Sellout Or Spirituality: U2’s Super Bowl Set, Ten Years Later

February 5, 2012

Ten years ago, I didn’t watch U2’s halftime set at the Super Bowl. I’ve had to watch it on YouTube in the intervening years to digest in simulation its seamless power and spiritual potency. What I did see at the time was Bono flashing his flag jacket on the cover of Time magazine, and I cringed, fearing that Bono had become a pawn in the war-fervor of the Bush and Blair years.

I tentatively agreed then with a critic who wrote, “If rock is symbolic of rebellion, Bono is blasphemous to its spirit.” Having loved All That You Can’t Leave Behind, having wrestled with my Super Bowl show feelings until the release of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in late 2004 (how many peace marches I went on after the start of the wars and how sad I was after the re-election of Bush), I can now look back at the Super Bowl set with a kind of dynamic distance and appreciative awe.

U2 at the Super Bowl in 2002 blended eulogy with euphoria: basking in a “Beautiful Day,” but mourning 9/11 loss with “MLK,” yet turning our eyes and hearts to a world without war or hate or even Super Bowls—a world where streets have no name. While the flamboyance of the flag jacket culture-jammed for weeks after the game, he only flashed it briefly, only at the end of the set. The names of 9/11 victims—streaming to the sky and across our screens—or even the heart-shaped stage softening the 50-yard line or even Edge’s butterfly-with-skull t-shirt:  these are as much the transcendent motifs from that day as the flag jacket.

Whenever I hear about the split with Julie Taymor over the Spiderman debacle, or Bono’s Facebook billions, or the band’s manager’s views on music-sharing and the internet in perhaps too simplistic or too corporate of terms—U2 can still make me cringe. But this Super Bowl performance from 2002, viewed in retrospect, may be one of their most-moving moments, shattering the boundaries between spirituality, community, and pop culture yet again. It really stirs my heart, flag fashion and all.  –Andrew William Smith, Editor