By Brian Ives
Twenty years ago this week, U2 released one of their most daring and most misunderstood albums, Pop. Continuing down the sonic road they started on with 1991’s Achtung Baby and continued with 1993’s Zooropa and their 1995 side project Passengers, Pop took them further into dance music territory; their image became more arch and snarky, as the po-faced Irish dudes who looked so serious on the cover of 1987’s The Joshua Tree became a distant memory.
It all started with “Discotheque.” The song and video were, ostensibly, a celebration of dance music and culture. Commercially, this was a dangerous move for U2. They were a post-punk band who crossed over to the mainstream via massive MTV play in the ’80s; by the end of the decade, they were a mainstay on rock radio alongside Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.
Embracing industrial dance music on 1991’s Achtung Baby was a risky move that paid off: it seemed nearly as radical as Dylan going electric — or, at least, as radical as the Beastie Boys picking up their instruments, to use a more recent artistic 180-degree turn — and it worked. 1993’s Zooropa saw them delve further into digital music.
But “Discotheque” may have been a few steps too far onto the multi-colored dance floor for U2’s American rock audience to digest. Rock legends had embraced disco before — like the Rolling Stones on “Miss You” and Rod Stewart on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” — but none dove in with the enthusiasm of U2, or at least Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton. Drummer Larry Mullen looked unamused in the video, and through most of the promotion for Pop.
Ah, the video. U2 in Village People drag, grinning goofily (except for Mullen), singing about being at a disco, flirting (more than flirting, really) with gay imagery. They couldn’t have trolled their rock fans more if they tried.
Related: How Zooropa Changed U2
It seemed they were trading soul for snark as they exchanged guitars for beats. Unless you listened really closely because the song wasn’t actually about disco at all. As Bono wrote in the band’s oral history U2 By U2, “‘Discotheque’ is a riddle about love. Once you know that, it changes the way you hear the song. ‘You can reach, but you can’t grab it/You can’t hold it, control it, you can’t bag it.'” Even as they tried to be vapid, there was still substance there.
Still, that song and video set the tone for Pop, as did their launch for the album: a press conference at a ladies lingerie department at a K-Mart in the heart of Manhattan. And if that seemed gaudy, so did their tour, which saw them playing football stadiums on a huge stage adorned by what appeared to be 1/2 of the McDonalds arches — which extended past the top of the stadiums, so you could even see it from outside the buildings — and a giant lemon that the band rode in during the show (and which once, in a rather Spinal Tap-ish incident, got stuck with the band inside).
The tour didn’t just add to the band’s new image, it also influenced the album… and not in a good way. As Bono wrote, “Our manager talked us into that most heinous of crimes: booking the tour [before the album was finished]. Deadlines were looming ominously. Pop never had the chance to be properly finished.”
Properly finished or not, Pop was released on March 3, 1997. Rock fans who bought Pop may have been turned off by the opening trio of songs: “Discotheque,” “Do You Feel Loved” and “Mofo.” The latter was the band’s deepest dive into electronic dance music, with The Edge writing in U2 By U2, “There is no pretense there about trying to maintain the [rock] band format, we’re embracing the dance culture in that song and I think it works… maybe we should have had the confidence to make the album more clearly one thing.” “Mofo” contains some of Bono’s saddest lyrics, in which he pleads with his late mother: “Mother, am I still your son?” he asks. “You know, I’ve waited so long to hear you say so. Mother, you left and made me someone/Now I am still a child but no one tells me ‘No.'” In the midst of a hard-hitting dance jam, one of the world’s most famous rock stars laments that all his success doesn’t dull the pain of his mom’s passing.
If you had the patience to get to the fourth song on the album (or, if you were a U2 fan who also enjoyed their experimental dance music), you would have realized that the remainder of Pop was, in fact, a rock record. “Staring at the Sun” was a Beatlesque acoustic anthem, but as stripped down as the arrangement was, they would ultimately perform it acoustically in concert, with just Bono and The Edge singing and playing acoustic guitars.
By the time you got to the eleventh track “Please,” you may have thought you were back in the age of The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree (and in fact, “Please” offered a hint of what was to come later on 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind). It’s mostly a guitar/bass/drums rock arrangement; the video was reminiscent of “One” (like that video, it was also shot by Anton Corbijn, the guy who photographed U2 for the cover of The Joshua Tree). And, like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” it was about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. If you were a U2 fan who wanted to forget the ’90s, this would have been your jam.
Sure, there was some kitsch towards Pop‘s end in the form of “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion”; “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” seemed like an attempt at writing a Sinatra song. On the other hand, there was the greatly underrated straight up rock anthem “Last Night On Earth.”
The album ends with one of U2’s most lyrically heavy songs, “Wake Up Dead Man,” in which Bono addresses God. “Really this is in the tradition of the psalms of David,” Bono wrote in U2 By U2; he imaged David addressing God: “‘Where are you when you’re needed? I’m surrounded by my enemies. You got me into this, get me out of here!'” Heady stuff to end an album that kicked off at the disco.
Could U2 have returned to their stripped-down roots after Zooropa (or even after Achtung Baby) and gone right to All That You Can’t Leave Behind? Probably. But the truth is, they needed to take some time away from the thing that they’re best at — being a four-piece band — to better appreciate it. The effect was not unlike when Bruce Springsteen ended his decade-long sabbatical from the E Street Band. When they got back together, they appreciated each other more. And importantly, the fans missed them. When U2 returned to their more earnest, less electronic form in 2000, the fans really missed it.
But beyond the commercial and social aspects of, the truth is that sometimes being an artist is about stepping out to the ledge, and then going ten steps further. That’s where U2 found themselves in the late ’90s with Pop. Sometimes when you discover you are not, you get a greater understanding of who you are. As Bono said while discussing another underrated Pop gem, “Gone,” “‘Gone’ is a portrait of the young man as a rock star, trying to cut himself free from responsibilities and just enjoy the ride, the suit of lights, fame: ‘You change your name, well that’s ok, it’s necessary. And what you leave behind you don’t need anyway.’ But I think what this album tells you is that some things you can’t leave behind. That’s really it. It’s like the university professor who just can’t dance. Deep down we weren’t as shallow as we’d like.”