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.

Why doesn't this always work? Why have the record sales and tour grosses of just about every superstar and supergroup of the past decade -- U2, Springsteen, R.E.M., Sting, Prince, Public Enemy, Madonna -- fallen so precipitously? The music industry panic of 1997 is supposed to be about the failure to develop new stars; but the real music industry crisis has existed for most of this decade, and it's about the failure of the system to sustain the stars it's already created. The media corporations made huge investments in each of the artists named above, and yet none of the suits seems to have a clue how to exploit them effectively.

That's because the system of corporate commodification doesn't function as smoothly as the theorists claim. Even celebrities like Schwarzenegger and Seinfeld have half-lives. Media corporations don't enjoy having to stumble around in the dark searching for the next set of superstars as the ratings and profits of the current bunch dwindle. They would prefer to establish a handful of brand names and tinker periodically with packaging (ideally, bigger and better packaging -- like the PopMart tour).

But that doesn't work. Nothing seems to work. And failure stems not only from the charges against Jackson of pedophilia, or Springsteen becoming a folkie, or U2 miscalculating how much marketing the average fans are willing to have rubbed in their faces, or Madonna deciding to make a film about a fascist concubine with music by the world's worst composer. R.E.M.'s first flop, Monster, was in many respects the most musically daring record the band has ever made.

To say that this descent of stars reflects a mere generational shift doesn't explain much. The fact is that even with sophisticated marketing and surveying, corporations still cannot readily identify preferences in music, let alone control them. Electronica has so far produced few chart busters. And the music that the industry most loathes and fears -- rap -- remains its commercial powerhouse. (U2 got headlines for selling about 350,000 copies of Pop its first week in the racks. The Wu Tang Clan's Wu Tang Forever sold almost twice that many its first week.)

A more likely explanation is that today's rock, with its roots in and continuing links to society's most dispossessed, somehow effectively promotes resistance and critical thinking -- even if at a pretty shallow level.

Rather than lapsing into cynicism, newer rock performers already show signs of recognizing these links. Rage Against the Machine, chosen as U2's opening act on the first dates of the tour because it's probably the biggest new concert act in rock, used the stadium shows to talk about, among other things, the injustice of journalist and convicted police killer Mumia Abdul Jamal being on death row. And R.A.T.M. made this work because it doesn't talk about such issues coldly but with real rage. The band projects a sense of conviction that speaking out will make a difference -- a sense of conviction you can't buy at Kmart.

Of course, by agreeing to appear with U2, and by recording for Sony, R.A.T.M. also chose to become part of the spectacle. It's too soon to say whether such involvement will tranquilize the band, but it's worth worrying that it might.

Other artists -- Ani DiFranco comes to mind -- have begun to reject spectacle altogether. And she has done so in ways far more crucial than the noisy pronouncements sometimes made by lingering Sixties vets like Neil Young, a major California landowner last seen pissing and moaning about the price of tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner (which pretty much sums up the tenor of his social involvement since "Ohio").

The popular anarchist DiFranco has refused to accept a major-label record deal. She has also shoved hip-hop beats into the face of her folkie audience. That has a lot to do with her insistence on personal freedom, of course, but in a way it also reflects a different concept of how to liberate listeners.

Despite its corporate affiliations, Rage Against the Machine pulls off a similar aesthetic coup by tying agit-prop, like its supportive comments about Mumia and American Indian Movement icon Leonard Peltier, to the kind of dense metallic noise that lefties have generally frowned upon. Is this effective? Well, it certainly hasn't damaged either R.A.T.M. or its subjects. And it has been effective in raising the profile of Mumia and Peltier (and Noam Chomsky and the radical groups cited in R.A.T.M.'s album notes) among rock fans.

Watching pop-culture bombast on the scale of U2 collapse beneath its own pretension and arrogance is indeed rewarding. But vengeance doesn't get you very far, in politics or culture. Young performers like DiFranco and R.A.T.M. create their own forms of resistance. They have found listeners who respond and they have inspired others to emulate them, which suggests that the celebrity system obscuring so much of contemporary reality can be undermined.

Corporate rock has already proven that it cannot learn. The few stars who seem to have learned something in the process of being commodified -- Springsteen, R.E.M. -- have been utterly unable to marshal the corporate forces and regain their mass audience. Given the way the game is rigged, it's impossible to imagine a music business free of corporate control -- to believe otherwise is to whistle "Won't Get Fooled Again" past the graveyard.

But as DiFranco, in particular, has been none-too-subtly pointing out, it's not hard to imagine music free of corporate control. Once you find a way to do that, you don't need to grab fans with spectacle, because you've got them by the heart. Rock's bravest performers keep looking. That's one of the best reasons for the rest of us to keep listening.

U2 plays at 8:00 p.m. Friday, November 14, at Pro Player Stadium, 2269 NW 199th St, 954-523-3309, with Smash Mouth. The $37.50 tickets are sold out; $52.50 tickets are available.

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