea of people of different background coming together.
Throughout the show, U2 continues to remain on message whenever they tie in politics into their songs and performances. The current tour, iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, featured the first live performance of “Acrobat” from their 1991 album Achtung Baby. Leading into that song, Bono uses an iPad and face recognition software to (awkwardly and with glitches) manifest the façade of Mr. MacPhisto over his own face and delves into a monologue about his devilish work he has done in recent years while existing away from the public eye since his glory days of Zoo TV in the early 1990s. From Russian collusion to paying off porn stars to the riots in Charlottesville, Mr. MacPhisto declares he does his best work when you believe he doesn’t exist.
As the set continues, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton head to a different part of the stage while Bono and the Edge remain to perform an acoustic version of “Staring at the Sun from their 1997 album Pop. This is fourth tour I’ve been too, but this was the very first time I heard a song from U2’s black sheep album in its entirety. The screen goes blank while Bono and the Edge perform the song on the b-stage standing over a sun that appears on the screen of the stage’s floor.
It seems like such a somber and quiet affair with the audience focused on the two performers with no distractions coming from the screen. However, as Bono sings about not being the only going blind as he stares at the song, the sun they are standing becomes eclipsed. As this unknown black mass obscures the sun, the large screen shows b-roll footage of white supremacists rioting at Charlottesville.
Admittedly, I was confused by what was happening and a little concerned. The band has show violent b-roll at shows before, but always scored to heavy and brash sounds that conveys much anger. Watching Richard Spencer and his followers carrying tiki torches and brandishing signs with hateful messages was troubling. This event happened less than a year ago and resulted in the death of an activist named Heather Heyer, a woman who died a hero but whose death has become a point of pride for the Alt-Right movement.
After hearing Bono repeatedly belting out about going blind, I started to see the point he was making. “Staring at the Sun” fades away and Larry begins a rhythmic pounding on his drums. The hateful men from Charlottesville continue to walk across the giant screen. This all seems like it is going on far too long. Then, the band launches into their Martin Luther King, Jr. anthem “Pride (In the Name of Love)” while the footage of Charlottesville disappears in a sudden cut to be replaced by footage of black women marching through Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement and the audience is awash with a cool, calming blue light. This was welcomed relief after watching the footage of the hateful white men.
As awkward as that sequence was, I understood the message. It was harsh and disturbing, but these are disturbing times. This was the band’s way of wearing their feelings on their sleeves. We see the show opening with progressively liberal protest signs then show us what blind hatred looked like, so what was next?
The band plays through two songs from their recent album Songs of Experience. Back to back, Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” are declarations and pleas for America to return to its former glory of being a beacon of hope and prosperity for those who need it the most. Now whether America really lived up to that standard is a point of valid criticism, but the country isn’t doing itself any favors by emboldening those who seek to actively destroy those ideals in the name of nationalism under the guise of patriotism.
The band then leaves the stage to take a break before the encore. During this time, a video plays on the main screen. A woman walks into view (the Edge’s daughter) and stands still while various inspirational messages are scrawled around her. Sayings like “Poverty Is Sexist” and None of Us Are Equal Until All of Us Are Equal” come into view and are applauded by the audience. This is the messaging of the show coming in full circle.
During this video, the song “Prelude to 110 or 220/Women of the World” by Jim O’Rourke is playing. Released in 1999 on his studio album Eureka, this song is a rendition of “Women of the World;” a 1983 folk song first recorded by Ivor Cutler and Linda Hirst. The song consists of a single line repeated throughout and accompanied by folk guitar. “Women of the world take over, ‘cos if you don’t the world will come to an end, and it won’t take long.”
O’Rourke is a musician and producer best known for his with Sonic Youth and Wilco. His version included in U2’s presentation is a remixed version keeping O’Rourke’s vocals and arrangement, but with added backing vocals and instrumentation with contributions from submissions by fans and singer Madison Ryann Ward.
It is a rather pleasant song with a great message behind it. Even on its own, the presentation was powerful. However, it served as a great bookend to the show’s political message and a great segue into “One” which is not only one of the band’s most popular songs but also an anthem of sorts (that require some liberal interpretations of the song’s original meaning).
U2 are not holding any punches when it comes to increasing the visibility of women in their show. I had seen this when they toured in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. On that tour, they featured a video collage of famous women during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” a short film featuring a Syrian refugee girl named Omaima, and many declarations that we turn “history” into “HERstory” during a performance of “Mysterious Ways.”
The band is certainly not blind to what is happening the world. Dangerous men are disrupting democratic elections, tearing immigrant families apart at the border, and making it national policy to reduce the rights of women domestically. None of this should have been new to the people who attend a U2 concert. You see these things all over the news on a daily basis. However, for some, going to a concert means getting a break from the heartache the media depicts. And while certainly won’t criticize someone who taking a mental break from these things, I cannot let them turn a blind eye and close their minds. If art is a reflection of life, we need everyone looking and paying attention and we need our artists to take a stand and help guide us.