Pop Stops the Traffic

U2 still hasn't found what it's looking for--but has it given up trying?

K mart is trying to spiff up its image, but it's still the last place you'd expect to run into a rock star--unless, of course, that rock star is Bono.

When U2 recently announced its new blue-light special at the Greenwich Village K mart, Bono graciously fielded questions and stopped as he worked the crowd to hug what the New York Times peculiarly called "journalist supporters." Sitting under a banner that read "Pop Group," U2 played "Holy Joe," an outtake from the band's new album, Pop; details of its 40-country Pop Mart tour were spelled out, including a stage set dominated by a giant golden arch, a 35-foot lemon mirror ball, and a 12-foot-wide olive impaled on a 100-foot toothpick. Obviously, tickets to a tour this elaborate don't come cheap--$54.25 and $39.25 for the band's May 9 concert at Sun Devil Stadium, "plus convenience charges." As Bono explained, "It costs a fortune to look this tacky."

Before 1991, the members of U2 were a bunch of well-meaning killjoys, quick to lecture their fans on everything from nonviolent political resistance to apartheid. That changed once they discovered the glories of irony and kitsch: Say what you don't really mean, and maybe you can sneak in a few messages anyway. That's been the band's m.o. throughout the '90s.

Recorded in Berlin, 1991's Achtung Baby is a great album, and not just because U2 found its own, distinctly European voice after trying on and discarding several American models. At its best--"Mysterious Ways," "Love Is Blindness," "One"--the music approached the compassion and pathos of Wings of Desire, the 1988 movie directed by the band's German friend Wim Wenders. But after years of pretending to be more than it was, the quartet started passing itself off as less. "We're just four jerks and a police escort," Bono offered during an Achtung Baby tour interview, poking fun at his famous "three chords and the truth" quote and disarming his critics at the same time.

As the sequel to Achtung Baby, 1993's Zooropa tried to sound even more modern, and mostly it succeeded, though parts of it are curiously dated: The bridge of "Lemon" echoes Avalon-era Roxy Music, and "Numb" comes off like a goof on early Depeche Mode, thanks to The Edge's intentionally lifeless delivery. The Zoo TV tour took the kitsch route several miles farther, replacing The Fly persona of Achtung Baby with MacPhisto, a devil-horned lounge lizard Bono played as a leering sleaze. The Zoo TV screens were bigger than before, flashing words too fast to read. Occasionally, a slogan could be pieced together: "This Is Not a Rehearsal." "You Have the Right to Remain Silent." "Taste Is the Enemy of Art." And, most tellingly: "Rock and Roll Is Entertainment." The genius of Zoo TV was that it gave critics enough firepower and smoke to write raves (which they did, almost unanimously) while leaving skeptics with dust between their fingers: It's only rock 'n' roll, you know?

Now we have Pop, and this time Bono is an oil-slick salesman, hawking his band as generic product. At the same time, Pop is being presented as an example of a brand-new U2, a band that has invested heavily in cutting-edge dance stock. It's not really that radical a departure, but U2 has cleverly assimilated electronic music the same way Madonna once appropriated vogueing. That's not a complaint--it's what successful rock stars do. But Madonna tripped when she revealed more than anyone wanted to see with Sex. And the supermarket shtick of Pop feels like a cartoon version of Zooropa--which was already a caricature of Achtung Baby.

The great lure of irony is that it allows someone to have ambition and still deny it. Dress up like the Village People, as U2 does in the "Discotheque" video, and no one can accuse you of taking yourself too seriously. The obvious joke of Pop is just how commodified everything has become; it might be more fun if it weren't so true of the bandmates themselves. It used to be hard to hear U2's music over the proselytizing; now it's difficult to discern the message--believe me, it's there, and more tortured than ever--in the blinding glare and white noise of sheer spectacle.

I was living in San Francisco in 1987 when U2 staged a free outdoor concert in the public plaza known as Embarcadero. Midway through a version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," Bono took a spray can and painted a civic sculpture with the immortal words "Rock and Roll Stops the Traffic." The city officials who had rubber-stamped the band's public permit were furious, and so was the sculptor whose work had been defaced. As usual for that time, Bono was reaching for a grand statement, but the act delivered less rebellion than it suggested: Rock 'n' roll may stop traffic, but so do fender-benders and early evening baseball games.

That concert, including Bono's act of vandalism, is captured on Rattle and Hum, a 90-minute rockumentary and double-live album from 1988. Today, Rattle and Hum is almost universally regarded as U2 at its deadliest: intolerably earnest and smugly self-righteous. When I watched the movie again for the first time in nine years, the music--the slide-guitar frenzy of "Bullet the Blue Sky," the stirring crescendo of "Pride (In the Name of Love)"--sounds better than I remember. Only the band members--so insolent, so silly--come off worse.

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