Discount pop

You can't walk away from U2 -- even though you'd like to.

Topics: Music, Bono, Dennis Hopper, Movies,

U2′s television special “A Year in Pop,” which aired last weekend on ABC,
started off with a song. That song. It was the first one of theirs I
ever heard. The year: ninth grade. The setting: a high school talent show
at an outdoor band shell on a damp Montana night. I remember my friend’s big
sister performed something from “South Pacific,” a jazz combo did “I
Can’t Get Started” and a garage band made up of seniors I barely knew played
a song that made me look at them in a whole new way. The guitar part had
this persistence, like it was tugging on your shirt sleeves, and the lyrics
were simple, but slotted into a circular rhythm that had this way of
kidnapping your head: “If you walk away walk away walk away walk away, I will
follow.” I was impressed enough to think out loud; when I expressed
admiration for their songwriting skills, the kid next to me said, “That’s U2,
you idiot.” I bought “Boy” the next day, and U2′s version of “I Will
Follow” was even better than those high school students’. Because U2
had … bells!

Other than some Elvis albums purchased under the influence of my mother
before I turned 10, “Boy” was the first rock record I ever bought. At
15, I fancied myself a serious connoisseur of the classical tradition, and I
think I wrapped myself in its pretensions as a way of escaping the horrors of
American adolescence. Debussy and Beethoven had absolutely nothing to do
with me or my life or my friends or lack thereof, and that’s why I liked
them. They came from separate planets where there was no such thing as P.E.
or driver’s education or student council, and since I didn’t have it in me to
imagine a better world, I’d check out for hours at a time, escaping to some Vienna or
Paris or Leipzig that no longer existed. Buying “Boy” was a big step, a
way of admitting to myself that art didn’t have to be abstract
or incomprehensible or 200 years old to be worthwhile — it could be anything that
sparks a direct, emotional response.

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So hearing those bells and chords of “I Will Follow” the other night
inspired a fairly clichid sense of nostalgia — but only for about three
seconds. At one time, that song meant everything to me — it delivered me from
Mozart. But I don’t even particularly like it anymore. I no longer hear in it what the teenage me heard. For starters, the words, which once seemed so powerful, now seem
debilitating. I know now that if someone walks out on you, you don’t fucking
follow — you hate them until you don’t care anymore. But for the most part, the problem
is purely sonic. Having grown up with the here-there-everywhere U2, their trademark
aesthetic has become so ingrained and wallpapery (that Edge guitar, that Bono
moan) that any and all of their songs have become as unnoticeable as the McDonald’s “You Deserve A Break Today” jingle.

Like most everyone else, I gave up on U2 after seeing their ballyhooed 1988″rockumentary” “Rattle and Hum.” I’ll admit to having consumed a 32-ounce gin and
tonic before the curtain rose, but even drunk it was bad:
a drippy insult to American culture in the name of blood-sucking fandom.
Oddly, a discussion of the backlash against the film was one of the first
segments in “A Year in Pop.” Talking about the debacle, Bono defended his naiveti:
“It was complete news to us that the blues existed.” He probably only really understood the
blues after everyone started hating him as a culture vulture. By placing this fiasco of earnestness at the top of what was essentially an hour-long ad for their icy new album, “Pop,” the band seemed to be saying that since its audience rejected their love affair with rootsy, soulful authenticity, from now on they were only going to dish out vapid, glitzy cheese.

Any documentary narrated by the crazed Dennis Hopper, as this one was, is bound
to be uncomfortable. Between Hopper’s endless arsenal of rock
platitudes (“When they wind themselves up, U2 are still the biggest, baddest
band in the world”) and a cameo by the now late great Allen
Ginsberg (I really hope he got a lot of money for reading Bono’s lyrics to the
“Pop” song “Miami”), the whole hour felt like damage control. By
explaining their creative and financial lust for bigger and bigger stadium
shows, their infamous Kmart press conference and their launching of the tour
in Las Vegas, they tried to disguise their greed as ambition, using irony as their tired defense.

During “A Year in Pop,” Bono erroneously claimed, “In our moments, we’re definitely the most
interesting band on the planet.” Well, for a few moments when I was 15, they were the only band on the planet. But all that has changed. On “A Year in Pop,” U2 came off as stuck-up and pointless. And on their new clubby-cold album, I can’t even tell the songs apart. Still, even though I walked away from them years ago, I can’t bring myself to hate them. So what if I don’t care about “Pop,” or their Pop-Mart tour, or “A Year in Pop”? They gave me something bigger than a little old pop record: They gave me an introduction to a Pop life.

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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