When U2 hit the stage as the final act of the iHeartRadio Music Festival on Friday night, they kicked right into the 1988 Rattle and Hum single “Desire” — perfectly fitting the show’s Las Vegas venue with its themes of bright lights and big money. And sure enough, Sin City imagery like showgirls, slot machines and poker tables flashed above the legendary Irish rockers to drive the point home.
But as the song continued, and its lyrical message became clearer, another theme emerged: the American presidential election and rocky cultural climate — a theme also addressed by fellow iHeartRadio Fest performer Drake earlier in the evening.
“She’s the dollars, she’s my protection/ Yeah, she’s the promise in the year of election,” Bono sang, as the imagery suddenly shifted to a massive American flag. Then Donald Trump appeared onscreen timed with the lyrics “Like a preacher stealin’ hearts at a travellin’ show/ For love or money, money, money, money, money, money…” as fake dollars rained over the T-Mobile Arena crowd and Bono repeated the M-word seemingly 100 times.
We then got to hear from Trump himself: “The American Dream is dead,” he asserted from the jumbotron, with Bono countering, “Are you ready to gamble the American Dream?” Then there was Trump’s appeal to a predominantly black crowd in Michigan last month: “What do you have to lose?” That sound bite repeated throughout the song’s finale before Bono shouted, “‘What do you have to lose’? Everything!” to roaring applause and video of a fiery explosion taking over the big screens.
After an audio-visual barrage, a single image remained on the screen as the set’s first song — yes, we’re still only on U2’s first song here — came to a close: the Rock the Vote logo and the message “Democrat or Republican, use your right.”
— Katie Atkinson (@ktatkinson) September 24, 2016
It’s no surprise to see U2 getting political. The band — which celebrates 40 years together next month — has always been known for its activism and politically charged lyrics, and just this week, Bono sat down with Charlie Rose to talk about Trump trying to “hijack the idea of America.” But it was pretty spectacular to see U2’s decades-long catalog speaking directly to the issues facing the U.S. today in the eight-song set.
In the middle of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” written about the life and assassination of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr., Bono asked the crowd to sing the song’s “oh-oh-ohs” loud for the people of Charlotte, North Carolina, where Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police last week. “Sing for Tulsa too,” he implored, referencing the death of Terence Crutcher, another unarmed black man killed by police this month. “More than ever, we need the spirit of Dr. King. More than ever, we need the spirit of nonviolence. Not just across this land, but across the world,” Bono said as the “oh-oh-ohs” rang out across the arena. “We remember that peace is not just the absence of violence. Peace is love organized. So get out and vote, whoever you’re voting for.”
Bono kept the message going into the next song, echoing the ideas from his Rose interview about America being “not just a country, but an idea” over the opening strains of “One.” “The best idea the world has ever had — America! So if you can’t by conscience vote for Donald Trump and you’re a Republican, well, vote in your local elections. Vote for someone that holds sacred the idea that a man or a woman is not defined by his or her ethnicity or religion.” The singer then thanked the crowd for letting him take advantage of his First Amendment rights: “Thank you for listening to some Irish guys who may be stretching your tolerance of freedom of speech.”
U2 wasn’t the only act to use iHeartRadio’s platform — both inside the vast T-Mobile Arena and across the show’s many live streams — to get serious. Drake hit the stage before the band and took a moment to address a tense cultural climate, while also taking a page from Bono’s playbook and imploring that all we need is love.
“It’s some crazy times going on that we’re living through,” Drizzy said. “And it just gives me peace of mind to see 15, 16,000 people from all races and all places just getting together to enjoy music and showing love to each other. I just want to encourage you to apply this concept to your life when you walk out these doors, because that’s how we’re going to protect the world, that’s how we’re going to protect each other and keep this thing spinning.
“You got to show love.”