U2's `Pop' Arch

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Washington Popmart concert, May 26, 1997

U2's `Pop' Arch

When You're Trying to Transform the Rock Concert, It's Kitsch as Kitsch Can

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post

With a 100-foot-high yellow arch, a huge olive stuck atop a 100-foot toothpick, a 35-foot-tall lemon that transforms into a disco mirrored ball, and the world's largest video screen, U2's PopMart production, which plays RFK Stadium tonight, is a huge spectacle intended for a huge audience, a musical road show for the new millennium. "It's some kind of new medium, hopefully," says U2's singer and front man, Bono. "Is it Broadway? No. Is it a new development? I really hope so, because the '70s idea of playing in a muddy field where two-thirds of the people can't see or hear what's going on is a retarded idea of what big rock shows can be. You have to challenge that, or don't do them."

U2 has chosen to do them, and in grand style, first with 1993-94's massive Zoo TV tour and now with PopMart. Where Zoo TV was a pithy dissection of the technology-media-entertainment complex (with onstage phone calls to both pizza parlors and world leaders, including the White House at the last RFK stop), PopMart is more genial in its intentions though no less ambitious.

Yet Bono, speaking by phone from his hotel during a recent day off in Kansas City, insists that much of the show is really "simple."

"We've found a way of being able to play in a large place and make it, dare I say, intimate, and the people at the back feel as connected with what's going on as the people at the front," he says. "It's not what some people would think of as an `authentic' rock-and-roll concert, but we're trying to challenge that notion."

Certainly, PopMart, which parodies entrepreneurial kitsch, is an expensive proposition -- it costs $250,000 a day to mount -- and a logistical nightmare involving 75 trucks, 16 buses and a private 727 for the 250-person troupe (with 200 more added at each concert site). It probably took less planning to invade Grenada.

The rewards will be more than adequate, of course. Over 14 months, U2 will do more than 100 concerts in 80 cities on six continents (also resulting in a live album and concert film). With merchandise sales, the tour is expected to gross as much as $400 million, with the band receiving as much as $150 million. It will be 1997's biggest tour -- already, more than 2 million tickets have been sold at $50 each.

The news hasn't been quite as cheery on the album front. "Pop," which was expected to kick-start a moribund market when it was released in late February, opened at No. 1 with sales of almost 350,000 copies (it opened atop the charts in 26 other countries as well). But after three weeks it dropped out of the Top 10. And a prime-time ABC special that aired a day after the PopMart tour opened April 25 in Las Vegas was one of the lowest-rated nonpolitical documentaries ever shown on network television.

None of this seems to bother Bono.

"People talk about numbers with us all the time: After saving the world, we were supposed to save the record business," he points out caustically. "But there is a reason why rock-and-roll music is not selling the way it used to. It's boring, there is no surprise. It always used to have the shock of the new, not from a consumerist way but in terms of ideas, in terms of a different way of looking at the world."

U2's worldview has changed in the 21 years since four Dublin schoolboys -- Bono (Paul Hewson), guitarist the Edge (Dave Evans), drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton -- were brought together by a shared passion for punk. Initially breaking through to a wider audience with its third album, 1983's "War," U2 built a reputation on such earnest rock anthems as "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." These songs were informed by Christian devotion and populist politics, heralding a movement that came to be known as the New Sincerity.

World domination occurred with 1987's "The Joshua Tree," which contained such standards as "With or Without You," "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." But the mantle of righteousness grew burdensome, and U2 has spent much of the '90s exploring less grandiose musical tangents, from "Achtung, Baby's" industrial sounds and "Zooropa's" atmospherics to the dance-flavored soundtrack themes for "Batman," "Goldeneye" and "Mission Impossible."

"Pop" is U2's first album since 1993's "Zooropa," and its first single, "Discotheque," suggested the band was about to accommodate a new dance music aesthetic in a bid to join the electronica bandwagon. Indeed, "Pop" has flavoring from the full range of computer-generated rock, from trip-hop and techno to ambient, but it still is undeniably U2ish in its concerns. The band sounds caught between rock and a rave place, open to all the new music but unable -- and unwilling -- to deny its instincts.

