She’s not waiting on a savior to come.— U2’s “Last Night on Earth”
An absence haunts Pop, the ninth studio album by the Irish alternative rock band U2 released 25 years ago this month in 1997. Pop emerged almost ten years to the day after their watershed statement, The Joshua Tree, whose aesthetic is drawn from a real desert. Pop’s aesthetic, by contrast, evokes the “desert of the real”.
Two years after the release of this U2 album, the Wachowskis would place this phrase of philosopher Jean Baudrillard (along with a copy of his Simula and Simulacrum) within their monumental, philosophical, quasi-mystical movie, The Matrix. The protagonist, Neo, is brought to disorienting enlightenment by the rebel leader, Morpheus, and confronted with the realization that what he had taken for reality was instead an intricate virtual construction, a simulated veil in place to keep him (and us) from the desolation and emptiness at the heart of things. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” Morpheus intones.
A cottage industry is invested in extracting deep tomes of meaning from U2 albums. Some of this is rooted in the cultural cache of rock ‘n’ roll, especially in Western markets. Some stem from the band’s earnestness in dealing with politics, religious imagery, or worldwide pandemics. And, of course, some of it is encouraged by the messianic persona of frontman Bono. I’ve dabbled in this extraction myself. No neutral observer, am I. Yet, what I want to argue here is that the importance of revisiting this album 25 years after its release lies not in musical innovation nor a sweeping narrative of redemption. Instead, it is worth reviewing how the band gestured at the “desert of the real” at the end of the 1990s, a gnawing absence much Western culture has yet to absorb fully.
Pop has, over the years, become a rarely referenced part of the U2 corpus. The band considered it rushed and unfinished. They continued to tinker with different mixes of the songs, even adding later versions to the “best of” compilations rather than the originals. After the PopMart tour, the songs from the album almost entirely fell out of concert setlists. There are some reasons for this. It was the first album since The Unforgettable Fire without producer Brian Eno. While it debuted at #1 on the US and UK album charts, second-week sales fell precipitously, dropping 57% in the US alone. Critical reception was mixed. Some initially favorable reviews were followed by some that saw Pop as the nadir of their 1990s experimentation. It contains some of their more embarrassing misses. “Miami”, for instance, is indefensible. A decade after the release of The Joshua Tree, whispers abounded as to whether the band had lost its way.
The suggestiveness of the phrase “lost its way” is where Pop merits our continued consideration a quarter-century after its initial release. The term, as considered here, is more a metaphor of cultural malaise than a direct comment on the band. The 1990s were a decade of rapid and profound technological change, which entailed, by extension, shifts in popular culture.
With the development of the Netscape browser and AOL, access to the internet exploded. Commerce, connection, and our sense of what was possible in the world shifted in radical ways. American television discovered the voyeuristic thrills of taking the talk show format from conversation to grotesque spectacle. The ascension of Jerry Springer, disgraced politician who became a sensationalistic talk show host, sowed the bitter seeds that took root in the American television viewers’ psyche. As former Eagles’ drummer Don Henley foresaw in 1982, the viewing public loves “dirty laundry”. It was only a matter of time before the path reversed and a controversial reality television star became a politician.
In the worlds of universities, art galleries, and architecture, post-modernism was a buzzword during the 1990s. It gestured at a diverse field of thought coalescing around skepticism in grand, overarching narratives that sought to explain it all and attention to the surfaces of things in a type of irony that questioned established norms and binaries. Post-modernism is hard to pin down and is often caricatured to stand for an “anything goes” destruction of “all that is pure and holy”. Instead, it attends to the ever-present fissures in the grand narratives cultures attempt to impose on others. Observing the parodic in our art, architecture, commerce, politics, and religion, the postmodern interrogates the grand narratives precisely where their attempt to say it all finds itself speechless.
It is what can’t be said that intrigues me about Pop. From one perspective, the album addresses exaggeration and excess in western culture where banks are cathedrals, Vegas is a site of pilgrimages, and discotheques are sites of ecstatic dervishes. This performative carnivalesque celebration gives way to what the surface mars and erases—the streets, the margins, the trauma of loss, and the disorientation that follows it. In the symbolic imagery of the album, this manifests itself as the absence, indifference, or even death of God and various references to Jesus as lost, co-opted and compromised, or helplessly impotent.
These gestures are shocking to those who have found in the band a religious fervor with a bit more edge and depth than the CCM industry. The shocks to the system are often silenced by quickly assuming that the band has a deeper religious meaning submerged in the lyrics, a rock ‘n’ roll Gnosticism that the faithful will be rewarded with by refusing to give up faith in the band as messianic saviors. But, it is not insignificant that U2’s albums of the 1990s have engaged in various forms of glam personas in the spirit of Bowie, a pioneer who performatively enacted the deicide of the rock ‘n’ roll messiah. Pop’s cover art is a cheap knockoff nod to Bowie’s muse and subject, Andy Warhol. But this absence that haunts the album is not a hard turn for the band, in my view. There has been a growing skepticism and critique of the messianic showman and naive hope within the decade leading up to this album. The critique was vaguely nascent in The Joshua Tree, emergent in Achtung Baby and Zooropa, and fully raw and present in Pop.
The album kicks off with three turbo-charged rockers whose propulsion barely contains the sturm and drang pushing at the fissures of each number. “Discotheque” continues U2’s foray into club music with a driving beat and swirling, gnawing guitars confessing our surrender to that which distracts but never satisfies. “You know you’re chewing bubble gum / You know what it is, but you still want some.” The second track could be the soundtrack for the new internet landscape, where unimagined connection still leaves us haunted by the question, “Do You Feel Loved?”
In the third track, “Mofo”, however, the abyss makes its claims on the structures of meaning that peddles comfort. Some of U2’s most potent compositions emerge from individual and shared trauma over their history. Like “I Will Follow” and “Out of Control” from their debut, Boy, “Mofo” is rooted in Bono’s loss of his mother when he was 14 years old. Stricken with grief as she attended her father’s funeral, his mother suffered a fatal aneurysm at the gravesite.
Here the trauma of the loss of a mother and its consequent disorientation is connected with religious themes of the “death of God”, a postmodern allusion to the loss of the grand narrative. It is a crisis of meaning with its attendant horror. “Lookin’ for to fill that God-shaped hole / Mother, Mother-suckin’ rock ‘n’ roll.” Evoking an unusual trinity of meaning anchors (God, mother, rock ‘n’ roll), U2 has confronted us with the specter of groundlessness where the shores of stability are just beyond our grasp.