Why POP Rocks
It's one of the mysteries of the universe. Why did the world's biggest band write an album that was blasted to oblivion from the huge national papers to town newsletters with the circulation in the hundreds? What happened? U2's now written two albums as far away from POP as possible, as if to distance themselves from a misstep, a professional mistake, a misjudgement, a flop. But was it?
Time will exhonerate POP. As time passes, it's grappling hooks have sunk in deeper and with every passing year it hasn't acquired dust but has actually revealed hidden depths and new angles on its shiny surface. POP— in the cheap language of those who didn't get it— rocks.
Remember these headlines: U2 Goes POP (in a bad way). Why did so many hate it? It may be disappointment. People had heard it was going to be a huge party record, but how fun can a party be when one prominent line reads, "Looking for to save my, save my soul." Party indeed, a party right into the abyss of despair. It's hard to see the band through the barrage of sound and the shroud of negativity. They have never sounded so lost or so cynical. And in opposition to just about every conception of U2 (in spite of Achtung Baby and Zooropa), there's a God-shaped hole right through POP's dark heart.
Maybe the backlash comes from this. That people, in spite of U2's protestations, decided U2 had the answers, that they existed on a more enlightened plane, that they knew things the rest of us don't. But with U2 sounding like they needed some Paxil, the illusion was broken and many didn't like the void they were left staring at.
Rock bands don't write to please other people. Those who think so need to dispense with that idea. While some bands may come to be because of the promise of fame, fortune, and thousands of screaming fans, the best ones do it because they want to, because they have to and the music they write comes from within them. It is what is inside of them to write. Once a band (or anyone) starts writing for approval, the genuineness and even the legitimacy is lost. Lost also may be why so many people started following them in the first place.
But it's more important to be right than to be nice. This society is so obsessed with niceness, no one can say anything, as if we're responsible for how people misinterpret what we say. When everything's sterilized, all we're left with is "talking about your crap". Righting that is rock's inherent job. If it doesn't, then that's its biggest problem.
Yes, the Bomb is loveable. Instant emotions, instant love, instant can't-live-withoutedness. It has all the shortcuts to greatness. But it's all out there in the open. Does it have hidden depths existing besides its glowing warmth? They have heart and that's why they're needed in the fight for people's minds. That's when they're at their best, fighting it out with unpopular ideas.
Their latest bent, while well-meaning and lovable, is surprisingly shallow. Anyone can stand up there and say, "Let's feed the world". Those enemies are easy. Shaking people's minds is harder and riskier. Who but a real prick would fault them for wanting to end world hunger. But waking an inner battle, that's harder. "Gone" beats the crap out of the "Walk On"s of the world. Heresy? Perhaps. Dangerous? Of course. It's a commonly known fact that there's nothing more dangerous than a fool with an idea. (Read The Brothers Karamazov for a brilliant example.)
U2 never discussed POP's frozen heart in interviews. They were more focused on things like the arch and the mirrorball lemon. The album's desperation was lost in the glittering show like the soul was lost in the garbage. I may whine about the bubble pants on a purely aesthetic level, but I see the point. I *get* this, far more than the pleas to help Africa.
But then U2 shouldn't have to explain themselves. Why should anyone? Stand for something or you'll stand for anything. You shouldn't have to justify your beliefs. Belief by definition has no explanation. You dilute your convictions by starting out with, "It's only my opinion" and the like. We know it's your opinion. People don't speak another's thoughts by default. Speak your mind, it's the only thing you can call your own. If we continue this way, we end up with a flavorless, colorless, dreary universe where everyone gets along but it's so superficial it doesn't matter. No alarms and no surprises. A band who understands this is Radiohead though cold, Oxford-educated Englishmen will never have U2's heart and warmth. And music without a heart to break doesn't have the same effect.
They want to be popular, though. No one can fault them for that. There are only so many blows, so much ridicule, someone can take, even the greatest heroes. With the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 went on record as saying they were reapplying for the job of world's greatest rock band, all but admitting POP was a failure. But they went too far.
Ok Computer is the gauntlet, not Hit Me, Baby, One More Time. Arguements like POP's are isolating because no one likes to be told their lives are make-believe. No one wants to hear they're unhappy; it's considered anti-social. The problem with people like Radiohead is that they don't seem to care about spreading their message. They're all too happy to be preaching to the converted. it's almost like they go out of their way to NOT be popular. That isn't doing anyone a whole lot of good. The people who most need to hear it are those who would never be caught with one of those records. That's where U2 got good, with albums like Achtung Baby. It was dark and existential but also listenable and popular. It was a con to get the superficial types to buy it. It was a con and it worked.
POP was missing the same hooks but that doesn't make it a lesser album, just a less popular one. Is it as good as it could have been? Is anything? Expecting U2 to keep writing albums like this one is asking a lot. To say "Thank you very much" to an adoring crowd and then going out to write something at odds with the tastes and wishes of that same crowd takes a lot of self-assured gall. But time and again, they've shown they can do it. They may write another head-turning album yet before all is said and done. They occupy the position they do because they still have the ability to shock and amaze. They haven't sold their souls to the popular monster. An example of this is the insertion of "Gone" into the Elevation set list. It's still there. They'll move you a mountain yet.
Make your opinions heard over at the Forum.
"talking about your crap": A line in the film Next Stop, Wonderland; the strangest things have good lines, you just have to look for them.