Rattle and Bum

For any rock music fan opposed to cultural hegemony or self-righteous sanctimony, it's difficult to resist gloating over the fact that U2's Pop album and its ongoing U.S. tour have bombed. The tour's most noteworthy emblem is a gigantic stage prop in the shape of a lemon, and that could not be more perfect. Billboard's most recent album chart doesn't even rank Pop among its top 200 albums.

Since the long-anticipated disc premiered in the number-one slot in March, it has been outperformed on the charts by the Spice Girls, Aerosmith, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Matchbox 20. The singles from Pop have tanked. The tour canceled shows or played to half houses from South Carolina to San Diego. The ABC-TV special that was supposed to kick off the Irish quartet's current foray into Bonomania was the lowest-rated TV show in major network history.

The PR rejoinder is that "the album is selling well outside the United States" But when Bono and company announced their PopMart tour in February with an absurdist press conference at a Kmart in New York City, "big in Japan" wasn't what the band members had in mind.

That pop stars suffer from hubris is hardly news. The U2 crash may carry a broader and more encouraging message than that, however. Rock is basically a supply-side game, but the flop of Pop suggests that rock, though increasingly dominated by corporate decision-making, is not a supply-side-only affair. Unlike your average consumers, the most committed rock fans, who are numerous and who tend to create trends, feel empowered by the music's very rhetoric to make judgments -- sometimes punitive judgments -- about their heroes.

Concert-biz spin doctors now proclaim that U2's PopMart tour has grossed more than $50 million and has sold a greater number of tickets than any other tour this year. Neither category, however, implies sold-out shows or profitability. Few professionals doubt that U2 miscalculated, and that miscalculation has many sources. One may have been revealed at that Kmart press conference, when Bono openly sneered at a reporter who dared ask a real question: Why was the band, by its appearance, promoting Kmart, a chain that censors recordings, as does Wal-Mart? Bono called the guy a "snob."

I doubt that one U2 fan in a thousand even knows about that specific incident. But the attitude -- you're a "snob," and out of line, if you question U2's shilling for Kmart -- violates U2's image as a "progressive" rock band. This image developed as the band toured for Amnesty International, dared to challenge the violence on both sides in Ireland, provoked L.A. cops in its movie Rattle and Hum, and hung out with Bill Clinton and George Stephanopoulos when Clinton still seemed some kind of stealth-MTV presidential candidate.

To put it in the terms a rock fan might use, U2 seems "out of touch," alienated from its roots. Consumers who turn to rock bands do so precisely for what they cannot find at Kmart. It's not that rock fans automatically reject crass commercialism -- millions of Kiss and Bon Jovi fans prove otherwise -- but at least that music is supposed to be self-generated crass commercialism, not the prefab bargain-store crap provided by Kmart.

U2 and other rock commodities are clearly out of touch when they buy into corporate pop's obsession with spectacle for its own sake. More outrageous and shocking spectacle still works, because it's oppositional. That's why local bureaucrats across the nation have busied themselves trying to ban Marilyn Manson. The members of Marilyn Manson would be lucky if Kmart let them through the door to shop. And certainly, if Manson wants a golden arch for its on-stage golden showers, it will not find McDonald's giving the go-ahead as easily as it did for the golden arch that dominates U2's stage set.

This U2 tour is like one of those "big box" department stores that come into town and shove smaller retailers out of business, a behemoth of a production that takes days to set up and move out of stadiums -- and all to support an album full of the weakest material of the band's career.

Pop the album is too prefab to be called "daring," as it was in the pre-release hype because of its use of the latest dance beat, "electronica" -- what used to be called "techno," before British pros lifted it from Detroit black kids. In a classic bait-and-switch, there's not even much electronica on Pop; most of the recording is an unremarkable rehash of what the band has done in the past.

Cultural theorists have argued that this should pose no real problem: A mass audience is too crass and preoccupied to notice a subtle deterioration in quality. Corporate commodification, the theorists would argue, has weaned the masses from being put off by the kind of hypocrisy expressed in Bono's "snob" remark (and by a dozen other condescending devices in the stage show).

As Guy Debord notes in his Society of the Spectacle, the mass audience wants more, bigger, louder, faster, flashier, brighter. Ratchet up the volume of the circus every time, and if you simply drown out the few critical voices, all will be well.

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