In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover U2’s Pop, which went to No. 1 on March 22, 1997, where it stayed for one week.
When U2 releases an album, a debut at the top of the U.S. charts is somewhat of a foregone conclusion. Starting with 1987’s The Joshua Tree, only one of the Irish band’s studio albums—2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind—failed to land at No. 1 its first week out. Although Behind’s No. 3 position had something to do with pop and hip-hop’s dominance that year—both Outkast’s Stankonia and Jay-Z’s The Dynasty Roc La Familia (2000- ) outsold it—the (relatively) poor showing also had much to do with the U2 record that preceded it: 1997’s electronic excursion Pop.
That record debuted at No. 1 on March 22, 1997, and sold over 500,000 copies during its first two weeks on sale. But after this fast start, Pop slowly deflated: Despite No. 1 stints for “Discothèque” and “Staring At The Sun” on modern rock radio, the record spent just 28 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 before disappearing; where U2 studio albums are concerned, only 1981’s October spent less time on the charts. To date, Pop has only sold 1.51 million copies—a big number now, but barely anything for U2. More interestingly, the record is subtly being edged out of the U2 mythology. During the band’s last two major tours (Elevation and 360°), the only song from Pop played in its entirety was “Discothèque”—a whopping two times. Spotify and Rhapsody have just eight of the album’s 12 tracks available to stream.
That Pop has become the black sheep of U2’s catalog is a shame. For starters, the record lives up to its name: Nearly every song has a strong, resonant hook—sometimes driven by powerful high-register vocal acrobatics (a seductive “Do You Feel Loved” and the anguished “Gone”), and other times driven by dive-bombing digital screeches (“Mofo”) or metallic disco scribbles (“Miami”). The band wasn’t using technology to prop up subpar tunes; it worked with a solid musical foundation and merely sculpted interesting sounds and textures around and on it. This becomes clear when Pop’s songs are stripped down: On the version of “Staring At The Sun” U2 favored live, Edge strummed an acoustic guitar and sang with Bono, their voices intertwining for yearning, haunted harmonies.
Lyrically, Pop is also far more complex than it might seem; in fact, the record contains U2’s last great bits of unselfconscious songwriting. (Save for “Playboy Mansion,” a flimsy takedown of fame and stardom that aims for scathing but rings hollow.) In keeping with the clubland feel, its lyrics toy with sexuality—“Loved” is a particularly nuanced take on romantic confusion and temptation, while “Discothèque” obliquely captures the exuberance of a one-night stand. But for the most part, Pop’s ruminations on self-doubt, mortality, and regret contrast with the album’s steely digital sheen. “Please” criticizes the self-sabotage inherent with (and the magnitude of) Northern Ireland’s violent conflicts, while “Staring At The Sun” is both a crisis of faith and a condemnation of blind worship. And the distortion-cracked grayscale dirge “Wake Up Dead Man” is astonishing, a stark plea where Bono begs Jesus for guidance through despair–although the repeated cry of “Wake up, wake up dead man” also feels like he’s attempting to rouse himself.
Pop wasn’t a case of old guys were trying to stay relevant by getting hip to youthful trends; U2 is a band fascinated by new musical frontiers and energized by challenging itself. (In the case of “Discothèque” and its Village People-inspired video, it was also a band poking fun at itself.) Few rock bands embraced electronic music with as much fervor and enthusiasm as U2 did in the ’90s. The group approached the genre like eager students: listening to then-new bands and DJs (prior to Achtung Baby, Edge was said to listen to Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM) and handing its music over to remixers such as Paul Oakenfold and Apollo 440 to see what would happen.
For Pop, the band went even further down the electronic music rabbit hole. It immersed itself into dance culture (Pop engineer-producer Howie B noted in an interview that he and the band “go out to clubs and gigs all the time”); experimented in the studio with looped guitars and drums, samples of their own playing, and vintage synthesizers and sequencers; and carefully chose in-the-know collaborators (among them, Nellee Hooper and Mark “Spike” Stent, who was then known for his work with Massive Attack).
The end result is that sonically, Pop is still the most interesting U2 album, one where the group sounded galvanized by possibility. “If God Will Send His Angels” sounds like a straightforward chiming guitar ballad in the vein of Zooropa’s “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” but has watery effects floating underneath and subtle processing that adds melancholy. The apocalyptic despair of “Last Night On Earth” is predicated on zooming, Doppler-effect synths and psychedelic chorus layering, while “Gone” contrasts alarm-like guitars with motorik rhythms and more tranquil piano melodies. This friction between U2’s inherent beauty and more aggressive tendencies disfigured its sound in interesting ways, giving Pop a unique timbre.
That the record didn’t take off was somewhat perplexing. Pop emerged in the midst of the brief U.S. mainstream electronic boom of the late ’90s, perhaps the most dance music-friendly era until recent times. And there was certainly precedent for notoriously guitar-centric artists incorporating electronics. Synths were a staple part of the most popular work by overstuffed AOR favorites (Foreigner and Journey, for example). Neil Young famously infuriated his label in the early ’80s with his keyboard experiments, while R.E.M. dabbled with industrial crunch on 1994’s Monster. Even Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers debuted a sine-wave synth on their 1982 hit “You Got Lucky.” Plus, it’s not as though Pop is so weird that it’s inaccessible—if anything, the uneven Zooropa is much more of a challenging listen.
Perhaps Pop’s eventual lukewarm reaction was similar to the discontent U2 faced with 1988’s Rattle And Hum–only instead of a backlash against earnestness and authenticity, it was a backlash against technology and hubris. Along with Pop, U2 unveiled the PopMart tour, a gigantic stadium trek with accoutrements such as a mirrored lemon. For a band known for toeing the line between serious and ironic, the garish displays of commercialism and excess muddled the waters. The audience wasn’t immediately in on the joke like they were during Zoo TV; it felt more like they were consumed by the shtick.
Pop’s brief reign at No. 1 was a testament to the loyalty of U2’s fans, but also spoke to how much the group was able to get away with in the ’90s because of its massive popularity. These out-there experiments and ridiculous costumes weren’t simply tolerated; they were embraced and welcomed, a creative luxury U2 perhaps didn’t know it had until, well, it didn’t. In the aftermath of Pop, the band was in the unfamiliar position of having to defend itself and its music. Despite its global profile, U2 was self-aware enough to realize that its chart-topping days were no longer a guarantee.
This insecurity manifested itself as the end of U2’s unconventional phase. After spending much of the ’90s doing everything it could could to run away from the identity the group created in the ’80s, Pop kickstarted a career overcorrection back to the familiar world of anthemic guitar rock and universal platitudes. U2 has stayed in this zone for the last decade, with increasingly diminishing returns—the uplifting comfort food of All That You Can’t Leave Behind deteriorating a decade later into lyrics such as “force quit and move to trash” or “restart and reboot yourself.” The paradox of Pop is that U2’s lack of complacency actually backfired on the group. Had the album been recorded in an entirely different way (e.g., with none of the electronic trappings), it might have been received far differently—and far more positively.