Watching videos of Bruce Springsteen in action the other day made me ponder the phenomenon of stadium rock. Props to Bruce and all, but nobody personifies the idea of a stadium band more than U2. Stadium rock is nothing more than music performed in a football stadium or other sports arena. It’s not exactly a genre; hypothetically, anybody could play stadium shows provided they have enough fans. But really, it’s a very specific kind of band that does well in stadiums. It takes a big sound, a big image and a bigger ego. The transposition of the musical concert from the intimacy of the theatre stage to the expanse of the football field is relatively recent, and it’s very much a rock and roll phenomenon. It’s not necessarily about booking the largest possible amount of space; Carnegie Hall is pretty dang big. It’s the idea that the energy of a rock concert is so explosive and primal it cannot be contained within anything as refined as a theatre, it has to happen in a space usually reserved for displays of ritualized violence.
When The Beatles pioneered playing in stadiums in the 60’s it was because the energy of their audiences was, literally, too explosive and primal to be contained. The Beatles hated playing stadium size shows and felt that their performance suffered. They were a club band and thrived on intimacy. Other bands who came up in small clubs were more happy to embrace stadiums. The Rolling Stones, most notably, evolved from an intimate club band into a stadium band, and have adjusted their sound and image accordingly. Throughout the 70’s more and more bands made that adjustment, until nearly everyone with any degree of a following was playing sports arenas.
A football stadium is not a venue for nuance. It calls for broad gestures, and playing to the cheap seats. In a stadium, the performance has to be calibrated so that it can be enjoyed by people seated so far away they can barely see the band, and the musicians have to adjust to the fact that no matter how well they play or how great their equipment is, the acoustics will be lousy. Not everyone can make that adjustment. Not everyone had to, though.
Because in the 80’s there came a new generation of musicians, who grew up with stadium shows. Bands like U2 here, who just came out of the gate ready to play stadiums. Watch that performance there below. It’s a song from their debut album, released in 1980. These guys may have started their career playing in clubs, but they were already writing for stadiums. They didn’t have to recalibrate anything, their music and image were designed to be huge in every way. From their anthemic choruses, to their aggressive guitar sound, to their slogan-ready political ideas, to their big dumb hair, everything about U2 is made to be seen from the nosebleed seats of the Superdome. They’re like some fantastical super-predator, genetically engineered to outrun, out-sing and out-sell the competition. Except that, after flourishing in the verdant jungles of the 80’s and 90’s, they and their kind are becoming endangered. The stadium phenomenon has been fading in the last decade; with ticket prices becoming extortionate, fewer fans are willing to drop several hundred dollars for a not-optimal concert experience, and not that many rock bands actually have enough fans to fill a stadium anymore. U2, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones will go on playing stadiums until they all drop dead, because it’s the only thing they know how to do anymore. But nobody is making music with the aim of playing to a crowd of 20,000 anymore.