Friday, September 7, 2012
The Bloomsbury Press acquired Continuum in July 2011, which means they also acquired the wonderful 33 1/3 series that Continuum once published. Each book looks at one specific album, and uses that as a starting point for musical analysis, cultural critique, Ulmerian mystory, fictional flight of fancy, or whatever else the writer's imagination can conjure and convey. They put out a call for new book proposals this past spring. I submitted one on U2's 1997 album Pop, and eagerly awaited the martini-laden conversations with Bono about rock aesthetics, decadence and debt relief that were sure to follow.
The final list was released last week, and in the biggest publishing tragedy since the release of Andy Cohen's autobiography, my proposal was not among those chosen. I knew this ahead of time, actually, as I received a very nice rejection email from the editor in June, when the first round of cuts was made. I was curious about the final list, though, and looking at it now, I see things both intriguing (Danger Mouse! Oasis! Michael Jackson! Sigur Ros! Kanye! Bjork!), predictable (Hole, Devo, Gang of Four, Bobbie Gentry) and head-scratching (as one person put it in the comments section to the above post, Smile is unquestionably a great album, but is there anything new to say about its various permutations, given that it's probably the best-known, most obsessed about "lost album" of all time?).
It was suggested, in both polite rejection note and on their blog, that we unaccepted folks share our proposals (in part or whole), if only to keep the conversations going (either on our own blogs or websites, or in the comments threads of the 33 1/3 blog). For whatever reasons, I resisted this notion for a few months, but I've been thinking lately that it's not a bad idea. I really like my submission, and when I wrote it, I did imagine the text interweaving around images, links, and YouTube clips, anyway (Pop is both a discophilic dreamscape and a techno-playground).
What follows is one part of my longer proposal, the section where they asked for the first chapter or section of your proposed book (my conceit is that each chapter would take its title from one of the songs on the record). As an imagined opening to a longer book, it counts on the fleshing-out of certain skimmed-upon theoretical points, but I still think it works pretty well on its own. And despite the fact that it's not about Courtney Love, I still hope to do something more with it in the future.
Chapter One: Discotheque
One word-- plastics.
In the beginning, the idea of wearing sunglasses in an interview seemed...kind of stupid. Now, we realize that, in fact, it's not whether you're wearing sunglasses that's important, it's what kind of sunglasses you're wearing.
--The Edge, 1992
The first thing you notice is the hat.
U2’s Pop Mart (Live from Mexico City) DVD opens with Steve Osborne’s blaring re-mix of M’s “Pop Muzik,” set against an animated credits sequence that loops Peter Max-like drawings of various tour signifiers (an airplane, a lipstick, Adam Clayton’s head, a television, a red guitar). The song fades with the image, as the credits give way to a long shot of the ecstatic, awaiting crowd staring at the glowing yellow arch, and the ballooning letters “P-O-P” that are disappearing and reappearing on the PopMart stage. It’s 1997, mid-way through U2’s world tour, and a gigantic green olive on a bright yellow martini pick stands aloft, waiting for its heroes’ arrival. “Pop Muzik” kicks back in (this time playing on tape at the arena, rather than as a credits overdub), as the camera cranes around the crowd and the stage, the “O” of the “POP” projection turning into a globe, a soccer ball, a great glittering disco orb. Cuts carry us across beatific faces in the crowd and back to the stage, the slow build transforming the PopMart set into an objective correlative, creating anticipation for icons who aren’t yet there.
A final zoom on the crowd segues to a super-imposition of the band’s arrival. In contrast to the trashy, colorful glow of the stage, this scene is staged in hand-held black-and-white, cut to look like paparazzi footage as the band and their bodyguards push through the crowded mass of fans. The Edge leads the way, and he’s wearing wrap-around welder’s goggles that resemble those sported by Bono’s “Fly” character on the ZooTV tour four years earlier, in support of Achtung Baby. When the band promoted that aesthetic breakthrough at the start of the decade, Edge had donned a blue ski cap which, in combination with sunglasses and a menacing goatee, gave him the appearance of (in journalist Bill Flanagan’s words), a space-aged bouncer. Just before ZooTV kicked off, Flanagan reports in his essential U2 At The End of The World, the band had to choose hotel room pseudonyms that would keep them relatively safe from the inquiries of eager fans; Bono had suggested that they check in under the names of the Monkees:
Bono wanted to be Davy Jones, the short, maracas-shaking singer. Edge was to be Mike Nesmith, the serious, wool-hatted guitarist. He thought Adam might object to being the troublemaking blond bimbo Peter Tork, but Adam said no problem. The whole idea sank when Larry refused to be Mickey Dolenz (Flanagan 41).
