A few weeks ago, Teju Cole wrote in the New York Times Magazine about two early 20th century photographers. The first was Edward S. Curtis, who shot Native Americans in their tribal clothes and posed them stiffly, looking at the camera with immobile nobility. The other photographer was Horace Poolaw, a member of the Kiowa tribe who took candid shots of people enjoying everyday life, such as his sister, in a dress typical for 1928, holding her dog and smiling a bit. The article raises some brilliant questions about how the outsider perceives and seeks to present the “other”, and how insiders portray the same idea.
I thought about Cole’s article as I watched last night’s U2 concert in New Jersey. Before the show, the screen showed a loop of poetry about immigrants, including “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri (one gem of a couplet: the workers save “for broken english lessons/to impress the mister goldsteins”), and the audience had plenty of time to read them over and again, since the band didn’t come on stage until 9:30.
For much of the show, the band projected an earnest slideshow of Native Americans and other immigrants onto the screen. Those pictured were unsmiling, trudging down roads and living in shacks. This is U2’s version of what the immigrant experience looks like in America, and it’s all pretty bleak. But the message was muddled and totally unclear.
The album’s greatest songs—“Running to Stand Still” and “Red Hill Mining Town”—are about, respectively, heroin abuse and the death of a mining town. America is experiencing an explosive surge in opioid deaths, and the death of the steel and car industry has decimated cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit. It’s hard to understand how the relentless stream of grim portraits of immigrants connected to the songs themselves.
Perhaps the band meant to connect their “1987” album to current events—there were several references to the proposed border wall, with a frankly silly mash-up of old movies, a la HBO’s show “Dream On,” mocking the current President. How does any of this warmed-over political mishmash relate to the album?
Well, it just doesn’t. And it was an unwelcome distraction from a terrific idea: simply play the songs from a perfect album, in order, so fans old and new could revel in a sublime experience. Bands love to talk politics, and U2 always has. But their message was hopelessly muddled. Why would there be an anorexic-looking woman in a bikini dancing to a nicely upbeat version of “Trip Through Your Wires”? Several songs featured lovely desert landscapes—certainly more relevant and related to the album than a hodgepodge of needlepointed platitudes.
The U2 show opened with a small selection of U2’s greatest hits, from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “Pride.” Fair enough. Finally, they got to the heart of the matter, and so much of it was just great. They played the rarely performed “Red Hill Mining Town” and combined it with a symphonic explosion of horns, truly a dazzling display. But “With or Without You” was a hot mess of feedback and poorly-executed lyrics; Bono sounded tired more than once. They were tired, and at times it was like listening to a really good U2 cover band. There were no superlative moments, but it was often pure bliss to sing along to such beloved songs under the open sky, watching planes moving to and from Newark.
The Lumineers opened the show, and they looked amazing and sounded brilliant. They played their biggest hit, “Ho Hey,” right near the beginning, which was clever and a gentle reminder that they have a lot of terrific songs. The band (from Ramsey, NJ, woohoo) is led by Wesley Schultz, who has a great stage presence. They played with clarity and style. It’s likely they’ll be opening MetLife themselves in a few years.
The show closed with a short message from a Syrian girl, and that’s when fans started to leave. Fans have listened to and loved this album for 30 years. We just wanted to hear the album. We got a lecture, and now I’ve written one myself.