This author came to a rather shocking realization the other day while talking to his kids about September 11th, 2001. Sadly, my offspring and step-kids did not really know much about that day. Sure, they knew something bad had happened, and that lots of people died. They really did not know the details, though, like who carried out the attacks, where it all happened, and the other pertinent details. I, of course, explained it all to them and in the course of it, we somehow came to the topic of the first post-9/11 Super Bowl.
In February 2002, a stunned and still emotionally shattered nation tried to carry on as before, and get back to a sense of some kind of normalcy. What better way to do so than by tuning in to our yearly communal viewing of the Super Bowl? It remains one of the few cultural touchstones that the great majority of Americans can still rally around as one unified nation. Also, so soon after 9/11, it was especially important as a way for all of us to forget the horror of a few months prior, if even for just a few hours.
Not only were the New England Patriots taking part — fittingly — as a sort of stand-in for American patriotism in the days before they were repeat champions and football juggernauts. U2 was also scheduled to play the halftime show, and the band no doubt knew that they had a herculean task ahead of them as they looked to entertain millions, provide catharsis to a wounded nation, and pay homage to the world’s down-but-not-out benevolent hegemon.
What followed that night, in addition to the Patriots’ victory over the St. Louis Rams, was a nearly pitch-perfect performance by U2 that rallied and inspired millions, as Bono and the band not only sang us their songs, but led us by the hand toward a sublime plateau of patriotism, healing, and determination to overcome the defeat we had suffered just a handful of months previously.
U2 had already performed once in the wake of September 11th, as part of the 9/11 Tribute Concert. In that rousing rendition of “Walk On,” Bono and company gave us the prelude to their Super Bowl performance, lifting us up with a song about carrying on in the face of tragedy, and wrapped up at its conclusion with a round of “hallelujahs” that provided a fitting moment of poignant relief.
The band had released their now-classic album All that You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, on which is also found “Walk On,” so that when they kicked off the halftime show with the album’s opening song “Beautiful Day,” the crowd knew the song well and responded instantly to its upbeat and uplifting message. It was as if Bono was kicking off the halftime show by proclaiming to all of us that the worst was over and it was time to pick ourselves up, America.
U2 segued from “Beautiful Day” into the brief but powerful song “MLK” from their album The Unforgettable Fire. As they played the slow and solemn number, a large screen behind the band began scrolling the names of all of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. Name after name scrolled under the headings “FDNY,” “NYPD,” “American Airlines Flight 11,” “United Airlines Flight 175,” and the rest.
The crowd came to a hush as the names began to scroll and the band signaled to all of us that we were going to mourn together, but joyfully and defiantly. When the Edge’s guitar began to ring out with the opening tones of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” flowing directly from “MLK,” the crowd began to well up in anticipation, and it was as if all of us realized that the band was going to lift us up in our sadness and embrace us as we grieved.
As the song kicked off, Bono shouted out “America” and then wailed his way into the body of the song, before kicking into the first verse — “I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.” We all understood in that moment that they were going to metaphorically carry us with their music, and walk us through the Valley of Death in which we seemed stuck aimlessly wandering in the months after 9/11.
The song kicked in from the intro into the first verse and instantly the crowd in the stadium erupted around the stage, so markedly different from the usual atmosphere of seemingly paid spectators brought in to clap dutifully at the halftime performers. These spectators were enraptured and desperate for anything to take them from the fog of grief into an aching and joyful uplift.
It is a wonder of the moment to observe the faces of the band as they realized what they had gotten themselves into, not only with the crowd, but the country as a whole. The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton seemed almost mystified as they focused on playing their instruments, and doing their part to create a miraculous moment in time.
Bono, on the other hand, carried the weight of the performance on his shoulders, knowing that he had to lead us all to a place of recovery and healing. You could see it in his eyes as he put everything he had into the performance, determined to leave it all on the stage as he played lead grief counselor to millions.
Meanwhile, the names continued to scroll by, seemingly unending, reminding everyone during the poignant show of just how much we lost on that day. An American flag was held aloft in the crowd near the stage, rolling over the heads of those keeping it held up. Bono changed the lyrics of the song in a few spots, at one point singing “I’ll show you a place, where there’s no sorrow or pain, where the streets have no name,” all but admitting that he was desperate to give us some kind of comfort in our despair.
As the song crescendoed to its end, the screen full of names fell away and Bono sang “love, love, love” twice over. He then sang the chorus one last time and solidified his place as one of music’s all time great performers, and the embodiment of art as empathy and shared emotional experience, by opening his jacket to reveal the American flag sown inside.
As Bono held open the one side of his jacket revealing the flag, the song came to a close and you could see that he was close to tears himself, having given himself over completely to the moment. He was not merely singing to us. He was not simply performing. He was singing with us, leading us in catharsis, and willing us through sheer force of music to feel better.
It is perhaps the greatest testament to the emotional power of music ever caught on film. I watched it live while deployed overseas to Europe, at four o’clock in the morning and thousands of miles away, it brought tears to my eyes, and still does today when I re-watch it. It was a moment of unity and grace and a demonstration of strength through shared grief. I doubt we will ever see a more powerful musical tribute again, and I surely hope we will not have an occasion similar to 9/11 requiring us to do so.
(Featured image, U2 in 2017, courtesy of Wikipedia.)