"Our first duty is to keep ourselves interested, and we're selfish in that respect," says Bono. "The new record is where we live, it's the kind of music we listen to. In Europe, things are not segregated, so you get a lot of different music just bleeding through. You're hearing a dance tune next to a rock tune next to a pop tune next to a metal tune, so that's just in us.

"But we're a band, we have something that we must protect," he adds. Electronica "can inform our music, we can play with it, but it must never overpower and I think that's true of the `Pop' record."

Certainly, U2's personality contrasts with the anonymity of most electronica acts. "And by and large it's the four of us playing," rather than using samples from other acts, Bono notes.

And, Bono says pointedly, "we should always remind ourselves that rock-and-roll was dance music at its outset. Without the groove, it was nothing. . . . We want to keep our band pure in its heart, but in terms of its head, we're wide open to whatever's going on."

Because PopMart is such a massive venture, there are limits on its spontaneity. Though Bono notes that "we're the writers as well as the actors in this script, and we can turn on a sixpence if we want to," there are so many technological demands -- computerized lights, sounds, videos and effects -- that it sometimes feels as if the production is driving the music, rather than the reverse.

"I'll be honest with you -- over the first nine shows, we have failed here and there," Bono concedes, "but at the moment that arc is in our favor and we're starting to play the most transcendent shows we've played for 10 years in and around all this trash. That, I would suggest, goes back to the very essence of what rock-and-roll is, back to Elvis and his zoot suits and blue eyeliner and the attitude that went with it, and the humor of his stance and movement.

"And isn't that the job of rock-and-roll? Always at the point where it's most interesting, you get the most confusion, whether it's Dylan plugging in his electric guitar at Newport or Elvis in his gold suit or Parliament-Funkadelic landing the mothership. This is what it should be, not a conservative ghetto."

Some critics have attacked the U2 productions and similar extravaganzas by Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones as the rock equivalent of movies like "Independence Day" and "Twister" -- heavy on special effects but deficient in substance. For instance, U2 started meeting with director Willie Williams and set designer Mark Fisher (both Zoo TV veterans) long before "Pop" had taken shape in the recording studio.

Bono recognizes the dilemma and admits that "unless there's emotional connection, it's useless. In fact, worse than useless, because then you become the enemy. I don't care in the end about what it costs to make a movie -- I just care if it connects with me."

The concert begins the techno-swirl of "Mofo" (from "Pop") and the band's very first single, the earnest "I Will Follow," both of which address Bono's feelings of loss after his mother died when he was a teenager. The pairing serves another purpose as well. " `Mofo' is as far as we've gone and `I Will Follow' is as far as we've come from," Bono explains. "It's two poles, but having them right next to each other, seeing them move seamlessly into each other, you realize this is the same band."

None of that should suggest a somber, fatalistic mood, though other songs also explore the spiritual and emotional dislocation that has always obsessed U2. The stage set, the occasional odd outfit, Bono's penchant for melodramatic expression -- all figure without apology. "The essence, the humanity of what we're trying to do is no less by having the laughter and the humor," says Bono. "They don't take away from each other, they add to each other."

The concert also features video expansions on pop art works by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (the last actually helping out). Complaining that rock music has "gone brown on us," Bono has embraced what he describes as "the primary colors of pop artists" and their celebration of everyday culture.

"I found liberation [in a populist approach] after having spent the '80s trying to deal with and dodge our own success," he explains. "We've always tried to be honest about our ambitions for the group -- we wanted to see how far we could take it. . . .

"We wouldn't live that lie of `How did it happen to us? Oh gosh, we don't really want it, man.' . . . There's joy in the success of the group, as the records get played on the radio and people tune in to what you're doing. If we'd stayed in the same place, if we'd repeated ourselves and cashed in the chips and opted for an easy life, we'd have a hard time with self-respect.

"Twenty years into being a band -- I started at 16 -- I'm amazed that we're still getting into trouble for the same thing, which some people might call overreaching. I think it's just curiosity, whether political or spiritual or musical. . . . With U2, the reason we're still making our best work, whether it's imagined or not, is that hound is at our heel. We do very clearly remember where we came from and we're still in the same band and so we have to be great or we're going to break up and kill each other."

Copyright © 1997 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 26, 1997 4:44 AM.

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