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U2 at the Oscars: Where's the Magic?

By Michael Molenda | March 4, 2014

For me, a transcendent musical performance is all about the artist casting a spell. You are transfixed by a voice or voices, the sounds, the lyrics, the mood. You almost can't move because something special and wonderful and unique is taking control of your senses.
 
I always felt that the uncanny ability to cast almost constant sonic spells -- such as what is described above -- was one of the main strengths of U2. Bono's evocative voice. Edge's guitar orchestras. The simple yet hypnotic grooves. The cinematic lyrics. The sense of overblown majesty. Everything adding up to pure magic.
 
So when an industry friend posted on Facebook that, based on seeing U2's 2014 Oscar performance, he just didn't "get" the band's appeal, I was baffled.
 
Until I saw a replay of the group's rendition of "Ordinary Love."
 
It was, well, ordinary.
 
Stripped down to acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, snare drum, Bono's lead vocal, and Edge's background vocal, the song seemed so bare and anti-dramatic. We were cheated of the wonderful strangeness that typifies the Edge's command of guitar textures, yet those rich and cinematic tonal colors were not replaced by, say, a tremendously stark and intimate and tender reading that equaled or surpassed the power of the more produced version.
 
This is not to say that musicians require electronics and technology to sound big and mysterious and awesome. That's silly. Tons of artists can reduce fans to tears with impassioned, yet minimalistic arrangements. It's simply that on this night, with this limited instrumentation, U2 failed to exploit its usually abundant specialness -- at least, for me.
 
But this "failure" of transcendence was a good lesson, actually. It reminded me that even talented musicians who have written a brilliant song can be abandoned by magic, and for perhaps no good reason. I also realized that "magic" isn't guaranteed to those who possess a high level of musical talent and a stunning musical work. Them's the bones -- awesome as they might be. But the spell might not enthrall, seduce, and/or thrill if the artist can't throw himself or herself passionately into each and every note of the performance. And, of course, you must be aware of what musical or tonal elements actually lift the song and its performance out of the drab world of the ordinary.
 
Well, that's my take, but what did YOU think of U2's Academy Awards performance?
 
Please share your thoughts with me at mmolenda@musicplayer.com
 

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