Pop Goes Integrity: U2's Latest

Maybe it couldn't be helped. A band, so earnest for so long, finally bites into the apple of temptation. Cashes in its double-barreled social conscience for over-the-top, stupidly lucrative -- and painfully vogue -- irony. Casts off the mantle of rock's moral compass and decides, in the spirit of Cyndi Lauper, that Irish lads just want to have fun."Achtung Baby" started it; "Pop" is its tawdry climax -- so far, anyway. U2 has gone kitsch, lock, stock and Bono. And while these guys can't be faulted for trying something different, it still kinda sucks.Not that long ago, they were the antidote to a world hypnotized by indifference, a band more concerned with the message than the medium. Remember when? "I think that, ultimately, the group is totally rebellious, because of our stance against what people accept as rebellion," Bono told Rolling Stone in 1983. "... Revolution starts at home, in your heart, in your refusal to compromise your beliefs and your values. I'm not interested in politics, like people fighting back with sticks and stones, but in the politics of love. I think there is nothing more radical than two peopleâs loving each other, because it's so infrequent."Makes a person want to cry. Or hurl.Yes, hurl. Because somehow, this cherished pop culture myth that U2 once stood for everything pure and chaste refuses to die. Through the haze of time, as Bono and the boys grow older -- and nakedly cynical, critics bleat -- their youthful image gets ever more pristine. Soon fans will say the band didn't just sing about Polish solidarity. They'll swear Lech Walesa was a U2 roadie.But if you've really studied the Irish quartet, you know that as they've toyed with the gamut of music styles (punk to techno) and hairstyles (ponytails to buzz cuts), there's always been one constant: self-importance. Of course they couldn't wrap their arms around the world. They were too busy doing a group hug. Consider what Bono proclaimed back in 1981, the year U2's first album, Boy, was released. "I feel that we are meant to be one of the great groups. There's a certain chemistry that was special about the Stones, the Who and the Beatles, and I think it's also special about U2."One statement does not a narcissist make, naturally. So suck on these other Bono bon mots from down through the years, equal parts self-fulfilling prophecy and vigorous ego stroking. Then ponder how far -- or not far -- U2 has come."Everyone else is getting more and more style-oriented, more and more slick. John Lennon was right about that kind of music; he called it 'wallpaper music.' Very pretty. Very well designed. Music to eat your breakfast to." Rolling Stone, 1983"I don't have a million dollars in my pocket or my bank account. I don't want to say that money is not important to me... (but) it is a threat to the band, because I don't want anything to take away from our focus... I just don't want to see it." Rolling Stone, 1985"A sense of humor is something I value. But we don't play rock 'n' roll with a wink." Time, 1987"It may be vanity, but I like to think we are part of the Irish tradition of Joyce and Beckett." Life, 1988"You see, we are unlike all the great rock 'n' roll bands in that their records generally got worse, whereas our records are getting better." Mother Jones, 1989"We had all this stuff, the houses and the cars, and we got sick of it -- I don't meant to sound ungrateful, those things are lovely and wonderful -- but the feeling was we have to (make Achtung Baby) for ourselves. And if that means our audience shrinks, so be it." Chicago Tribune, 1992"What I'd say is, 'Fuck you right off. We were doing dance remixes when you were still in short pants, you little assholes.' When this bogus term alternative rock was being thrown around at every '70s retro rehash folk group, we were challenging people to new sonic ideas. If some little snotty anarchist with an Apple Mac and an attitude thinks he invented dance music and the big rock group is coming into his territory, (that's) ridiculous." Time, 1997"We're actually trying to make a kind of music that doesn't exist yet. That is a terrifying place to be." Spin, 1997Sure is. Which calls to mind another favorite Bono-ism, one the frontman used to wail constantly in the band's early years. "Am I buggin' ya? I don't mean to bug ya." Stop worrying, Fly Boy. You don't. Go ahead, let loose and enjoy yourself. But be sure to tell the masses that U2 didn't sell out. They're just finishing what they started.

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