U2 pop

‘Pop’ at 25: Revisiting U2’s Dark Night of the Soul

U2’s Pop offered a challenge to the short-circuited cultural certainties and held possibilities of cultural critique and reassessment, of a broader landscape.

Island Records
3 March 1997

Recently, I caught a show by country singer-songwriter, Adeem the Artist. Their music, not unlike some of the themes of Pop, wrestles with the interplay between religion and meaning and the generative power of apostasy. They mentioned between songs that religion often talks a lot about the “God-shaped hole” but doesn’t say much about what it did to bore that hole into you. Too often, religion becomes another commercial enterprise, selling a product to fill a lack that it generated. Bono alludes to this movement in his introduction to the song “Last Night on Earth” in Santiago, Chile, on the PopMart tour. “I went looking for spirits, and I found alcohol. I wanted soul, and they sold me style. I wanted to meet God, and they gave me religion.”

The themes of absence, longing, groundlessness and the abyss of meaninglessness stalk the album’s tracks in varying degrees of despair. “If God Will Send His Angels” tracks the absence through the image of God’s phone being off the hook and lamenting that God’s child hasn’t been seen around the neighborhood recently. These artistic allusions transgress our comfortable assertions rather than solid claims that lead to certainty.

Religion is not the answer within the confines of this record. It traces the empty calories of the promise of redemption in cosmetic transformation, body obsession, and commercial products in “The Playboy Mansion”, where the hypnotic dirge merges with a hymn-like ode to an elusive cessation of sorrow. U2 turns to another generative trauma, The Troubles, in “Please”—a biting indictment of the too-oft violent alliance between religious fervor and politics. “The sermon on the mount from the boot of your car” invoking car bombs ripping through Belfast, perverted evangelism that seeks to “destroy you in order to save you”. It rejects the piety of “thoughts and prayers” in light of the connection between religion and violence. “Please / Get up off your knees.”

Possibly the strongest closer to a U2 album, “Wake Up Dead Man” is a searing lament to the emptiness in this desert of the real. Our constructions are a thin veneer over the gaping maw. It is striking that the one time the band reach for explicit language, it’s in a lament addressed to Jesus. The situation calls for dropping pretensions and niceties. Things are fucked-up, and we need help. If Jesus functions in this song as a sign/symbol of the possibility of redemption and meaning, then the song’s relentless ambiguity is its most potent force. Is the “dead man” the one addressed or the one doing the addressing? Or both? The uncertainty is unresolved. There is no Joshua tree in this desert of the real, no shade from the blistering sun. 

In an off-hand allusion to Plato’s allegory of the cave, “Staring at the Sun” finds the band entertaining the perils of the pursuit of unimpeached certainty. A professor once drew my attention to the problem with seeing Plato’s fable as a simple morality play of moving from the darkness of ignorance to the light of certain knowledge. Staring at the sun leads to blindness as our quest for grounding ourselves in certainty bears destructive fruit. We prefer to sear our retina if it means we can ignore the troubled waters of uncertainty. “I’m not the only one staring at the sun / Afraid of what you’d find if you took a look inside.” 

Over the course of the 1990s, U2 had moved from phoenix rising from the ashes to finding itself out of sync with Britpop and the changing musical landscape. In their enigmatic 1997 album, the band had followed their experimental impulses and stumbled upon the despair lurking in the fissures of popular culture. Pop gave voice to discomfort at the unfulfilled promises at the feet of the guarantors of certainty whether they took on the guise of clerical robes, the pinstriped suits of Wall Street, or the ethereal tethers of the World Wide Web. It was a moment where disorientation and generativity were held in tension. 

The band wouldn’t stay there long, and neither would American culture. In 2000, U2 returned to the comforts of the formula, re-embracing sweeping stadium anthems of transcendence. In 2001, the attack on New York’s twin towers found American culture desperately grabbing for the certainty of good/evil binaries and ditching critical self-reflection for fundamentalist forms of religion and politics. Bono and company too easily moved back into their roles as rock ‘n’ roll messianic seers, sometimes keeping some ambiguity in play but occasionally falling into nationalistic jingoism when Bono revealed the American flag lining of his bomber jacket at their Super Bowl XXXVI performance.

But, for a moment, at the end of the 1990s, U2’s work stumbled into a space of disorientation whose dizzying challenge to the short-circuited certainties of our culture held possibilities of taking a look inside, of cultural critique and reassessment, of a broader landscape. Culturally, such a place was too quickly abandoned as fears won out over the possibility that might lurk within ambiguity and creativity. For this reason, it might be worth revisiting this album 25 years in and sitting with the fissures it traverses. Who knows? Once we stop waiting on a pop-cultural “savior to come”, we might find ourselves freer to give it away, to live fully as if it “were the last night on earth”.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.