Pop Stops the Traffic

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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.

Still, there's something weirdly touching about Rattle and Hum, recorded when it still seemed possible to connect the dots of history and geography--to look for lessons in the nonviolent crusade of Martin Luther King Jr. that might apply two decades later in South Africa and Northern Ireland. There's a scene near the end of Rattle and Hum in which Bono introduces "Sunday Bloody Sunday" the night after a fatal bombing in Northern Ireland. He begins by noting that millions of Irish--some legal, some not--live in America. Naturally, he gets the cheers you'd expect from real and honorary citizens at a St. Paddy's Day party. But Bono goes on to complain about Irish Americans who talk to him about the glory of the IRA's revolution against British rule.

"Fuck the revolution!" Bono screams from the stage and points out that there's no glory in terrorist bombs that kill civilians. He's right, but of course it's more complicated than that. Unfortunately, even this message seems lost on most of those screaming teenagers, inflamed--sure--but by the prospect of green beer and sloppy sex.

Watching Rattle and Hum today, I'm struck by how quaintly ambitious it seems. For a decade still associated with go-go greed and the toxic rule of Reagan and Thatcher, '80s rock stars sure thought they could save the world. But guess what? Live Aid didn't solve global hunger, and those Amnesty International tours didn't free too many political prisoners. Even the more modest effort of Farm Aid hasn't saved family farmers. In the '90s, the goals have grown more humble, but the results are still the same: Pearl Jam wasn't even able to make the world safe for lower ticket prices.

Maybe rock 'n' roll is best at saving the world one lonely, confused teenager at a time. Bono seemed to admit as much in a television interview shortly after the release of Achtung Baby: "You people, you want heroes," he explained. "The media needs to create heroes. But if I agree to the job, you'd kill me--so I'm backing out." Fair enough--who wants to risk ridicule fighting battles that can't be won?--but the timing seemed odd. The wall splitting Berlin had just been torn down, apartheid was slowly being dismantled in South Africa, and the Soviet Union had recently collapsed in its own heap of petty corruption and bureaucratic tyranny.

All positive developments, but instead of a happy new world, things have only grown messier. Now people are starving in Russia as well as Africa, and former West Germans don't care much for their Eastern brothers and sisters. Not easy subjects to tackle, I admit. How do you write a song about Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, the well-dressed Irishman who may be a terrorist--and the best hope for negotiating a permanent peace in Northern Ireland? You don't, as U2 has proved over the past six years and three albums.

If Rattle and Hum was strictly neck-up, Pop is almost all body. "The Playboy Mansion"--which name-checks Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Big Macs, Obsession (the perfume) and Lotto tickets without saying much about any of them--is supposed to be a sly poke at brand-name consumerism, but its slide-guitar swoop is so seductive you find yourself wanting to crash those gates yourself. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

With a few glaring exceptions, Pop sounds better than Zooropa, and that's probably the result of swapping longtime co-producer Brian Eno for remix master Howie B (Bjsrk, Tricky). Pop replaces some of Eno's Berlin Bowie touches with keyboards that sound ominous and edgy ("Miami") or beautifully lulling ("If You Wear That Velvet Dress"). For all the hoopla about Pop being a dance recording, fewer than half its 12 songs have rhythm tracks that come close to the description.

I like Pop best when its up-to-the-minute sonic effects are fully integrated into U2's songwriting, while remaining true to Bono's twin obsessions: earthly pleasure (the shimmery guitar wash of "Do You Feel Loved") and spiritual grace (the boomy bass that keeps "If God Will Send His Angels" from drifting into thin air). That's why, in the end, "Discotheque" looks and sounds like U2 slumming.

Dressing up like the Village People is a good visual gag, but after a few listens, the joke and song wear thin. Much as I like The Edge's distorted guitar stutter and Larry Mullen Jr.'s cowbell clang, the song is actually far more shallow than the late '70s disco it lampoons. Tacky as they were, the Village People were once a symbol of gay freedom; heard today, their music sounds like an oddly poignant survivor of the AIDS holocaust. But what, exactly, are we supposed to think when Bono sings, "Boom! Cha! Boom! Cha!" and thrusts his pelvis at us with a wink? I know: Shut up and dance!

"Mofo" is the worst song on the album because it sounds like U2 impersonating someone else--Underworld? The Prodigy?--while Bono tries to bare his soul under the triple-espresso techno chatter: "Mother you left and made me someone/Now I'm still a child but no one tells me no."

The rest of Pop is much better. With their programming and loops, "Staring at the Sun" and "Gone" are essentially power ballads for the electronic age--and that's meant as a compliment. The quietly percolating groove of "Please" only adds to the sensual, intimate subject matter. But none of the above is as adventurous as "Miami." The song was written after the band spent a week in South Beach, and The Edge has called it "creative tourism," and I buy it. Built around Mullen's echoey high hat, Howie B's eerie, fluted keyboard, and The Edge's pissed-off guitar, the forced cheerfulness of its "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bas" hints that the trip was less satisfying than it seemed at the time.

On Pop, U2 sounds most convincing when it's chasing pleasure, even if I suspect the guys sometimes confuse self-indulgence with a deeply profound quest. For example, it's hard to take seriously Bono's lament that "Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it's hard to get in the door." After all, he's currently leader of a global infotainment complex that values self-congratulation and cross-promotion over meaning. The apocalyptic hedonism of "Last Night on Earth" proves that Bono still hasn't found what he's looking for, but the where's-Jesus-when-I-need-him? whine of "Wake Up Dead Man" proves how little progress he has made. The old U2 could be annoying with its wispy spirituality and dead-certain politics, but at least it didn't take salvation for granted as just another gift owed to spoiled rock stars.

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