By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
The setup for U2's current troubles has been positively mythic; seldom in the history of popular music has an act so readily participated in its own abject humiliation. The band--vocalist Bono, guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.--allowed a steady stream of hyperbole to issue from its camp about its next album, to be titled Pop, throughout virtually all of 1996. And from the beginning, reports about the content of the recording were inextricably mingled with matters of finance. According to these effusive sources, U2's latest songs would leap forward by incorporating the sonic accoutrements of electronica, techno and trip-hop, but they would also be overtly "fun," accessible, and commercial as all getout. Given the disappointing reception to 1996 releases by supergroups R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Hootie & the Blowfish, as well as the sense that the modern-rock movement was essentially played out, the U2 disc was held out as the hope of the music business, a guaranteed success that would snap the industry out of its slump and open the door to a daring sound sure to capture the hearts and minds of the global music patron.
Cracks in this theory began to appear late last year. The performers had planned to release Pop in November in order to cash in on the lucrative pre-Christmas market, but they missed their deadline. Hence, they resolved to issue the juggernaut in the post-holiday period that is annually the softest from a record-sales perspective. This choice in itself was a gamble, as was the decision to put out a first single, "Discotheque," weeks prior to the album. Why? Because if the cut stiffed, its demise would be a severe blow to the launch of the full-length.
That was pretty much the way things worked out. MTV, VH1 and major radio stations in a variety of formats across the country rolled out the red carpet for "Discotheque," but listeners by and large responded with yawns. The cut was certainly light and bouncy, but it was no breakthrough; in fact, it was so willfully disposable and subtly condescending that repeated spins became simply irksome. So, too, was the announcement of U2's stadium tour, made in a Manhattan Kmart and presented in so smarmy a manner that fans who had once prized the players for their sincerity could be forgiven for wondering what on earth had happened to these guys. From the beginning, ticket sales at locations across the country were dreadfully slow, and the appearance in stores of Pop did little to light a fire under them. The CD, as it turned out, was no more radical than Achtung Baby, which itself had been inaccurately ballyhooed as revolutionary upon its 1991 release. But times had changed and the vibes surrounding the project were extremely sour. It entered the Billboard album chart at number one, but the total units moved were roughly equal to the first-week figures racked up by Pearl Jam's No Code, which accountants subsequently deemed an economic catastrophe. And as was the case with Code, the sales of Pop began to tumble almost immediately. Seven weeks after its arrival, it was being outsold by the Notorious B.I.G., the Spice Girls and discs by Celine Dion, Jewel and No Doubt that had been available for well over a year.
Most artists would be humbled by such a repudiation, but not U2. The TV special U2: A Year in Pop ran on ABC on April 26, the day after the tour opened in Las Vegas, but rather than using their hour of network time to stretch out, take chances or display other sides of themselves, Bono and company offered a fawning, conceited U2 infomercial that made most MTV rockumentaries seem like The Sorrow and the Pity by comparison. Examples of painful moments are too numerous to list in their entirety, but lowlights included narrator Dennis Hopper's gushy (and out-of-date) crowing about how music retailers saw Pop as a gift from God; Bono's declaration that U2 was, at its best, the most fascinating band on the planet; pretentious guest spots by the likes of painter Roy Lichtenstein; and videotape of Allen Ginsberg reciting the lyrics of "Miami," a track from Pop. The U2 brain trust apparently felt that having the late poet and NAMBLA booster intone Bono's "dese-dem-dose" words would make it clear to all that they were rhymes of a rare and fine quality. Instead, Ginsberg's folly only underlined how desperate the quartet was to be taken seriously. Viewers certainly didn't take the bait; based on overnight ratings, U2: A Year in Pop was watched by fewer people than any hour-long program ever shown by one of the big-three networks in prime time. That's right--ever. Even the last episode of That's Incredible did better.