"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll."
-- Bono, on playing chess
The Vulnerable Side of Pop
March 10, 2017
There’s not a lot of middle ground with Pop. Many U2 fans seem to either love or hate it. The band itself said the album was released unfinished. A few more weeks of work and it might have sounded different, but its message probably would have been the same. The big issue is that some people have the wrong impression because of the name Pop. I believe the album’s name doesn’t express its real meaning.
It all starts with “Discotheque,” a dancing song with a unique video. I was shocked when I watched it the first time. Today, I think it’s funny, but I’m almost sure Larry wouldn’t agree with me. Anyway, the beginning of Pop is about a new tone the band wanted to explore. They immersed themselves in electronic music and pop art. The colorful cover shows that perception, too.
But the album also includes a critique of consumer society and how pop culture could be trashy. That reflection is the most important, in my view, and is noticeable throughout the entire album. From middle to end, Pop has a different mood. The ambiguity is what really attracts me.
Underneath the costume is a beating heart that is desperately searching for answers. The album includes a lot of references to God and Jesus, and the lyrics are full of questions. Bono is inquiring about two of the central points of life: love and faith. That crisis is clear on “If God Will Send His Angels” and, as Niall Stokes said in U2: The Stories Behind Every Song, “reaches epidemic proportions.”
God’s got his phone off the hook, babe
Where do we go?
More relevant than finding answers, however, is the ability to come up with those questions. If you can do it during a dark moment, with mixed emotions, it’s already positive. U2 were not ashamed to show human vulnerability.
It was the end of the decade, and we were about to enter into a new century. The band was finishing a process - experimentation with techno music (since Achtung Baby and Zooropa). What was left? Superficially, the album appears to be only about partying, dancing and colors.
“I’m skeptical about these reference points,” Larry says in Stokes’ book. “I just like the idea of taking what’s out there and f----- with it.”
Actually, Pop is much more than it appears. Mass culture provides ephemeral satisfaction, then takes you to the emptiness of the soul. The impact of the album goes straight to those deep feelings when you’re lost and things are falling apart.
The crisis of faith is very present in the album, as it is in post-modernity.
“There are a lot of arguments with God on this record,” Bono says in U2 By U2. “But it does not chart my loss of faith. You can’t be having an argument with God if you don’t believe there is one.” That sentiment appears strongly again on “Wake Up Dead Man.”
Like most of U2’s albums, Pop ends with a reflective song. It was a long walk from the bright “Discotheque” to the black and blue “Wake Up Dead Man.”
According to Edge, in U2 By U2, the album “began as an escapist concept and then slowly, almost like the coming up of the dawn, the morning after, it ended with the realization that there is no escape and you’re back to the grim realities.”
The final track could be interpreted as a prayer or a plea.
Jesus, Jesus help me
Jesus, I’m waiting here, boss
If there’s an order in all of this disorder
Pop asks big questions that were on the minds and in the hearts of many people. The late 20thcentury marked an era of confusion and frustration, and uncertainty about the values and principles of the future. Although Pop is not one of my favorite U2 albums, it is remarkable because the band was courageous and took risks. Pop was released exactly 10 years after the The Joshua Tree, which was a worldwide success and took U2 to the top. They could have chosen the easiest path, but instead faced this new challenge in their career. For me, it’s a complex album full of torn human emotions, a self-rediscovery - and that’s the part I like most.
(c) @U2/Bottini, 2017