Not surprisingly, it was the level-headed Edge who shot the idea down, pointing out to his disappointed partner that “We’d still have fans ringing the rooms, but it’ll be somebody else’s fans!” (Flanagan 41). Spilling out of a Dublin bar that evening, Flanagan reports that this conversation lead Bono to drunkenly sing “The Theme from The Monkees” as he crossed the street, heedless to an oncoming car, and grabbed just in time by his bandmates before he was smashed across the pavement (42).
The Edge may have rejected “Mike Nesmith” as a tour-ready secret identity, but his Achtung-era wool cap suggests that the Texan’s steady, music-obsessed persona wasn’t that far from his own.
The cowboy hat suggests, not the futuristic, media-ridden dystopia of ZooTV, but the arid desert landscapes and religious overtones of The Joshua Tree, the 1987 record that U2 spent much of the 90s running away from (at least on the surface).
“Radio, video…boogie with a suitcase”: as the lyrics of “Pop Muzik” sing out over the industrialized drums of Osborne’s remix, they neatly delineate the split between sound and image (meaning and pose?) that U2 have been pushing, blurring and ironically challenging over the last decade. First released as a single in the UK in May 1979 (four months before U2’s debut EP Three), the original “Pop Muzik” single was the brainchild of producer Robin Scott, recording under the pseudonym “M” (taken from the giant “M” Scott saw on the sides of Parisian buses). It took advantage of the vinyl format in a Surrealist way: as a 12-inch single, the record was double-grooved, so both songs on the record started at the same point, and which would play depended on the chance operation of where the needle would land.
Those kinds of technical tricks (and Scott’s generating a stage name out of the moving billboards of consumer culture) would’ve been rejected by early U2, for whom a more linear, earnest expression and attempts at clarity (even if it had to be found by pushing through walls of guitars and swirlingly ambiguous vocals) were key; that need for something solid, something “real,” took on a bodily presence in Bono’s speech inducting The Who into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. There, Pete Townshend’s nose was offered as the generator of the band’s meaning: “It’s essential equipment, if you want to be in a great rock and roll band,” he noted, a smile playing but never quite forming on his lips. “…Some people have ‘em and they chop ‘em off, uhh…We call those people pop stars. The Who are rock and roll stars.”
On the cusp of Achtung Baby, when the band will follow their noses somewhere quite different, pop vs. rock seems like an important categorical difference for the band; by 1998, playfulness and identity confusion had become the new paradigm, and U2 seem to have embraced Robin Scott’s single and his personal manifesto: “"I was looking to make a fusion of various styles which somehow would summarize the last 25 years of pop music. It was a deliberate point I was trying to make. Whereas rock and roll had created a generation gap, disco was bringing people together on an enormous scale. That's why I really wanted to make a simple, bland statement, which was, 'All we're talking about basically (is) pop music." U2 have also replaced Townshend’s out-front nose (and all the cultural history it represents) with a concealed (pseudonymous?) face; as Bill Flanagan points out, the 90s Bono was apt to quote his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person; give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” The walk to the PopMart stage is a procession of costumes: just behind the Edge’s disco cowboy is Adam Clayton, wearing a surgical mask that covers both his nose and his mouth, like a pop musician waiting to perform the plastic surgery Bono mocked seven years earlier. Bono is wearing a boxing robe with the hood up, and wrap-around sunglasses; only Larry is sans costume, his eyes piercing straight ahead.
