Around the world, a resurgence of fascism. In Germany, gangs of skinheads brutalize immigrants. In France, Le Pen’s far-right Front National brings hate to the ballot box. Muslims die, en masse, in intractable foreign wars, and their deaths slip from the front page to the second. So much news. So much of it bad. All of it relayed to us, instantaneous, on bright, beguiling screens.
So goes the introduction to nearly every review of U2’s Zooropa published in 1993. Very little has changed if we’re talking geopolitics; everything has changed if we’re talking U2. Zooropa wasn’t the band’s last risky move—that would be the 1997 flop Pop, or maybe the non-consensual downloading of 2014’s herpetic Songs of Innocence onto every iPod in the free world—but it was, probably, their last successful one. The album’s sleeve is a bright collage of purples and pinks, blues and yellows; on every album since, they’ve opted for greyscale.
Zooropa was born on a break between legs of Zoo TV, a tour-as-television-spectacle spanning continents and playing provocatively with light and color and character. U2 intended to record a companion EP to Achtung Baby, something to spur ticket sales as Zoo TV continued into its second year. Instead, they made an odd hybrid of live album and avant-garde experiment. Recording engineer Robbie Adams fashioned loops of music from Zoo TV soundchecks; aided by producers Flood and Brian Eno, the band turned these loops into strange new songs unmoored from genre. “Yeah, ‘alternative,’” said Bono, rolling his eyes as he bested Nirvana, R.E.M., and Smashing Pumpkins for Best Alternative Music Performance at the 1994 Grammys. Maybe he’d have preferred to lock horns with Ozzy Osbourne and Meat Loaf in the rock categories.
There’s a bit of bog-standard rock balladry on Zooropa, but it is, otherwise, a record of staggering weirdness. On the lead single, “Numb,” The Edge reads a dystopian laundry list in staid monotone: “Don’t answer, don’t ask, don’t try and make sense,” Bono wails in operatic falsetto. Deep in the mix, a member of the Hitler Youth hits a drum in a sample from Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandistic Triumph of the Will. (On the Zoo TV tour, U2 had used footage from the film in anti-fascist video collages full of burning crosses and swastikas.) Following the grim “Numb” is “Lemon,” a song in which Bono grieves for his mother, though you’d never guess it from the way he coos “whisper” and “moan,” sounding a little like Donna Summer, a little like Prince. A toy piano tinkles over the voyeuristic “Babyface.” A brass sample, sourced from the 1978 Soviet folk compilation Lenin’s Favourite Songs, opens “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car.” Strangest of all, Bono cedes lead vocal on the final track to Johnny Cash, who walks like a Colossus over the hymnal static of “The Wanderer.”
Odd as these songs were, they fit perfectly into Zoo TV’s post-apocalyptic assault on the senses. The band’s mainstays wound up sounding silliest. The celestial opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon punctuating “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the gorgeous addiction-dirge of “Running to Stand Still”—all were wildly incongruous with the sight of square-jawed Bono covering Elvis in gold lamé fuck-me pumps and little red devil horns. The alternate reality of this tour was so complete, so utterly impenetrable, that the traditional became aberrant. Bono delighted in donning those horns, that lipstick, and transforming into his devilish alter ego, MacPhisto. Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Bono sought to put his own spin on James 4:7: mock the devil, and he will flee from you. MacPhisto is Satan as pithy, aged Vegas lounge lizard. He cracks wise; he congratulates the Vatican for doing his work for him. When Zoo TV played Bologna, MacPhisto placed a telephone call to Alessandra Mussolini onstage, and left a message on her answering machine: “I just wanted to tell her she’s doing a wonderful job filling the old man’s shoes.”
Bono’s nightly dance with the devil, though parodic, did rankle some of his more devout followers. U2 has been a band of unabashed religiosity since their very inception, singing in liturgical Latin and offering post-punk takes on Psalm 40. But their Christianity has very little in common with the North American evangelical breed. The band formed in Dublin at the very height of the Troubles. English bassist Adam Clayton and Welsh guitarist The Edge are both Protestants, while drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. is Irish Catholic. Bono’s home was interdenominational—his mother Anglican, his father Catholic. And so, in U2’s catalog, faith supersedes denomination, and the band is unafraid to denounce the pain wrought by organized religion. For nearly every worshipful “Yahweh” in U2’s catalog, there is some other vent for disbelief—a “Wake Up Dead Man,” an “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” a “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Bono sang hymns, but he took unapologetic shots at snake-oil televangelism, too: “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
What distinguishes Zooropa from these moments of religious critique is the album’s streak of genuine agnosticism. MacPhisto may have been satirical, but “The First Time” is deadly serious, imagining a prodigal son who returns only to reject his father’s love:
My father is a rich man
He wears a rich man’s cloak
He gave me the keys to his kingdom
Gave me a cup of gold
He said, “I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see.”
