U2 were uniquely prepared to play the first Super Bowl halftime show after 9/11. And not just because this group has always been associated with huge sentiments like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” that were keyed to historic events.
They’d been building toward this performance for weeks, fine-tuning every gesture and nuance as the audiences before them grappled with a surprise attack that changed the New York City skyline forever while leaving thousands dead. U2’s 2001 tour included more than 100 shows over nine months in Europe and North America, with the final leg trekking across the U.S. during that fateful fall.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind, issued amid a return to heartfelt optimism in 2000, found new life in the weeks following the attacks. An MTV-produced video for U2’s soaring single “Walk On” would even include scenes from 9/11.
Things reached an emotional crescendo during a series of late-October 2001 performances in New York City, where U2 brought firefighters and police officers onstage every night.
“The feeling of Madison Square Garden was just unbelievable,” Bono told CNN in 2015. “The feeling was just, ‘This is who we are; you can’t change us. You’re not going to turn us into haters, or you’re not going to turn us around in the way we go about our lives.'”
The Edge described the concerts as “intensely emotional” for fans and U2 alike. “We had these really cathartic shows where we had some of the first responders come onstage to talk about their brothers-in-arms they lost on 9/11,” he told Rolling Stone in 2020. “I was reminded of the power of music to be a way of helping people express and connect with emotions, and deal with them and process them. I felt very humbled and moved to be of service in that way.”
U2 didn’t know it, but John Collins happened to catch one of the shows at Madison Square Garden. He was then serving as the top marketing exec for the NFL, which was scrambling to rebook the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show after Janet Jackson abruptly canceled her ongoing tour.
Collins couldn’t get over U2’s encore presentation, as the names of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed a few weeks earlier were projected on the arena’s domed roof.
“At first, people didn’t know what was going on,” Collins later told Sports Illustrated, “and then you heard, ‘Oh, my God!’ as they realized. People were reading the names of victims they’d known. It was a heavy moment — an amazing moment.”
Collins cleared the decision with the league, then contacted the band. U2 were booked for New Orleans just days later.
They’d take the stage at the Louisiana Superdome four months after 9/11, taking millions of viewers worldwide on a musical journey from celebration to remembrance and then back again. Bono, never one to shy away from grandiose symbolism, began singing amid the on-field audience then made his way to the stage as “Beautiful Day” offered a soul-lifting start. U2 then segued into the hymnal elegy “MLK,” while names of the dead returned on a towering backdrop.
Soul after soul after lost soul ascended behind the Irish band, first responders and secretaries, flight attendants and account executives, high-rise employees and passengers, pilots and janitors. An unimaginable tragedy was made personal, and all the more real.
U2 then rose to meet “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a cry of welling optimism made complete by one key lyrical change: The recorded version of the song, found on 1987’s The Joshua Tree, ends with Bono singing, “It’s all I can do.” At the Super Bowl, he changed it to the more unifying “It’s all we can do.” Then he opened his jacket wide to reveal a lining decorated with the U.S. flag’s familiar stars and stripes, a date-specific show of solidarity.
The 9/11 tragedy was “just too big a moment in all our lives,” Bono told the Associated Press in 2011. “Even if you’re not American, everyone became an American that day.”
They played the date for free. “We would have paid U2,” a league rep told Entertainment Weekly in 2002, “but they didn’t want any money.” The next day, Collins got a note from U2 manager Paul McGuinness concerning halftime entertainment for future Super Bowls: “I almost feel sorry for whoever’s next.”
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U2 don’t inspire weak reactions in people. There are passionate U2 fans, and passionate U2 haters, and very little in between.