In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we touch on U2’s Zooropa, which went to No. 1 on July 24, 1993, where it stayed for two weeks.
It’s November 27, 1993, four months after the release of Zooropa, and U2 is winding down two years of touring with a gigantic stadium show in Sydney, Australia. As the encore dawns, Bono slips into a gold lamé suit (with matching boots) and red devil horns, and somewhat maniacally applies tomato-red lipstick. He looks like a drag queen impersonating Jack Nicholson as the Joker, or, alternately, a narcissistic Elvis impersonator with a screw loose. While immersed in this persona—dubbed Mr. MacPhisto—Bono addresses the crowd with a rambling but cheeky speech touching on fame, his garish attire, and Bill Clinton (“Too tall to be a despot, but watch him closely”), ending with a prank phone call to a taxi service.
Nearly 20 years later, with U2 firmly entrenched in its rock-stars-making-serious-music groove, it’s difficult to imagine that the Irish band once had such a playful approach to stadium-sized rigmarole. But during the ’90s, when U2 consciously decided to shed ’80s-bred earnestness, it obliterated its pious past in a big way. The results were mixed: 1991’s sleek makeover Achtung Baby earned the group critical and commercial acclaim, while 1997’s electro-fried Pop polarized fans and critics alike. But 1993’s Zooropa was somewhere in the middle, the first U2 album on which traditional rock ’n’ roll signifiers truly acquiesced to out-there electronic elements.
Zooropa represented a shift in U2’s career in other ways, however. For starters, the album wasn’t meticulously planned. (Achtung Baby’s sessions, in contrast, were fraught with tension and stretched on for more than a year.) Zooropa’s music was thrown together very quickly, in a break between legs of dates on the monstrous Zoo TV tour. U2 also approached constructing the album in a novel way: Robbie Adams—an engineer/mixer on Achtung Baby who also toured with the band—recorded the Zoo TV soundchecks and fashioned loops of music from them. Bono and The Edge then used these building blocks to construct demos of songs, which were then fleshed out by a trio of producers (Flood, Brian Eno, and The Edge) across two studios.
In light of this process, it’s no surprise that Zooropa is such a stylistic curveball. The sensitive ballads “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” and “The First Time” sound like quintessential U2 hotel-lounge lullabies. The distortion-grimy “Dirty Day” and the six-minute-plus title track—all low-lit vocals, rippling guitars, and quivering electronic static—are extensions of Achtung Baby. But most obviously, Zooropa dips its toes in the kind of sonic experimentation U2 would fully embrace on Pop. The seductive “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car” boasts dank beats reminiscent of Beck’s chaotic sound collages, while Adam Clayton’s slinky bass sidles up to scrambled programming on “Some Days Are Better Than Others.” “Numb” and “Lemon”—the former a lobotomized cousin of The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” with monotone lead vocals from guitarist The Edge; the latter a falsetto-driven, electro-disco shuffle—focus on atmosphere and groove. It’s by far the weirdest album U2 has ever made, and it’s also the most interesting listen, one that isn’t afraid to rip up the band’s rulebook.
In hindsight, Zooropa very much feels like a transition album, one that presages the rest of the band’s ’90s output. It’s also quite a brave collection: The success of Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV tour obviously emboldened the members of U2 to push themselves even further creatively, a trend that lingered all the way through to Pop. And while Zooropa was a stylistic triumph, it didn’t have the type of songs that resonated right away. That’s clear from the album’s lack of commercial success, at least on the radio. Although “Lemon” and “Numb” were Top 5 Modern Rock radio chart hits—and the former hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Play charts—neither made the Billboard Top 100. In fact, only “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” appeared on that chart, peaking at No. 61. For comparison, five Achtung Baby songs hit the Billboard Top 100.
This lukewarm reception is no coincidence, though, as what’s also striking about Zooropa is how much it feels like the band was no longer sure who it was or for what it stood. Throughout the rest of its career, U2 had a very clear identity. On its first two albums, 1980’s Boy and 1981’s October, the band’s members were the bushy-tailed young post-punks from Ireland full of youthful angst and religious confusion. 1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire saw them evolve into politically aware poets with reverence for history and growing social consciousness. On 1987’s The Joshua Tree, U2 was a group of long-haired troubadours fascinated by America; while on 1988’s Rattle And Hum, the band became authenticity-seeking blues-and-gospel worshippers.
Achtung Baby, for all of its weirdness, was also well-defined: It was ironic rock stardom coupled with heartfelt message songs and commentary about the distancing effects of mass media and technology overload. Zooropa piggybacked on these lyrical and visual ideas—the band’s post-release tour was actually an extension of Zoo TV—and Bono continued to assume cartoonish characters such as the Fly or MacPhisto. But with a few notable exceptions, it’s hard to create a deep emotional connection with the album; the poses and commentary that seemed trenchant and fresh after Achtung here feel hollow and alienating. Bono’s continued adoption of his theatrical alter egos feels less like a winking gesture and more like a way to hide the fact that he had little to say on his own. It was no longer an ironic pose, but one he had assimilated.
Perhaps this identity confusion arose because Zooropa’s fascination with seedy pop culture and how it promotes detachment unwittingly came true. In other words, the album’s thematic obsession caused it to assume the very qualities it loathes: emotional aloofness and artifice over sincerity. Lyrically, this theory fits. “Babyface” describes the experience of watching a beautiful woman on television; “Lemon” is voyeuristic; “Numb” mimics the overwhelming nature of consumer culture; and “Some Days Are Better Than Others” captures the mind-numbing monotony of everyday life. Even a song as eloquent as “The Wanderer,” which features Johnny Cash on lead vocals talking about looking for God, is surprisingly shapeless, despite faint bass twang, sighing background vocals, and minimal drums.
Zooropa is frustrating, because on other songs, U2 proves it isn’t totally consumed by shtick. “Stay” remains one of the band’s loveliest songs, a heavy-lidded fable of love doomed by excess, violence, and personal demons. “The First Time” is a plainspoken tale about how shedding material possessions opened up the narrator to love. And the title track is a dizzying fever dream that confuses Utopia with insidious marketing, lack of religion, and clever sloganeering.
In the end, “Zooropa”—specifically, the lyric “uncertainty can be a guiding light”—was both a blessing and a curse. When U2 took the sentiment to heart on the disco-damaged Pop, it unfortunately overestimated the tolerance fans would have for a full-on electronic record. This was a shame, since Pop’s underlying songwriting is top-notch (actually, some of the band’s best to date). Wounded by the experiment, U2 retreated back to the safety of guitars, anthems, and sincere platitudes by 2000, and seem resigned to staying there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—for every daft lyric of “force quit, move to trash” and “uno, dos, tres, catorce,” the band has a song like the marching anthem “Magnificent” or the Stones-like rock ’n’ roll swagger of “All Because Of You.” Plus, it’s not like U2 has forsaken its past: On 2011’s 360° Tour, the group dusted off the rarely played “Zooropa,” turning it into a sensory experience akin to E.T.’s alien mothership returning to Earth.
Still, it’s hard not to be wistful for the version of U2 that existed circa Zooropa. The band was afforded uncommon freedom to experiment, secure in the knowledge that it had enough momentum to transform itself into something else. At that Sydney concert, during a performance of the rarely played “Lemon,” Bono-as-MacPhisto was lithe and buoyant as he kicked around the stage, preened like a vain clown, and crooned the song’s high notes. Above all, he appeared to be having fun acting like a pompous jackass, freed from the burden of being the Pied Piper of authenticity. At that moment, being expected to be merely a flashy entertainer suited him just fine.