Every day is a struggle
But struggling to be
Is very hard ... so very hard
Because I'm out here
Trying to do the right thing
And when I look around
There's the wrong thing
Tempting me to make me disagree about howI feel about me
But I fight again.

A true diva reflects her times, shown here in the contrast between the complex, urbane savvy of the first single, "Love Is All We Need" -- her ode to puppy love -- with the sunny naivete of any of Lennon's and McCartney's similar songs. I wonder if the problems that people have with her reveal a difficulty in accepting contemporary realities.

-- Martin Johnson


In all the comment upon Fred Goodman's much-noticed The Mansion on the Hill -- a nicely reported analysis of the crash of commerce and artistic purity in the rock music of the 1960s -- I thought one valid criticism was overlooked. Goodman's book would have been more powerful if he'd added a short coda. "By the way," the epilogue could have run, "this story essentially repeated itself in the 1980s, and probably will again 20 years after that." In other words, just as artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young kept an outlaw image even as their savvy business representatives exercised their power in the boardrooms, in the 1980s, a new wave of bands -- punk-spawned but with curious roots in the 1960s -- came to prominence. Most important were of course R.E.M. and U2, whose names became synonymous with artistic integrity and outsider aesthetics even as they rolled up record sales and concert fees that made the members millionaires and the bands themselves the new mainstream.

Their strategies were different. R.E.M., steeped in American music, avoided any hint of commercialization; the Georgians stressed their artistic independence and carefully controlled their publicity. U2, Irish toughs with a Christian bent, had a different tack: Talk loudly about justice and carry a big sound. They went platinum with 1983's War and were the biggest band in the world as the '80s waned. But just when overexposure and the drippy retro posturings of lead singer Bono threatened to make the band a joke, U2 did a clever thing: The members declared themselves futurists, musical innovators. The line had the band in the studio with Eno, mercilessly throwing out any track that sounded like U2; the result, by definition, had to be different. Musical experimentation was a very old progressive-rock pony, of course, but just about everyone in the press took a ride.

But now it's five years later, and once again the band has trotted out the prog-rock pony. Yet again we're told that the band is reinventing itself; that to avoid gathering moss, the restless musicians and producer Flood turned to new sounds and rhythms. The problem with the result, Pop, is that this far along, there's no artistic justification for the alleged experimentation. Its only purpose is to keep the band comfortably hep. The musical horse this time is electronica -- which spices it up here and there with the odd, lulling sample or sudden texture change, but mostly just makes U2's background noise a little more monotonous. Achtung Baby had both style and tunes and as a consequence charmed. Pop (like 1993's Zooropa, the second trip U2 made to this particular well) has neither, and sounds wan. Hearing Bono growl with what's supposed to be menace the word "discotheque" (note sophisticated French spelling) on Pop's first single and leadoff track isn't ominous or decadent; it's just vacant. The band tries the same thing on the similarly unscary "Last Night on Earth." On "If God Will Send His Angels" and many other tracks Bono bleats. One hates to compare this arguably important band to the Smashing Pumpkins; but Billy Corgan's work with Flood on the overlong but impressive Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness accomplished a lot of interesting things. Whispers and strings, found songs and lulling beats -- all had a place in irresistibly marked pop songs. U2's strainings are by contrast a little pathetic: you want to pat the songs on the head for trying too hard. "Mofo" -- now there's a title that just sends shivers up your spine -- begins with some very tired electronic sounds before heading into an aimless groove as Bono mumbles what are supposed to be ominous observations about society before lapsing into some, what's it called, oh yes, "scat singing." (There's some more of it, or so the lyric sheet tells us, on "If God Will Send His Angels.") Then there's another bit of gritty rawk in a song called "Miami," whose chorus, astonishingly, goes, "Miami / My Mammy." The band performs another awkward number called "The Playboy Mansion" under the apparent impression that the title is a metaphor for the decadence of our current consumer culture, or something. Instead, it is a tired symbol of absolutely nothing.

One of the reasons that The Mansion on the Hill was an interesting book is that a lot of the artists whose careers it followed -- whatever their pratfalls and increasing idiosyncrasies -- have shown persuasively over the years that they follow a strange muse, and often an uncommercial one. Young and Dylan, of course, have worried about selling records and efficiently control their public images. But in a real sense, neither have given much of a fuck what anyone thinks for a good couple of decades. By contrast, U2's obsession with remaining au courant has become the band's reason for being; like many other multinational corporations that market product to teens, they're in the permanent business of posture.

-- Bill Wyman

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