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key
The song, says Bono, is about losing one’s faith. “I’m very sympathetic to people who have the courage not to believe,” he said, in the 2006 memoir U2 by U2. “I’ve seen a lot of people around me have bad experiences with religion, be so badly abused they feel they just can’t go there anymore, which is a shame.” For a celebrity Christian of Bono’s caliber to suggest that abandoning faith is “courageous,” that “throwing away the key” is a principled act of love—this was, and remains, genuinely radical. “For the first time,” he sings at the song’s end, “I feel love.” Bono is not rejecting the Church here, and he is not rejecting Tammy Faye Bakker; he is rejecting the love of God. He is looking, instead, for human intimacy.
Toward the end of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, another wildly experimental ’90s meditation on the addictive allure of television which remains thumpingly relevant in 2020, a man swears he’ll leave the priesthood unless his brother can convince him of humanity’s goodness. This priest proposes a test: His brother must sit on the floor of a subway station and beg—not for money, but to be touched. If even one single person deigns to reach out and lay a hand on him, then mankind is worth saving, not yet beyond salvation. After nine long months on the dingy floor of Boston’s Park Street Station, a handshake finally arrives, proffered by a child: “only 14 and largely clueless… about defensive strategies outside T-stations,” having “no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted.”
The conclusion Wallace reaches here is very like the one U2 arrive at in the songs of Zooropa: organized religion is not a guarantor of sanity and wellness; human touch is, even if it comes at great personal cost. “The Wanderer” of Johnny Cash’s closing track is not out to find God, but “to taste and to touch and to feel as much as a man can”—at least, “before he repents.” This emphasis on the sensual, the physical, recurs throughout Zooropa, and not just as a counter to religious abnegation. The band warns, just as Wallace did, of the suffering that results when people are subsumed by their screens. Whether Bono is masturbating to a video vixen with “bright blue eyes” on “Babyface,” or weeping over a tape of his mother, on “Lemon,” it is abundantly clear that no amount of virtual intimacy holds the power of one real kiss, one last hug.
For U2, this idea was a genuine political commitment. In the latter days of the carefully constructed Zoo TV tour, the band set aside time for unscripted video calls, via satellite, to a besieged Sarajevo. Long before the ubiquity of Skype and Zoom, these video calls were genuinely novel—conversations held in real time, as intimate as any dialogue broadcast on a Jumbotron can be. The suffering people of Sarajevo became as real to the cheap seats as the band itself. Participants in these calls confronted the complacent West directly, forcefully. “You’re all having a good time,” said a group of Sarajevan women, one night, via satellite, to a crowd at Wembley Stadium. “You’re going to go back to a rock show. You’re going to forget that we even exist. And we’re all going to die.” It was a profoundly uncomfortable moment; “the show,” according to manager Paul McGuinness, “never recovered.” As the video-call ended, and the women on the screen faded from view, Bono turned to a silent stadium. “Tonight,” he said, “we should all be ashamed to be European.” In the absence of Jesus, every person in the stadium was forced to lay hands on the leper.
U2 would never ask their audience to confront atrocities like this again. In the mid-2000s, their vacuous activism came with consumerist demands: to purchase (RED) products, to view the Live 8 broadcast, to sport a snow-white Make Poverty History bracelet next to your canary-yellow Livestrong. People who actually lived with HIV or lived in poverty were not the spokespeople of these campaigns; Bono was, posing on the cover of Vanity Fair next to Condoleezza Rice. Though the band still performs the stunning 1995 track “Miss Sarajevo” in live performances, it is now divorced from its original context. If the recent dust-up over Dua Lipa’s pronouncement of Kosovar Albanian indigeneity is any indication, most young people are fully unaware of Serbia’s war crimes. This is history that must be taught; U2, unfortunately, is no longer in the business of education.
But Zoo TV was the perfect blend of form and content for its political moment: a direct confrontation of distant violence, a subversive refusal of God and the Devil both, a hand extended in friendship on a subway platform otherwise crowded with folks hurrying home to watch television. It was wise enough to understand that the future may be bleak, but unafraid to push forward. “I have no compass,” sang Bono, on Zooropa’s title track. “And I have no map, and I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.” He has no religion, either; nor does Cash, wandering at the album’s conclusion. “Jesus,” he sings, “don’t you wait up,” having left his home with “nothing but the thought of you”—you, another person; the same kind, perhaps, who opened the eyes of the narrator of “The First Time.” It is interesting to consider “The Wanderer” against Cash’s end-of-life masterpiece, the video for “Hurt.” Director Mark Romanek films Cash in a Dutch master’s array of delicacies in slow decay; his camera lingers on a House of Cash wrecked by neglect. And yet June is in frame, alive, looking at her husband and loving him. “I left with nothing,” Cash sings, on Zooropa, “but the thought you’d be there, too.” And there, at the very end, she was.
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