Yesterday afternoon, U2 announced their second big surprise of 2014: In honor of World AIDS Day, they would be playing a free show in Times Square that very night, Bono-less, with Bruce Springsteen and Chris Martin filling in for the injured front man, along with performances from special guests Carrie Underwood and Kanye West. I canceled my plans instantly. When a few concerned friends asked me why — it was supposed to rain, they said, and anyway, the whole thing was going to be broadcast live on YouTube — my go-to joke was, “Maybe Kanye will demand to do a U2 song, too!” But this was not entirely a joke. The reason you go to something at which Kanye West is scheduled to appear is that you have no way of actually knowing what the fuck Kanye West is going to do, and because you sometimes get cynical about following a supposedly impolite and revolutionary art form in which there are fewer and fewer artists about whom you can honestly, genuinely say that. Would Kanye debut new material? Would he do some sort of rapturously Auto-Tuned cover of “One”? Would he be the sole artist brave enough to acknowledge, at this well-meaning but sort of whitewashed charity event raising money for a disease that disproportionately affects the black community, the Michael Brown protests that had been happening earlier that day down the street? There was no way of actually knowing the answer to any of these questions, which is why a little before 6 p.m. I grabbed my umbrella and put on my boots and prepared to stand in cold rain for a couple of hours.
I arrived awkwardly early to that section of the city once known as Times Square, which I now like to refer to as “Flavortown.” Under the shelter of strangers’ umbrellas, I killed time by eavesdropping on conversations and attempting to read the text messages people were sending around me. I tuned into an adjacent conversation just as a guy was saying to a female companion, “I wonder what Terence Trent D’Arby is up to these days.” The show was supposed to start promptly at 7:30, and it was still somehow only 7:12, which means I was bored enough for this to become an existential question I lingered on for a good five minutes. What is Terence Trent D’Arby up to these days?
Then, at 7:30 on the dot, the umbrellas kindly disappeared, hoods went up, and a woman from Bank of America took the stage. Because she had a cropped blonde haircut and an assertively hued, expensive-looking peacoat, some smartass in the front row screamed, “HILLARY CLINTON,” which became delightfully awkward only seconds later, when the woman welcomed the night’s secret guest-speaker, Bill Clinton.
Bubba introduced us to night’s first iteration of what the guys were cheekily calling “U2 Minus 1,” though in retrospect, the Chris Martin–fronted performance felt more like the opening act for Bruce2. The Coldplay front man sang “Beautiful Day,” which makes all kinds of cosmic sense — this is basically already a Coldplay song. Although Martin sang it ably and at times even borderline passionately, the whole thing had the unmistakable whiff of karaoke, playing it so studiously close to Bono’s rendition that it left little room for Martin’s own personality. Not that this is surprising; you don’t really take Chris Martin to be the kind of artist who’s going to kill his idols so much as invite them over for tea. But some kind of risk or two would have been appreciated, especially when he moved onto “With or Without You,” a song he failed to fully emotionally inhabit. It didn’t come anywhere close to the gut-punch of the original, and anyway, the Edge’s backing vocals were doing most of the heavy lifting during the famously wrenching “WHOA-OH-OH-OHHH” bridge. All in all, Martin’s ten minutes fronting U2 were neither disastrous nor particularly memorable.
Kanye’s set, though, I’ll remember. After Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. introduced him as “the most groundbreaking artist in music today,” he strode out, grim-faced, and jolted the place awake with a truncated but exhilarating performance of “Power.” I have seen Kanye onstage a couple of times now, and every single time, my response is involuntary and visceral: My heart starts to beat a little faster and I have trouble standing completely still, and I am overwhelmed by this very rare feeling that I am genuinely excited to be alive and sort of young while this person is hitting an uncompromising creative peak with the entire world watching him. One pivotal factor here is that Kanye knows how high the stakes are, and he brings an almost menacing awareness of that to every performance. Last night, as he hurtled through a career-spanning medley of songs like “Jesus Walks,” “Stronger,” and “Black Skinhead,” he expressed dissatisfaction mid-performance at how the thing was flowing. “That song was supposed to cut,” he said to someone onstage after “Stronger.” “Next song, it’s supposed to cut, we on TV.” I know there are people out there who will hold this kind of supposed “diva behavior” against him, who will cite this as a reason why the performance was a failure. I will never understand those people. West’s meta-dissatisfaction with the sound gave the performance an urgency and even a candidness that heightened the whole experience — it fueled him to go that much harder, careening and stumbling around the stage as he performed “Black Skinhead” to a mostly white audience. When Kanye goes off-script — when he says things like “We on TV” on TV — it’s in the service of peeling back the layers of artifice that artists more content with the whole celebrity machine are content not to acknowledge. And as a viewer hungry for something, anything, I always appreciate it. It’s his Truman Show boat hitting the wall. It all might be a little messy, sure, but isn’t music supposed to be?
Here is another complicated truth about rock ’n’ roll, or maybe just life: Sometimes there is a silver lining of serendipity to a gruesome injury. Legend has it that if Brian Eno had not spent a couple months of 1975 bedridden in a hospital recovering from a car crash, he might never have dreamed up ambient music; now we can say that the unexpected upside of Bono’s nasty bike accident in Central Park a few weeks ago is that we got to hear what it would sound like if Bruce Springsteen fronted U2. The answer: like church.
He came out growling, laboring muscularly over every word of “Where the Streets Have No Name” like he was chiseling it into stone. It had the feeling of a sermon; there was a strange power in the way the coarseness of his voice was backlit by the Edge’s glimmering guitar. No, it was not the most faithfully melodic version (I would barely call the performance “melodic” at all), but thank God. It was one of those renditions that makes you think a little differently about a very familiar song — cracks it open and forces you to reinspect what’s actually inside. I have never really given much thought to the lyric “I wanna feel sunlight on my face” until hearing the Boss’s utterly menacing line reading, demanding it like a human right. Though a little more exuberant, his take on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was more of the same: rough, impassioned, half-crazy, never quite choosing the safety of the obvious. Messy as a compliment. Lasting just two songs, this was perhaps the shortest set Bruce Springsteen has played or will ever play in his life, but he brought a controlled, hyperfocused intensity to the proceedings. Watching him, I felt that same trembling, possessed feeling I experienced during Kanye’s set — and I realized for the first time the similarities between all the other times I’ve seen Kanye and Bruce live, respectively. There’s bravery in their bravado. I left feeling that I’d been in the presence of genius not once but twice that night — not bad for a show that lasted under an hour.
“That was all great,” an older white man loudly declared as the crowd milled out, “But I didn’t care for Kanye at all. That was rough.” Everyone is entitled to his opinion (and sometimes in our society, everyone is even entitled her opinion!), but something about this man’s tone made me bristle so much that I still heard it ringing in my head the whole way home. It wasn’t what he said so much as the way he said it to his companion, who was also white. That conspiratorial tone of, “I’m so certain you agree with me that I won’t even bother asking if you agree with me.” The bravest artists are the ones who spit in the face of this kind of certainty. The ones who rattle assumptions and turn periods into question marks. The ones who give you a soundtrack to those rushing, swelling feelings that you can’t quite describe. While I was on my way to Times Square, animated by a curiosity about what this weird night would even entail, my headphone soundtrack was Born to Run. On the ride home, electrified and brooding, I listened to Yeezus.