"People can't shock me with their capacity for evil -- or for goodness."
The Unloved Songs of Pop: Miami and The Playboy Mansion
March 12, 2017
Cited by many as the band’s most underrated album, U2’s Pop has a surprising number of admirers. These diehards sing its praises against the strong tide of critics who would rather see it swept under the rug. But even among the most ardent Pop lovers, a couple of the album’s deepest cuts are still regarded as inexcusable. A lot of people just hate “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion,” but in addition to having some of the album’s most overlooked musical hooks and effective lyrics, these songs are at the very heart of what Pop is all about.
Continuing the themes established with Achtung Baby, Zooropa and the Zoo TV tour, Pop dug deeper into the search for meaning in a superficial society and served up another healthy dose of ironic cynicism, this time with even greater potency. As the band delved further into the effects of an increasingly fame-obsessed and approval-seeking culture, they also developed a greater revulsion for its worst parts. This is clearest in the second half of the album, where we find “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion.” In the album’s narrative arc, these two songs strip the idea of pop culture of any merit by pointing to the vacuum it leaves behind. This theme becomes most stark at the album’s close.
One of the pleasures of “Miami” is hearing how well U2 can communicate in a way so different from their more traditional sound. It is well-known that the band took a one-week vacation in the midst of recording Pop. The band fondly refers to the trip as a fun distraction from the stresses of a very tight recording schedule. “Miami” is supposed to be the carefree souvenir of that time period. While the lyrics go about their business with a swaggering sense of humor, the track has an ever-present eeriness, giving you the uneasy feeling of a day playing hooky ruined by a constant underpinning of guilt.
Instead of the feeling of a refreshing getaway, the song has the gritty, sleazy aura of knocking around a grimy town with nothing to do except things you’ll later regret (Love to walk through movie set/Get to shoot someone in the foot/get to smoke some cigarettes…Getting hot in a photo booth). Musically, the song starts with a cocky, sauntering beat from the rhythm section, where Adam’s bass-playing drives the motion. We’re then given a counterpoint with a series of haunting, sustained tones. The production takes some interesting turns, sometimes drowning the sound to make you feel like you’re swimming in a chlorine-rich pool at a cheap motel. After a couple of verses Edge lays the hard, grinding guitar riff that later accompanies Bono’s primal scream of “Miami” at the climax. It is as much boastful as it is a cry for release.
“Miami” describes a city full of cheap entertainment, devoid of any truth or beauty. The lyrics paint quick portraits of empty characters with base desires (Big girl with a sweet tooth watches/skinny girl in the photo shoot) and empty promises (We could make something beautiful/something that wouldn’t be a problem). The song is impressionistic of a trashy town, complete with greasy hair and cigarette ash, making you want to wash your hands. The lyrics are peppered with instantly recognizable details such as “print shirts,” “Southern accents,” pink and blue suits, “cigars and big hair.” Along with the title location, “Miami” also evokes imagery of a dirty Hollywood backlot or a Las Vegas alley late at night. In the end, it’s describing a soul that’s been “stranded in some skin & bones” (Yahweh, anyone?) and so is left with no sense of morality or truth. The fact that it does this so effectively while still eliciting a visceral response to the music—and all while having a little fun—is why I love it.
“The Playboy Mansion”
If “Miami” is the aesthetic of a pop culture wasteland, “The Playboy Mansion” is a challenge to its stated values. Directly comparing the pearly gates of heaven with those of the infamous L.A. mansion, this song is the desperate prayer of a faithful believer asking for strength to overcome the twisted set of values that he finds surrounding him. Despite the much-maligned topical references to O.J., Coke and Michael Jackson, the lyrics also contain poignant religious comparisons (The banks they’re like cathedrals/I guess casinos took their place…Chance is a kind of religion/Where you’re damned for plain hard luck). This is a world where the faith of pop culture comes from recognition by mankind rather than approval from the divine.
The song’s meaning is very relevant to U2 and its fans today: Is it important to seek recognition from the larger culture while also being true to yourself? “The Playboy Mansion” criticizes the idea that to be excluded from the current cultural conversation is pop culture damnation (I never did see that movie/I never did read that book). It asks listeners to consider whose approval they seek and receive. In the world of “The Playboy Mansion” the worst thing you can be is a pop culture know-nothing with no connections, luck or entertaining cocktail party anecdotes (I never bought a lotto ticket/I never parked in anyone’s space). It is “who you know that gets you through” to that coveted mansion, but is that really a place you want to be?
As the song reaches its concluding swell the disco ball falls, the house lights come up, and Bono drops the cynicism and just begs sincerely for the relief of kingdom come:
Don't know if I can hold on
Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for sorrow
This emotional climax drops the sleazy guitar and spoken-word quality that started the tune and brings, at last, a soaring supplication. The final lines are a hand reaching out for the divine, hoping beyond hope for something more than what popular society and its vacuous glamour can give. This is why it fit so well as a snippet at the end of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” where Bono sang it many times throughout the PopMart tour. It’s the only part of the song that has ever been played live, and is one of the moving moments of reprieve on Pop where the classic spirit of U2 is felt most.
I became a U2 fan during the post-Pop/pre-ATYCLB era without having experienced in real time all the flubs and disappointments that came along with Pop and its rollout. I look at it without all the context that, understandably, clouds the judgment of those who were there to see it happen. If you can cut through your remembered initial reactions, look past the topical references that are such a hang-up for so many, and just focus on the instinctually provocative music and ideas, you might overcome any sorrow, shame or pain you associate with these two great U2 songs.
(c) @U2/Gifford, 2017