U2, provincialism and our reluctance to criticise

An edited version of this column in The Daily Maverick

Following the Cape Town performance by U2 last weekend, I blogged a brief response (some content is duplicated here) in an attempt to articulate why the show was so disappointing. To be honest, I’d always 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 that, at the Johannesburg leg a week before, U2 laid claim to being the “best band in the world”, and while that claim always appeared to be implausible, it nevertheless seemed likely that they would put on a good – or even great – evening’s entertainment.

So, this cynic and some like-minded friends braved the 70 000 (ish) strong crowd, fully expecting the spectacle to be impressive enough in execution 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.

Undoubtedly impressive were the logistic details of the evening 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 in respect 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 seem to have gone 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, it seems that 99% of the audience is white.

“You have the big 5?, he told us, before going on to introduce his “slightly smaller 4?, namely the members of the band, now all given animal names (Bono was a wildebees, at least according to The Edge). But we don’t have the big 5 in South AfricaCape Town, 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. [edit: I made the embarrassingly false claim that we don’t have a big 5 in SA].

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, that he wants us to think he does. But his Africa-shtick is dependent on mythology, rather than on time on place, so I doubt that 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 this 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 (or rather, audience-members) can be fickle beasts. U2 owed us nothing beyond showing up, and being vaguely professional.

But when I say, above, that “the same cannot be said in respect of U2”, I mean not only that the concert didn’t deserve fulsome praise, but also that – 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 that choice, of course) if we don’t make our gratitude clear.

This is a provincialism that is unwarranted and unseemly. 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 these disappointments, just as audiences in other parts of the world are. And if a concert is promoted as a 360-degree experience, where it matters less where you sit in relation to the band, the last thing one expects is for (at least according to Internet forum discussions) the sound quality to be better in the cheaper seats, rather than those close to the stage.

Remember, we’re talking about a show that is said (by Wikipedia, admittedly) to cost over R 5 000 000 per day, excluding the 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 that is commonplace in comments to online articles. Alternately, what we often see is 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 that 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 in a notion that we’re second-class, and deserve whatever we get. While the days of perma-tours by washed-up bands like Crowded House seem to fortunately 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?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.