The Flipside #13: U2’s ‘Pop’

U2's 1997 LP Pop marked peak sell-out for a very authentic '80s band. With a new vinyl reissue, the Flipside boys revisit it and wonder if it deserves to be as maligned as it is.

Pop [Vinyl Reissue]

SAWDEY: To be honest, I was surprised when Universal decided to issue more classic U2 albums on vinyl. After the extensive campaigns and deluxe box sets for classics like The Joshua Tree, seeing humble vinyl remasters for the likes of their turn-of-the-century back-to-basics set All That You Can’t Leave Behind and even Wide Awake in America were to be expected. Yet here, in front of me, was a remastered version of … Pop. Friggin’ Pop.

To say that this 1997 record has been maligned would be a bit of an understatement. While the EP-which-turned-into-an-album sessions that made Zooropa felt like a wonderfully weird expansion of the rock-meets-electronics vibe that won them such success with Achtung Baby, Pop was almost a middle-finger to fans, a doubling down on their worst sellout inclinations after many fans bemoaned that the fiery, politically-minded rock band of their youth was over and done with.

Yet, now that pop music has changed and U2 along with it — does Pop really deserve the hate? Some fans have viewed the whole album as a commentary on the most commercial aspects of Top 40 radio, indulging in capitalistic excesses while commenting on them (and, of course, reaping the benefit of people purchasing such 4/4 discourse). Yet, far removed from my initial listen to it, I don’t think Pop goes that deep. I also don’t think it’s a sell-out album at all. This is an album that has way more guitars, ballads, and rockers than anyone remembers, and is worth a revisit.

Yet before I go all Discothèque on this Mofo, Brice, what’s your relationship with this album? Scratch that: what’s even your relationship with self-aggrandizing Biggest Band in the World™ U2?

EZELL: I can describe my experience with U2’s music, Evan, in four strangely sequenced numbers: “Uno, dos, tres, catorce!”

A bit of context, in case you’ve forgotten (really, though, this is for those readers who don’t know me): I grew up in Bakersfield, California in the ’90s and early ’00s. My musical diet, such as it was, consisted of country music first and foremost, followed closely by Christian radio rock (shout out to DC Talk), with a dash of boy band pop. Still have a soft spot for Backstreet Boy’s Millennium, if I’m being real. So while “Beautiful Day” and some of the band’s classic tunes (“Where the Streets Have No Name”, “With or Without You”) cropped up on my local classic rock station from time to time, U2 never occupied a large space in my musical development. Even when I delved into the classic rock back catalog as a pre-teen, my interests centered on the ’60s and ’70s, and by the time I got into the ’80s, my passion for heavy metal overtook everything else. I could recognize the artfulness of U2’s music, but it just wasn’t what moved me.

Then the iPod commercials came. How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb became cultural wallpaper for what felt like years, even though it was basically just 2004: the brightly colored TV spots, the billboards… the Apple/U2 synergy, which it turns out wasn’t even in its final form, made it hard to avoid forming an opinion on the band if you didn’t already have one. I know that record isn’t a fan favorite, but I still dig some of the singles, “Vertigo” included. Yet after that moment of cultural ubiquity for U2, I still wasn’t pushed to delve into the band’s discography. I felt perfectly neutral about U2, and in many ways I still do. That said, I wonder if Bono’s Spanish skills have improved since.

All this to say: I was too young, and born in the wrong musical environment, to receive, let alone appreciate, the curiosity that is Pop. As someone who knows U2 at a mostly superficial level, I would say this if asked to describe Pop: it’s as if U2 channeled all of the ’90s at once. The album title itself feels like a kind of defining statement: U2 seems to be saying something about pop as a totalizing enterprise — or, at least, what it perceives pop to be in its own experience. Yet upon looking up both fan and critic reactions to Pop after my recent listens of the album, I found that nobody thinks it a definitive vision of anything. “Messy”, “rushed”, and “uneven” summarize the consensus I found myself reading, with almost everybody making a point to highlight the short timeline the band had to put the record out. Some have offered defenses of Pop against its more stern critics, but even those willing stand up for the LP never proclaim it a top five U2 outing or a misunderstood masterpiece.

Given that I lack substantial investment in U2’s career, I know that critics and diehard fans of the band might find my comments lacking a necessary appreciation for the context that led to Pop’s creation. Still, I stand by my feelings: to my ears, Pop can count a few successes to its name, but it’s more a product of its time than anything else. Before I get into details, I wonder how you understand the context of the album, Evan, and how this music relates to your opinions about the rest of U2’s output.

SAWDEY: My experience with U2 has been interesting, to say the least. In one of my first media appearances for PopMatters, I debated then-editor-in-chief of Blender magazine Joe Levy about the release of U2’s 2009 effort No Line On the Horizon for WNYC’s Soundcheck, and he (formerly of Rolling Stone fame) and me (of no fame to speak of) had wildly differing opinions about Bono and co.’s latest opus. I was picked by the show’s producers due to me giving a “bad” review of the album — it was a 6/10.

Yet Rolling Stone and other print publications went gaga over it as they do with virtually every new release from U2, Springsteen, and other rock veterans. Around this time, the new wave of contemporary pop criticism took hold, and online publications like PopMatters, Pitchfork, and others showed little to no connection with the material. Although they’ve tried to reinvent themselves even a few times since then, the critical love of U2 has taken some twists, with their recent material appreciated largely by boomers but falling on indifferent ears for younger audiences. Thus, Brice, trust me: I know exactly what you feel.

