Why is this band–still popular after all these years–still this popular? Other artists have attributed near mythic status—Springsteen, Radiohead—but even they have found themselves ancillary to pop-culture instead of smack in the middle of it. How does U2, by comparison, continue to garner so much attention, considering that the metrics for attention have changed so drastically since they began? Certainly the term “hits” had a different definition when U2 was, in their heyday, churning hits out right and left.
After watching their Oscar performance of “Ordinary Love”, I think I have the answer, and it relates to a point I made in an earlier column (coincidentally, the only one to garner more hits than U2’s): Despite their monolithic, impenetrable status, U2 manages to project an air of humanity—of human vulnerability—that sounds clear over the noise, and this humanity continues to sell records.
This humanity was very well represented in their performance last night: the four members took the stage in a line, each musician holding a single instrument (no guitar pedals, no stacks of amps, only the barest bones of percussion). The vocals were presented relatively dry for Bono (some arena-style delay pushed back into the mix, the ballroom itself providing the reverb), and the result? A living, breathing performance, minimalistic yet powerful, all the necessary frequencies represented (unscientific translation: no lack of energy even though there was a lack of bass-drum), the vocals alternately lifting high and straining under the weight of soaring. No prerecorded tracks or loops, no ghost vocal in case Bono’s chords wavered; indeed, if Bono’s voice wavered, he did what good singers tend to do: he used it to his advantage, instead of blending into a crowd of pre-existing backups.
Compare that to the other spectacles of the evening, and you’ll begin to see why it matters: Pharrell was frenetic, but his humanity wasn’t on display—neither were real instruments; instead, we got backing tracks providing the bed for Pharrell to frolic with movie stars. Bette Midler was poignant, but hers too was an American Bandstand of a performance.
Pink delivered the goods, singing a relatively straight-up rendition of “Over The Rainbow” (opening verse and all), but pull back a bit and you can see it for the treacle it was: all sepia backdrops and syrupy strings and modern vocal flourishes, her vocal prowess obfuscated the rendition, which was essentially the indistinct, middle-of-the-road kind of fluff you might hear in a scented-candle store. To boot, the performance was in service to one of those unnecessary tributes the Oscars excel at year after year.
Karen O provided more intimacy than anything listed above–more than even U2–sitting in front of a moon and whispering her vocals with ASMR-inducing shivers. It was a relaxing moment, quiet and understated, but it wasn’t a spectacle.
U2, on the other hand, provided a spectacle—one that provoked a standing ovation—and did so by stripping down and laying themselves bare. Everyone always talks about Bono and the Edge, but here I’d like to focus on the drummer, the metronomic Larry Mullen Jr.
Standing in front of a snare drum and a tambourine, hitting them both with a bundle of separated sticks (called “hotrods”), Mullen propelled the energy at every stage, whether giving us faint ticks and scratches under the Edge’s acoustic guitar, or kicking the song into the chorus without even a kick drum: about ninety seconds in, he began to bang harder on the deeply tuned snare (though the snares were unlocked, turning the drum into a more resonant tom-tom), and that simple change, along with the Edge’s doubled vocal, yielded a palpable uptick of energy. The band truly did more with less.
If the four musicians standing in a line—one of them placed in front of a bucket-looking drum—conjured up similar images of Coldplay replicating “Viva La Vida” live a few years ago, you’re not alone. Yes, Coldplay did do the four-in-a-line, full-frontal presentation, in this case years before U2 (savor that—it’s a rare claim to make for Coldplay).
But I invite you to watch their version of the “stripped down performance” and compare it to U2’s last night.
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