PRINT September 1997


U2's PopMart

Pop art is the arena rock of art history. So why shouldn’t U2—whom everyone expects to deliver a jam-the-stadiums extravaganza with each new album—latch onto Pop and its glib iconography in order to revivify their fading image? The band’s final Meadowlands performance on the troubled PopMart Tour summarized the exceptional crassness of this tactic: what better way to resist becoming an anachronism than to follow the example of an art movement that refuses to grow old quietly? Rest assured, these lads are never going back to the sooty Dublin days of Boy and Kajagoogoo haircuts, not as long as they can jump on the electronica bandwagon, load up the semitrailers, and hit the yellow brick road.

PopMart was certainly big. Scary big. A vast digital screen—the largest ever built, strobing live images of the band mingled with animations of famous Pop paintings—shared the stage with an enormous yellow McDonald’s-esque arch, ringed at the top by an orange speaker rig large enough to qualify as an airborne threat. Off to the side were a huge lemon-shaped disco-ball, from which the band would emerge during the performance’s second act, and a gigantic cocktail skewer spearing a colossal olive. Unlike 1992’s Zoo TV Tour—which introduced the “new” U2, a rock-god satire of the crypto-Christian mid-’80s model—this $100,000-a-day-cash hemorrhage showcased a band who weren’t parodying their mojo, but doing it, as Pete Townsend said of The Who’s second farewell tour, for the money.

Untrammeled dollar-grubbing can inspire a kind of awe, but U2 put a totalitarian spin on its sell-out: about halfway through the Meadowlands spectacle, a dozen kliegish lights encircling the stage were all aimed straight up, forming a luminous colonnade right out of Triumph of the Will. Many cheered. Some quivered. U2’s big screen, on which were animated versions of Lichtenstein’s Blam and Warhol’s Elvis and Marilyn portraits (among other showstoppers), served as an apt metaphor for the way that Pop’s iconography is employed to support this kind of Sturm und Drang, the paintings expanding into the boundless territory of late capitalism. The spectacle they propose is so souped-up that thinking of them as paintings seems naive when they’re so busy transmitting a cultural ideal—that of America as a pop paradise.

U2, once so noble in their disdain for the big time, don’t really seem to care that they’ve seen the enemy, and it’s them. “Some people find peace by going out to the country,” Bono proclaimed during a Baudrillard-by-way-of-Wendell Berry explanation of the PopMart ideology, “I found peace in the neon.”