A cut takes the viewer to an overhead shot, as the camera pulls back and we see the spotlights making patterns that look like light crosses flickering across the band. Another cut shows the band’s movement captured in a circle, projected under the stage arch, an image whose black-and-white evokes both a silent cinema iris and the gun-barrel circles of the James Bond films (two years earlier, Bono and the Edge wrote the title song for the Bond film Goldeneye, while Larry and Adam contributed a funky reworking of the Mission: Impossible theme to the first entry in that Tom Cruise franchise). As U2 hit the boardwalk leading to the main PopMart stage, all but Bono proceed a bit further to their instruments. The lead singer stays downstage for a moment, shadow-boxing some more to extend the instant, to further pump up the excited crowd. He grabs the hand-mike from a roadie and starts mumbling “Mexico…Mofo.” He leans into the camera, creating a fish-eye distortion that makes his leer even creepier. “Fo…Mo... Fo…” he repeats, and the band kicks in with “Mofo,” the third (and the most sonically menacing) song on their most recent album, Pop.
Bono kisses the camera lens, his pop nose distorted and exaggerated, then marches to join his bandmates. He begins hopping up and down, hooting, chuckling and mumbling all the while, the peak of his boxing hood echoed by the shape of the arch above him. It’s a long way from The Joshua Tree‘s stoicism, but it’s still its own kind of religious ecstasy. A sudden wash of color takes us out of the black-and-white footage, almost like a Technicolor baptism, a sensation enhanced by Bono’s sudden removal of the boxing robe that’s covered his shaved head, ready to be cleansed by the power of music. He squeezes the words out, like a man slowly being resuscitated: “Lookin’ for to save my…save my…soul…”
When they were filming the video for “Numb” in 1993, Bill Flanagan had a great idea--amidst the ropes, feet, and band-mates assaulting a somnambulant Edge, perhaps someone could sneak up behind the guitarist and remove his wool hat, revealing another underneath? Edge rejected the idea, but that act of repetition and difference in a single gesture will play itself out on a grand scale in Pop, both the album and the subsequent tour. Most immediately, there’s the sonic boogie of U2’s suitcase (a word with its own double meaning: “suitcases” don’t just hold the band’s costumes, but in the early days of synthesized keyboards, held the synthesizer itself)-- very instrument on the stage is filtered and processed, from Edge’s wah-wah guitar to Adam’s bass (which almost sounds like a lurching keyboard) to Larry’s electronic drum sounds (to say nothing of Bono’s amplified voice). But it works on a visual level, too-- when Bono pushes his white boxing hood down, another hood is revealed underneath (Flanagan reports that it was Bono whose “eyes lit up” at the idea of a two-hatted Edge all those years ago). Clearly, there are some layers to sift through here, or as the band sings on “Mofo,” “Lookin’ for the Baby Jesus/Under the trash…”
The difference between the PopMart and Joshua Tree tours, or indeed the PopMart and ZooTV tours, is that it’s not clear where the costume ends and the “real” band begins. However disingenuously (more on that later), the "U2" offered up in 1987 came without any apparent filters, creating a direct and intense connection with their audience that stood in contrast to the surrounding 80s glitz, and made them the biggest band in the world. ZooU2 was deliberately about creating a stark contrast with their previous asceticism-- the tour trumpeted its artifice in a barrage of multimedia and named characters (The Fly, MacPhisto) that transformed the Achtung tour into a stage parable (ironically, this meant it also stood in contrast to the surrounding earnestness of the early 90s grunge bands--including Pearl Jam, who opened for U2 on the Zoo tour--who saw the 80s version U2 as a social model). PopMart offered an ever-faster barrage of masks, a feint-and-dodge of endless signifiers, but unlike ZooTV, it refused to footnote for its audience, refused to clarify where the characters started and the real U2 began.
It’s a concept addressed as both dilemma and opportunity on “Discotheque,” the opening song and first single off of Pop:
You can reach
But you can’t grab it
You can hold it, control it,
No, you can’t bag it
You can push
But you can’t direct it
Circulate, regulate, oh no
You cannot connect it
In contrast to the linearity of early U2, “Discotheque” creates circularity in both its riddling lyrics and its production, a bend of guitars and DJ wash that album co-conspirator DJ Howie B called “swirl”; the effect is like being in a sonic centrifuge, the beat thrusting us around into a dizzying vertigo. And yet-- it’s intensely pleasurable, not in spite of its confusion, but because of it. “You know you’re chewing bubblegum,” sing these onetime-potential Monkees, finally embracing the artificiality of their circumstances. “You know what that is/But you still want some.”
