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Opinion: The Sphere raises an important question

Opinion by Holly Thomas

(CNN) — Fleetwood Mac in concert is one of the best things I’ve seen in real life. I was in my twenties, and I’d crossed every square of the Mac bingo card: I was recently dumped, in a complicated new situationship and attending on the same night as my ex (naturally we were both fans). When the lights dimmed and Christine McVie took the mic for “Songbird,” I was sobbing before the chorus. It remains one of the most memorable evenings of my youth, the perfect confluence of nostalgia, love, heartbreak and music.

Fast forward a decade, to September 2023. U2 has taken up residence in Las Vegas’ newly unveiled crown jewel, the Sphere. The $2.3 billion venue is a pet project of James Dolan, the polarizing businessman whose empire also includes Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. It boasts around 18,000 seats and 160,000 speakers, and the pièce de résistance is a gigantic wraparound LED screen that encompasses the entire exterior, walls and ceiling. Its 268,435,456 pixels can transform the arena into a desertscape, outer space, anything that the imagination and visual technology can conjure, in 256 million dazzling colors. Its scale and ambition are extraordinary, unlike anything yet seen in live entertainment (though plans are already underway for a replica in east London). Early reviews are glittering. I hated it.

This surprised me. I’m all for audacious displays of creativity, particularly in the name of showing people a good time. I’m also acutely aware that I have far less right to cast judgment than those who’ve put their wallets where their mouths are and bought tickets to see it first-hand. But every time I see a photo or worse, video of the Sphere and its 360-degree assault on the senses something inside me objects with instinctive certainty. I can’t help but suspect that all those screens, so enchanting one critic said it was “impossible to take your eyes off them” might drown out something valuable.

I realize I sound like a curmudgeon. I should stress that I don’t think one has to be weeping at a guitarist on a bare stage to have a meaningful concert experience. I may be partial to the occasional bit of 1970s folk rock, but I’ll fight to the death to defend the right of Ariana Grande to cram her shows with backing dancers. What bothers me about the idea of the Sphere is its encapsulation of a hyper-stimulated world in which the performers and their music alone can no longer be trusted to sate an audience’s expectations. We’re not content to sing and dance along to our favorite songs: we want shock and awe.

Take the Super Bowl halftime shows. One of the best, in my opinion, was the chaotic Britney Spears/Aerosmith/NSYNC/Mary J. Blige/Nelly mashup in 2001. It must have been choreographed, but it didn’t look that way. NSYNC bopped their usual moves for “Bye Bye Bye,” and when they were done, Aerosmith just walked onstage and started singing. Britney didn’t show up until two-thirds of the way through, and by the end, everyone was pretty much just hugging while they belted “Walk This Way” together. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but it didn’t need to be. It was exciting enough just to see the biggest stars in the world having a great time.

Nineteen years later, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s joint effort in 2020 required such meticulous preparation that just half the process (Lopez’s) was enough to merit a Netflix documentary capturing every bead of sweat. It wasn’t enough that the show was aiming to communicate a meaningful political message. It had to show off her pole skills, not to mention her ability to keep pace with an army of dancers half her age.

It’s no wonder the pressure was on: Lady Gaga kicked off her 2017 show on the stadium roof before being lowered to the stage in a harness. Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella set had redefined what was expected of our musical superstars, the fireworks that occasionally punctuated the performance appearing dim by comparison to the extravaganza onstage. I’ve nothing against headliners and their entourages demonstrating evermore phenomenal skill. But why add fireworks, if Beyoncé’s already there?

Taylor Swift breaks the internet every time she announces a new tour not just because she’s got new music to share, but because the expectation is that the show will be more spectacular than anything she’s done before. There’ll be more costumes, more pyrotechnics and more theatrics to ensure that not a second goes by without your eyes and ears ingesting something jaw-droppingly marvelous.

Who can blame her? It’s the mainstage equivalent of what we’re doing at home. When I was a kid, I simply sat down in the evening and watched the only thing that was available on TV. Now I scroll a dozen streaming platforms, playing YouTube videos on my laptop lest I get bored in the process. Our collective terror of being underwhelmed has left us unable to chance a moment of peace.

It goes against all my natural inclinations to tone things down. Just one episode? Nah, I’ll smash the whole season. Fancier chocolate, but less of it? Absurd, I’ll finish every morsel. Moderation has always had the hollow ring of something that was someone else’s idea, someone who did not understand that there should be no ceiling to the pursuit of pleasure.

Unfortunately, I’ve learned with age that moderation and pleasure have a sometimes uneasy, but undeniably symbiotic relationship. What is true of sugar and TV is true of almost everything heady and seductive: The dose makes the poison. Experiences that rely on igniting a dopamine frenzy tend not to be so satisfying the second (or third, or fourth) time around. I knew in my heart the second I saw the Sphere that it was the audiovisual equivalent of a white chocolate Frappuccino with whipped cream and caramel sauce. Too overwhelming, too far removed from the original magic of what inspired it.

To be able to tap into the emotions that make live music or indeed any experience meaningful, we need to allow some space for our responses. I cannot believe that audiences blasted into oblivion by millions of lights will connect with U2 as they might have in their raw 1980s heyday, or in the way I did with Fleetwood Mac.

To take this argument to its inevitable Gen X dad conclusion, when I look at the Sphere, I think of the Roman Colosseum. It’s long been recognized as an architectural marvel, but it wasn’t constructed simply to enrich the citizens’ lives. Its scale and majesty, and the often-bloody spectacles it hosted, were also intended to distract — to be so astounding that they wouldn’t think too much about anything else. This is the feeling I get from the Sphere. It’s not here to entertain us. It’s here to engulf us.

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