ROCK / Missing link: Irony? What irony? Giles Smith reviews U2 who were more bombastic than ever at Wembley Stadium

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THE posturing, the self-aggrandising gestures, the parading of conscience . . . everything that is dubious about rock music rears up in the current U2 show - offered ironically, we are told, but the question is: how can we be sure?

Zooropa '93 is essentially last year's indoor show with bigger knobs on and incorporating a raft of songs from the newly-released Zooropa album. During the encores, Bono phones the famous from on-stage. Wednesday's call was to Salman Rushdie. 'I am much closer to you than you can ever imagine,' he said, before stepping out of the shadows, free to stand before 72,000 people in a born-to-it rock'n'roll embrace with U2's singer, but not free to walk the streets. Here at least was a recognisable irony.

The show has been vaunted as a giant leap forward for stadium rock though, in truth, the point it jumps off from could hardly be more hackneyed. Zooropa's hoary old theme is media saturation: how can you decode information when there's so much of it coming at you the whole time? This - though not something most people have too much trouble with - is the age-old predicament of confused rock stars on tour, isolated in anonymous hotel rooms, blankly prodding the television's remote control and wondering what it all means. Rock music has been serving us this 'dilemma', warmed over, since the 1970s and what fibre it ever had was cooked out of it long ago. Now U2 put the gas under it again, in the spirit, (we are assured by the band in interviews) of satire, though where in this barrage of light and noise the point of ironic retraction comes, it is impossible to tell.

Essentially - for all the staggering statistics, the amazing cable mileage, the shocking wattage - there is nothing fresh about the set design, either. Its central aspect - banks of gibbering television screens - you might have seen installed in art galleries in the early 1980s. Here, the use to which these screens are put is frequently blinding, literally brilliant, but it could only appear new if you'd spent the last decade with your head in a bucket.

And busy though those screens are with football and slogans and pictures of Charles and Di and Martin Luther King, it would be pushing it to say that Zooropa '93 was about television, that it actually has or offers ideas. It's a bundle of flat reactions, unweighed, pushed out as if to say, 'This is all very confusing: can you make anything of it?'

Fans of the band say this is precisely the point, employ the term 'post-modern' a lot, and praise U2 for having the courage to lack conviction. Those who are more skeptical about the band's ability to wield intellectual designs and their need to do so suggest that Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam wouldn't recognise a post-modernist if he perched ironically on their faces. Either way, uncertainty and hesitancy are directly at odds with the straightforward bombast of U2's music (rendered unusually lumpen in a tired performance here). And there remains a hangover from the band's days as the politically correct conscience of rock. These two strands were never going to be easy to intertwine and the place where it all went horribly wrong was in the satellite link-up with Bosnia.

The band had just finished a version of 'Satellite of Love', with the ghostly image of Lou Reed fading in and out on the screens. There was the pop and crackle of wires coming together, and four figures appeared on the screen, live from Sarajevo. 'You really don't know what has happened here because you have not done anything for us,' said one. 'We don't know what the fuck is going on,' said Bono. 'We feel ridiculous tonight being in a rock'n'roll band.'

In which case, the show should have ended there and then. Now that really would have been something - 72,000 people sent home early to ponder Bosnia. But no, the show went on. Not since David Bowie dropped to his knees and intoned the Lord's prayer during the Freddie Mercury Tribute, has Wembley seen anything so self-righteous. Irony? This was pure gesture - first grade, 24-carat, rock'n'roll bullshit.

(Photograph omitted)