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2 August 2014 02:16 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

U2, Brute!

  • Jacques Rousseau
I did not enjoy U2’s performance in Cape Town. And I have every right to say so without being portrayed as a parasitic Philistine whose opinions are tantamount to high treason - and should be treated as such. In fact, I am saddened by South Africans’ apparent idolatry for anything doled out as “great”, and our equally venal abstinence from criticising the largesse bestowed upon us. Maybe criticism is the freedom we exercise the least and thus betray ourselves.

Following U2’s performance in Cape Town last weekend, I blogged a brief response in an attempt to articulate why the show was so disappointing. To be honest, I’d been somewhat ambivalent about attending, and when tickets were made available, it was partly the review on these pages that persuaded me to brave the masses and the madness. Styli Charalambous reported U2 had claimed to be the “best band in the world” at the Johannesburg leg a week before and, while that claim appeared implausible, it nevertheless seemed likely they would put on a good – maybe  even a great – evening’s entertainment.

So, this cynic and some like-minded friends braved the 70,000-ish crowd fully expecting the spectacle to be impressive enough to outweigh Bono’s predictable sermonising and his love of cliché (“Africa is the wealthiest country – your people have gold in them” being a recent example). And at times it was – the engineering feat that is “The Claw” was pretty impressive as was the lighting and video.

The logistic details of the evening were undoubtedly impressive in general, although aspects of the public transport system were apparently dysfunctional. Security, crowd control, bar facilities and the like were smooth and efficient, reinforcing the precedent set during the World Cup. Well done, Cape Town, whoever you may be. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of U2, who were distinctly underwhelming.

They were disappointing mostly because the sound was terrible – muddy, and with a fair amount of distortion. Vocals were often inaudible, and when combined with the wall-of-sound approach they went for, the tone was generally one of aural assault. Unless one was a die-hard fan, who knew all the songs in the repertoire, there were plenty of opportunities for boredom. One frenetic and noisy track with bombastic and unintelligible lyrics sounds pretty much like the next, and the previous one. Fortunately we timed things perfectly for missing the Springbok Nude Girls performance, which was most likely the same sort of thing, turned up to 11.

And then, of course, there was the cheese factor, and the sermonising. There were the predictable pictures of Mandela on the big screen and the predictable cheers when Bono encouraged the audience to swallow the implausible assertions that they were in some mythical heart of Africa. “Hello Rainbow Nation,” yelled Saint Bono, where curiously 99% of the audience was white.

“You have the Big Five,” he told us, before going on to introduce his “slightly smaller Four”, the members of the band, who had all been given animal names (Bono was a wildebeest, at least according to The Edge). But we don’t have the Big Five in South Africa, really, except where they might be trucked into some luxury game reserve. Not to mention that the concert in question is taking place in a city that is oft-criticised for being as un-African as a city on this continent can be.

I’ve expressed scepticism about the Africa-thing before, so these appeals to nationalistic sentiment were never likely to have much traction in my case. However, it’s clear enough that Bono thinks “Africa” means something special – or at least, he wants us to think he does. But his Africa-shtick is dependent on mythology, rather than on time and on place, so I doubt he’s given it much thought that Cape Town might be in a different universe to Accra, and various other spots that he name-checked during one of his attempts to pump up a section of the “Rainbow Nation”.

Besides complaints about the sound (and unconfirmed gossip has it that this problem was noted, and part of the reason for the very long delay before U2 took to the stage), the show itself was dull, and lacking in energy. The rote nature of the performance was clear, and as a friend observed, the band didn’t look that interested in what they were doing. But that’s fine – you pay your money and you take your chances. All performers have good and bad nights, and audiences can be fickle beasts. U2 owed us nothing beyond showing up and being vaguely professional.

But when I say that “the same cannot be said in respect of U2”, I mean not only that the concert didn’t deserve fulsome praise, but also, at least according to some, negative sentiments regarding the concert should not be contemplated, never mind expressed. Feedback to the blog post in question came quickly, and angrily, via Twitter, comments and email, with the majority sentiment being something to the order of, “How dare you not appreciate the blessings that were bestowed on you?”

And this is more disappointing than the concert was, in that what it points to is a deep-seated insecurity. It reveals a mindset whereby we should be grateful for whatever crumbs the gods may scatter at our feet, and where one is not allowed to voice criticism, lest these bounties be denied us in future. Bono has graced us with his wildebeesty presence, and may decline such favours in the future (hip replacements permitting, of course) if we don’t make our gratitude clear.

This is an unwarranted and unseemly provincialism. While I don’t think we’re entitled to expect Iggy Pop levels of commitment from touring bands, we are entitled to disappointment when a performance doesn’t meet our expectations, and we are also entitled to express such disappointment, just as audiences in other parts of the world are. And if a concert is promoted as a 360° experience, where it matters less where you sit in relation to the band, the last thing one expects is for the sound quality to be better in the cheaper seats rather than those close to the stage (at least according to Internet discussions).

Remember, we’re talking about a show that is said (by Wikipedia, admittedly) to cost more than R5 million a day, excluding stage construction. With that sort of spend, you’d think they would remember to devote significant resources to getting the sound engineering right.

The broad concern I’m addressing here is simply our reluctance to be critical, except where that criticism comes in the form of the shrill and antagonistic baiting commonplace in comments to online articles. Alternately, we often see a relativistic reluctance to be critical at all, where we weasel our way through life saying things like “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” without remembering that opinions help shape actions, and we should, therefore, care deeply about our opinions and those of others.

Of course, we can disagree with each others’ opinions and we should do so. But being able to do so starts with allowing yourself to hold opinions, even (and especially, in some cases) where they run against the grain of popular sentiment. And I get that most of the audience enjoyed the show, and don’t begrudge them that pleasure. But if you are one of those who didn’t (and there are quite a few, judging by search results), your criticisms don’t and shouldn’t have any bearing on the experiences of those that did enjoy the concert.

Our opinions should, however, be honest ones and should not be premised on a notion that we’re second-class, deserving of whatever we get. While the days of perma-tours by washed-up bands like Crowded House fortunately seem to be a thing of the past, there’s no sense in our sending a clear signal to Big Concerts and other promoters that we’re so desperate for visitations from our gods that the details no longer matter.

After all, consider the potential outcomes of such an uncritical disposition. Who knows what’s next – Roxette, perhaps? DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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