U2 for me has always been a band that I have enjoyed but at arm’s length. No one will deny the power of their classic anthems, but my favorite U2 was always weird U2. Oh sure, they could go off the reservation from time to time (see: most of Rattle & Hum), but they had a sense of humor about that that sometimes revealed itself in interesting ways. While the Achtung Baby staples “Mysterious Ways” and “One” showed the band playing both sides of the spectrum to a hilt, the weird synth lines and soaring piano chorus of Zooropa‘s “Lemon’ and the unamplified ballad “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” (used in a Wim Wenders film of the same name) were always more my speed. Again, fans got a little weirded out during this phase (and some still can’t get over how The Edge filmed the video for “Numb” with all those feet on his face), but this was the band being indulgent in the best of ways, taking their stadium-sized audience through a tour of personal idiosyncrasies that were dizzying, offbeat, and ultimately very memorable.

So while “Pop” (and its corresponding, utterly over-the-top PopMart world tour) was maligned for its indulgences and excesses, I’m still pleasantly surprised by how much of it still stands up, making it a record I frequent more than Songs of Innocence/Experience. The synth pads on “Mofo” feel like the kind of sound the band spent all of the last two albums trying to pull off, finally being able to here for the first time ever. “Discotheque” really tried to meld the pop and rock sides of their personalities together, and, ultimately, it feels like it worked. Some may view these as minor miracles, but they breathe with a flavor and distinctiveness that belies its era and stand out whole from their discography. They’re odd little outliers for a band that some would describe as blustering and predictable — and that’s something I’ve come to respect over time.

Pop, to me, is not a secret masterpiece, but at the very least an underrated gem, one that even with 2018 ears feels like a worthy listen. Make no mistake: “If God Will Send His Angels” is Bono-by-numbers if I ever heard it, and “Miami” might be the worst thing they put out in the course of the ’90s, but when I get those little wah guitars and odd product-placement lyrics in “The Playboy Mansion”, I’m struck by what a curious little record this is, trying to comment on the sound of the era while also living inside the very thing it’s commenting. It’s a weird kind of almost-meta insight that isn’t entirely successful in what it does and perhaps that’s why I like it. They rarely got as jazzy and dark as they did on the desert-noir number “If You Wear That Velvet Dress”, just as how the dry and winding “Wake Up Dead Man” feels like the kind of number an indie-rock group would toss off today and most critics would embrace without batting an eye. For a record called Pop, it sure spends a lot of its time moving away from current chart trends.

While I’m profoundly curious about what the U2 fans will say in the comments, what were your personal takeaways on this record, Mr. Ezell? Which songs are so bad that you’d rather listen to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark than these deep cuts ever again?

EZELL: There’s nothing on Pop I’d consider Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark atrocious — save for, I think, the seizure-inducing lights and terribly dated fish-eye lens in the “Discotheque” video. Some of the ground explored here feels more trod than U2 probably realized it was; “Mofo” does what “Only Baby“, a single released at the start of the ’90s by the much more obscure English duo No-Man, did far more successfully in my opinion. (No way I’m biased, what with No-Man being my favorite band and all.) “Staring at the Sun” feels like a lost Oasis B-side.

But when Pop is on point, it’s great. The sprawling “Discotheque” — ridiculous music video notwithstanding — boasts a great riff and an effective evocation of the titular atmosphere. The moody “Do You Feel Loved” may be my sleeper hit of Pop; to be honest, I’m kind of stunned the band doesn’t play it live much at all. It doesn’t over-rely on the aesthetics that “Discotheque” and “Mofo” try on, but it’s just edgy enough for the group while also exemplifying what most of us expect U2 ballads to sound like.

That dynamic informs Pop‘s better tracks on the whole: the stuff that alienates some U2 fans about Pop isn’t actually that bad, but when it feels like a gimmick rather than a supplement to U2’s songwriting, things go south. In contrast to Caryn Rose at Vulture, who diligently ranked 218 U2 songs and selected “Mofo” as the best Pop number, I’d say “Mofo” ranks among the record’s weakest moments, in that it feels like something U2 tries on rather than fully integrates into its songwriting. Admittedly, there are some atypical U2 moments here that don’t totally flop; the breakbeat on the latter half of “Miami” doesn’t strike me as characteristic of the band, but Bono sounds convincingly badass when in the final minute of the song he shouts “MIAMIIII!” The mood feels rather like Michael Mann’s 2006 film version of Miami Vice, which to this day I still go to bat for. I never fully buy into the image of U2 as brooding rockers here, even when they successfully conjure up that image for a couple of minutes, like on “Miami” or the improbably good “If You Wear that Velvet Dress”.

When I listen to Pop, I hear what critics are saying when they talk about how U2 was hurried into putting out the LP after their manager booked the PopMart tour in advance of the recording process. I’m glad I didn’t read the critical response to Pop prior to listening to it, as I think I would have ended up expecting it to be a lot weirder than it actually is. As a ’90s album, Pop doesn’t stand out as weird at all, even if for U2 it does.

SAWDEY: Well, I think it’s fair to say, Brice, that when it comes to finding a U2 album to identify and embrace … you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.

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