There are times when certain concepts just aren’t properly appreciated or understood for whatever reason. Released on March 3rd, 1997, U2’s Pop was much more than just a new album; it was an entirely new concept, released by a band not afraid to completely re-brand themselves. Unfortunately for U2, this turned out to be a lesson that art is not always appreciated for art’s sake, and as a result of Pop’s failures Bono and co. would approach the 21st century with a more accessible radio-friendly sound represented in 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the albums that have followed.
In 1997, after also trashing Oasis, George Harrison remarked, “Will U2 be remembered in 30 years? And the Spice Girls? I doubt it.” 20 years later, the band is setting up to embark on a tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree that sold out instantly in many cities. So while Harrison’s somewhat harsh quote turned out to be quite inaccurate, it represents why Pop failed. After the triumphs of the “Zoo TV Tour” earlier in the decade, people just didn’t get Pop. Many listened to it expecting another classic like Achtung Baby and instead got the strange rock/disco hybrid of “Discotheque” and the full-on techno-machine “Mofo”. It’s not that U2 hadn’t pulled this before. 1988’s Rattle And Hum and Achtung Baby almost sound like two different bands. Zooropa further tested the limits of U2’s fan base with oddities like “Numb” and “Lemon”.
So what was it about Pop that didn’t work? For starters, it hardly sounds like U2. The Edge’s signature delay sound is almost nowhere to be found on Pop, replaced by strategically minimal use of guitar using various different techno inspired effects. Adam Clayton’s bass work really steps up a notch on this record, it’s the driving force behind many songs including “Discotheque”, “Do You Feel Loved”, and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress”. For Clayton’s underrated bass work alone Pop should be considered a classic in the U2 catalog. Pop may not be Bono’s strongest record vocally, but his more reserved vocal delivery is an essential component of the entire mood of the album. The verses of “Do You Feel Loved” feature Bono singing in a hushed, whisper-like tone with lyrics that visually account a hollow relationship. The politically charged “Please” finds Bono reciting the songs name in a plea like fashion, in “Wake Up Dead Man” Bono restrains himself from reaching the high notes that he probably would have recited in a more powerful fashion had the song been released 10 years earlier. Instead, he once again uses an almost plea-like tone as he begs “wake up dead man”. The albums ironic anti-consumerist message is on strongest display lyrically on the tracks “The Playboy Mansion” (which features some admittedly dated lyrics) and “Miami”, probably the most underrated U2 song. The best track on the album, “Gone”, is one of the more classic “U2 sounding” offers, though it still harbors the darker techno elements that make up the common theme of the album.
After realizing that the public wasn’t getting Pop, the band themselves began to change their tune on the record as well. The Edge commented that “the great synthesis between songwriting and dance didn’t happen.” Pop was infamously rushed to meet its release date, with Bono noting, “It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music.” The Edge further critiqued the direction the band took with Pop noting, “maybe we should have had the confidence to make the album more clearly one thing.” But perhaps Bono said it best when he remarked, “I hate it when common sense gets in the way of a good idea.” Common sense doesn’t really have a place on Pop and had they been in studio a few months later, chances are common sense would have drastically changed songs like “Discotheque” and “Miami”. It is the willingness to release something that lacks this common sense, whatever that means in the context of music, that makes this album so bold. 20 years later, this album has easily stood the test of time. The production still holds up, though it does sound like a 90’s album, it’s a 90’s album more in the vein of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore than it is Achtung Baby. The songs themselves hold up even better than the production. Listening to this record in 2017, it’s clear that U2 was getting too ahead of their time for the masses. People got the Zoo T.V. tour and even Zooropa, but Pop and it’s strange variety of sounds alienated too many people who grew up listening to The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. If Pop didn’t turn people off, PopMart sure did.
Featuring a mammoth LED screen, a 100-foot-high giant golden arch, and a giant lemon, PopMart was certainly not meant to scale back on Zoo T.V., but rather to exceed it. People didn’t get it from the start. The band announced the tour with a press conference and performance of b-side “Holy Joe” in a K-Mart department store. First of all, it’s pretty daring to perform one song and have it be a b-side. It wasn’t the song choice that confused people though, it was the obviously ironic K-Mart setting that at the time was seen by some as the band selling out. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If U2 wanted to sell out…well, we know what would happen, we got that three years later because no one (in America at least) seemed to understand Pop. PopMart was being misunderstood by fans and music critics alike. The Dallas Observer stated in regard to the Dallas PopMart show that “instead of commenting on the commodification of American culture, U2 now seems to be competing with it.” In contrast to the upcoming Joshua Tree tour that sold out right away, most U.S. PopMart shows didn’t sell out and many were considerably empty, with the lowest point being the Jacksonville, FL show, selling only 14,491 out of 50,000 available tickets. The Los Angeles Times wrote of the show, “The imagination of “Zoo TV” underscored the fact that U2 is the best rock band in the world. Unfortunately, the weaker elements of “PopMart” tended to obscure it.” The Vancouver Sun dubbed it “FlopMart.”
Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. commented that “had the album been finished, we could have got away with doing K-Mart, having a bad opening show, having a lemon on stage, all those things. The difficulty was that the record wasn’t able to support all these new bright ideas.” Mullen pretty much hit the nail on the head, and though I disagree with his assessment of Pop, that pretty well sums up what the public thought about the entire concept at the time. Looking back, one wonders how this endeavor would have fared had it been undertaken in 2017 rather than 1997. Though many people remember the rocky Las Vegas version of PopMart, the truth is that once the band finally figured out what the strongest elements of PopMart were, it was right up there with Zoo T.V. The songs from Pop got there one and only chance to shine live with most tracks being shelved indefinitely in following tours, and the old songs were given new life, such as the re-worked “Bullet The Blue Sky” and The Edge’s stripped down take of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. The historic Sarajevo show alone makes PopMart iconic, and the other international legs were amongst the best of their career. As Bono put it, “When that show worked it was mindblowing. Its neon nature was a fabulous thing to behold at a time when music was so white bread and suburban angst.” He later went on to say that PopMart was U2’s “finest hour.”
20 years on, it’s unlikely that U2 will give much recognition to Pop’s anniversary on their upcoming Joshua Tree tour. The fact is, both albums have stood the test of time in their own regard, and more people are starting to realize what Pop was really all about as time goes on, especially as the band has become more legitimately commercial. Although at the time the mixed reviews and undersold shows were seen as a failure, in reality, it is really affirmation that U2 succeeded at the message they were trying to convey. This was an album and tour that served as a jab at mass consumerism, and in that right, had the concept caught on like Zoo T.V., would it really have made its point? Only then would they actually be competing with the “commodification of American culture” as the Dallas Observer so eloquently put it.
Clayton reflected, “It was actually a very successful tour. We made the Guinness Book Of Records for having the largest ever audience, with almost three million people at 93 shows. We sold seven million albums. Which is not bad for something that is regarded as one of our low points.”
You can’t argue with that.