The tensions embodied in “Discotheque’s” opening lines (solidity/transience, materiality/spirit, stasis/movement) are just the latest variation on the paradoxes U2 devoted themselves to in the 90s, as earnestness gave way to irony, rock gave way to pop, cowboy hats gave way to plastics.
After all these dizzying spins, 1997’s Pop is, to paraphrase Diana Ross, the Love Hangover (as Bono slips lines from Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You, Baby” into “Discotheque’s” la-la-la choruses), the moment when these various lyrical protagonists hit the saturation point of their sensory experiences, but can’t let go. Images juxtapose and flit by like a kaleidoscope of joy and guilt, with fades and superimpositions of experience and critique occupying the same frame.
What we need, the anthropologist Michael Taussig noted, is a social critique that “pierced the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality”; U2’s refusal of singularities (“You’re looking for the one,” Bono sings on “Discotheque” “But you know you’re somewhere else instead”), its creation of a discotheque where the neon decadence of the martini pick and the law of the cowboy hat (a law of the Old West, of Old Rock, of the dreaded authenticity) dance with one another, feels like the embodiment of Taussig’s call.
Of course, it was a call that a lot of people refused in 1997. More than any other U2 album, Pop faced a barrage of criticism when it was released, and even more once the PopMart tour got underway later that year. The band would later claim they’d brought some of this on itself: they’d booked the tour before the album was done, necessitating a quick series of decisions on song mixes after the album’s long gestation period, and a later revisionist critique would suggest they made the wrong choices. The PopMart tour itself was announced in a K-Mart, a cute Situationist gesture that the more po-faced music journalists would read as too cute by half (they’d also sit stone-faced in the wake of PopMart’s McDonald’s arches, Tomb Raider graphics and flying Lemon-ships). The album sold seven million copies, but slow ticket sales for the shows gave critics ammunition for their theses that U2 had overreached. But more than any of the band’s choices (or any choices they could have made), Pop is both the beneficiary and victim of timing (or what trip-hop artist Tricky called, that same year, “pre-millennial tension”). At the end of a decade that had seen the rise and fall of grunge, the death and re-birth of the boy band, the emergence of hip-hop and country as America’s most popular musical genres, and the inevitable (but for many old-line critics, uneasy) integration of dance and electronica into “traditional” rock forms, U2’s refusal to stake a singular claim, its embrace of paradox and camp, was read as nothing less than a betrayal of its once-earnest mission. That the band had spent most of the last decade defrocking itself was conveniently overlooked: “They want you to be Jesus, to go down on one knee,” Bono crooned on “Hold Me, Thrill Me…” before wryly adding that “they’ll want their money back if you’re alive at thirty-three.”
By 2000, when the band released its supposed “back-to-basics” comeback record All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the excesses of Pop were something U2 felt the need to apologize for, and their prostrating themselves before the church of Rolling Stone got them back in the good graces of the proper cultural High Priests, and back on rock radio. But pop music, for all of its roots in the Church, tends to play better in the clubs, and as Pop hits its 15th anniversary, it seems ripe for a re-revisioning. “You want to be the song,” Bono croons in the bridge of “Discotheque,” “Be the song that you hear in your head.” It’s the band’s best prayer, the purest and giddiest of U2’s chronic longings for musical transubstantiation, the most ecstasy-laden of its recognitions of itself in its community of fans (it’s a link between band and listener that paradoxically happens as a dissolve of the self).
In the musical and cultural blur of 1997, Pop felt very much of its moment, and also a bit out of time, futuristic and forward-looking, both the apotheosis of the previous decade’s experimentation, and a stopping point for U2’s avant impulses (it would take until the end of the '00s for the band to set aside its increased musical conservatism and get playful again). And given its prophetic blend of rock, pop, ballad, country and electronica, Pop remains as startling and fresh now as it did when it was released. I would argue it’s precisely because the album has been so dismissed by fans, critics and the band itself that it seems like the U2 album most worth exploring: hidden in its grooves might be all manner of secrets-- about U2, about pop music, about how the boogie in a discotheque on the edge of the millennium might be (to paraphrase the great film director Jean Renoir) like “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” and why such a choreography might still have something to say about cultural criticism in the 21st century. All that’s needed is a style of writing that unlocks the grooves, like that double-grooved “Pop Muzik” single mentioned above, something that can make the needle land in a new spot, and spark the dance.