As college students in the 1990s, American Songwriter contributor Stephen M. Deusner and Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter-sociologist Brady Potts spent hours arguing the merits and demerits of U2, in particular the Irish quartet’s divisive 1993 album Zooropa. Deusner hated it; Potts loved it. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Irish band’s eighth album, the two friends reignited their old debate, with Potts getting the first word:
Hi! Okay. So. Zooropa, right?
First of all, cast your mind back to 1993. The WWW is in its infancy. Web pages have ugly grey backgrounds or repeating lo-fi jpegs. There were no mp3s. It is the last few years that there would be anything like the traditional music hype/promotion cycle. So something like Zooropa could arrive with an air of mystery still about it.
And let’s not forget that before Achtung Baby was the gonzo mega-hit, it was an album that was deeply distressing to a lot of devout (in both senses of the word) U2 fans, who were troubled by Bono and the gang’s newfound lack of piety and who were deeply, deeply weirded out by the first single, “The Fly.” For them, Zooropa was further evidence that U2 was still mired in the midst of a baffling and deeply personal betrayal of their musical ethic and needed to make more songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
I remember there were rumors (it’s really weird! It’s all EUROPEAN! Johnny Cash sings on it!), and then the video for “Numb” premiered on MTV. Being an utter goon for U2 at the time, I was in front of the set and appropriately confused by the song and the video, but the song got stuck in my head nevertheless. I taped it to cassette off the TV and tried to decipher and memorize the words. I tried to work it out on an acoustic guitar (that did not go so well).
And it is just such a ludicrous song that I love it. You could call releasing a track that is three minutes of the guitar player “rapping” in a monotone while Bono ‘s falsetto swans all over the place “rock star hubris”, and you would not be wrong. But I do think that it speaks well of the band that at the height of their power, they got deeply strange.
(And besides, U2 already did the “height of their powers bloated hubris” record, Rattle & Hum, and they learned their lesson: Whereas R&H is overstuffed and lumbers around like some music appreciation course, Zooropa is lean and mean, ten songs in and out.)
Zooroopa is a wonderful, odd little record that really captures the zeitgeist of the time, with the EU getting up and running and the rumblings of the massive social and technological transformations on the horizon. It’s the smartest, slyest thing they ever did. It has killer ballads, weird techno-anthems, club songs, and then Johnny Cash sprechgesangs over a spaghetti western karaoke track. And Bono was running around in a gold lamé tuxedo wearing devil horns and a red ruffled shirt, and the rest of the band were done up in purple quasi-military uniforms, and then Adam Clayton got so tore up that he missed a gig they were filming in order to release as a concert video.
How could you not love this record?
Dear old friend,
I remember those pre-WWW years fondly. I remember the controversy over Achtung Baby and how it heightened over Zooropa. I remember Zooropa, although I do not remember it fondly. Still, you’re absolutely correct to put this album in a historical context, and you’re doubly right to shout out to U2 for being willing—and eager!—to get weird at the very height of their popularity. I think the difference between us is: I don’t think they did weird very well. Or at least not as well as they did on Achtung Baby.
That album marked a real turning point for the band, when they were experimenting with new sounds, new approaches, and (perhaps most crucially) new attitudes. No longer were they kneejerk earnest; there was some irony, some distance, some humor, some lust on that album. The lyrics were really bad (“A woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle”), but you could ignore them because it sounded so good. To this day, Achtung Baby is my favorite U2 album and the only one I listen to on a regular basis.
So, how did they throw it all away on Zooropa? Where Achtung Baby was weird, dank, dark, catchy, passionate (even in its dispassions), the follow-up was loud, garish, gauche, and tacky. I get the European-ness of it, and I get that a lot of Americans might not have gotten the European-ness of it, but I don’t think it shows off the band’s best side. Bono’s falsetto is fantastic on “Lemon,” and rarely has a pop band sounded so pervy. But that monotone chorus is so dusty and dry and colorless.
And before I get to “Dum— I mean, “Numb,” let me say a few words about Johnny Cash. All due credit to U2 for getting the Man in Black before he got swallowed up in Rick Rubin’s beard. As far as duets-with-disregarded-
Okay, “Numb.” I was going to just make my argument consist of that one word repeated over and over and over. Sure, U2 are bold for letting the guitar player take the lead, but has that ever been a good idea ever in the whole history of rock music? (Sorry, Keith Richards.) The video is seriously dumb (television makes you… wait for it…. numb!), and the song never quite moves beyond its most superficial ideas. Hell, even Springsteen’s song about television was better…. and who really believes the Boss sits around flipping channels?
Maybe “Numb” worked better on tour, when the band was popping out of disco lemons and ordering thousands of pizzas. Zooropa seems so tied to that tour and to those antics that it really does become a second Rattle & Hum, only European instead of American. I’d say the highs aren’t as high on Zooropa, but the product as a whole is sharper, shorter, and less self-consciously beholden to the band’s overly romanticized comprehension of rock history.
I was one of those people who didn’t follow U2 into Zooropa, but there’s one song that still gets me even so many years later: “Stay (Faraway, So Close).” Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire had a profound effect on me my freshman year of college, such that I didn’t even want to see his sequel. But dammit, this song is just beautiful, with some of the Edge’s most restrained guitarwork and a fine performance from Bono (my favorite, even over “In a Little While”) and some of his most focused songwriting. It literally kept me from writing the band off during their Pop period.
I guess that’s one thing we can both agree on: Zooropa is better than Pop. Right?
Wings of Desire. That was the one with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan?
Yeah, “Stay” just great. It’s all weird Berlin cabaret pop noir and the video has Invisible Bono leering and stalking after the women of Berlin, while dressed as an angel, with a little Revolutionary War ponytail. Come on. That is A-1 Bono Nonsense.
Since you brought up Pop: I think Pop gets a bad rap, although it is, yes, a deeply flawed record. A big reason for that is because they rushed it, because they had this massive tour they needed to get going as promotion, which logistically had to be set in stone a ways out from the kickoff date. Pop was a term paper written the night before it was due—but trim the fat and you have a great little EP.
Zooropa was under similar pressure: needed to get done to accommodate all kinds of deadlines and constraints that derived from the fact that they were in the middle of a tour that was finishing up its American legs and heading to Europe and Australia (the “Zoomerang” leg, god help us). So it was recorded in a massive, bleary burst of creativity at the tail end of the first half of the Great Experiment in Stadium Irony and Pop Postmodernism that was ZOOTV.
But I think the plates are just still spinning with Zooropa, and in a way that ultimately paid off in the final product: that feeling of “it’s all about to go to hell” really comes through, and resonates with the thematic aims of the record re: the go-go techno-utopian dreams of the 1990s crashing down to earth in a pile of neoliberal funk. As opposed to Achtung Baby’s embrace of some kind of Nouveau Weimar Berlin, Zooropa is that point at the party where it’s starting to get a little weird and you realize maybe this is all going to end with you making a big mistake re: following a club kid to a second location and catching hepatitis, or having your bank accounts emptied via your phone.
What I’m saying is, I think the chaos in the recording/band situation bleed into the music in a way that elevates the material, like cutting up a banana so that it looks like a scallop. (I have gotten hooked on Top Chef, and I am deeply, deeply sorry about that.)
And while our current predicament, culturally and socially speaking, was definitely in the wind in the mid and late ‘90s, good for them for making a funky little Euro-rock record about it that is also good for late-night listening. And this in the midst of basically staging a traveling road show of truly epic proportions.
Yours in ignoring my inner cynic, while admitting that “Lemon” is still a minute too long, and “Some Days Are Better Than Others” needs another pass at the lyrics,