Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rattle and Hum and the Inevitable Backlash

Working with teenagers has taught me not to make any presumptions about the iconic-ness of pop culture icons. (See previous post detailing my disasterous name-dropping of "The Fonz.")

So I'll start by asking: Have you heard of the U2 album Rattle and Hum?

In case you haven't, the Rattle and Hum album...

  • ... came out in the fall of 1988, which makes it-- that's right-- twenty years old. (How's that for a little depression?)

  • ... was recorded during the tour promoting the mega-mega-successful The Joshua Tree album, which debuted on St. Patrick's Day 1987. (In fact, the name Rattle and Hum is borrowed from a line from the Joshua Tree's "Bullet the Blue Sky.")

  • ... includes live performances from the tour, of U2 staples (such as "Pride" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") as well as covers (e.g. Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and the Beatles' "Helter Skelter").

  • ... also includes new material, such as "Desire" and "Van Diemen's Land," which was sung not by Bono but by The Edge, and thus unlistenable. (Always unsettling when Edge takes the mic, isn't it? Sort of like when John Oates sang "Possession Obsession" back in the mid-80s.)

  • ... gives us a glimpse into Bono's now-mythic pomposity through throw-away lines such as "All I want is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth," and "Well, the God I believe in isn't short o' cash, Mister!" and-- my favorite-- "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug ya..."

  • ... was released in conjunction with a Major! Motion! Picture!, a "documentary" covering the Joshua Tree Tour and U2's journey across America.

  • ... was pretty much panned by critics.

    • I'd like to stick with those last two points for a minute, because they're actually related. Although many critics didn't love the album (a New York Times review called it an exercise in "pure egomania"), they really didn't like the movie. Or perhaps more accurately: they hated the media marketing blitz that came along with it.

      After all, for most of the 80s, U2 was this quaint, socially-conscious college-radio band. Now, not only were these four Irish blokes the biggest band in the world (thanks to The Joshua Tree), they were also taking up permanent residence at Hollywood and Vine with this movie.

      Whatever the case, the folks in the media who had always loved U2 turned on the band in the wake of the Rattle and Hum movie. Perhaps as a result of the critical bashing, the film ended up tanking.

      The rabid fans tried their best, coming out in droves for the November premier (earning the film a respectable $3.8 million for its opening weekend). But the problem was all the non-rabid-fans-- everyone else in mainstream America, basically, who were either not particularly interested to begin with or kept away by the poor reviews. And so, after the initial rush, ticket sales plummeted dramatically, the film was gone from most theatres by December.

      At the time, I remember many folks, fans and critics alike, interpreted the film's not-even-lukewarm reception as a sign that interest in the band had plateaued. Or maybe even worse than that: as a Rolling Stone reviewer said in 1989, "The U2 backlash has set in."

      History has not been kind to Rattle and Hum. To many fans, it occupies a place only slightly above 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop. And that's not fair.

      Except for "Stay (Faraway, So Close)," Zooropa is a lemon (that's a wink! wink! pun, by the way, in honor of a song on the album). At best, it's a loathsome amalgamation of dippy songs not good enough for 1991's Achtung Baby. And Pop is so nakedly awful that everyone associated with it should best pretend that it never happened.

      Especially compared to those two train-wrecks, Rattle and Hum looks pretty good. But even on its own merits, Rattle and Hum has a lot of great stuff going on.

      Don't believe me? Break out your old cassette player and listen to it again. The album has some good-bordering-on-great songs, including some legitimate hits: "Desire," "Angel of Harlem," and "All I Want Is You" (easily one of my Top Ten U2 song, which actually got even more popular in 1994, when it was used in the film Reality Bites.)

      And, while they may not have been "hits" necessarily, two other songs-- "When Love Comes to Town" and "God Part II"-- got some radio play back in the day. Bottom line: the album's not a bad listen, all things considered.

      And yet, the stink of the "U2 backlash" still lingers over Rattle and Hum, and that's actually what I want to talk about here. Why was there a backlash? Was it just because of the movie? Was it overexposure? Was it because the album came so soon after The Joshua Tree, making it seem like Joshua Tree Junior? (Or maybe Joshua Shrub? No? Joshua Bush?)

      Me, I wonder if the backlash over Rattle and Hum had more to do with its predecessor than with the album itself. Remember, The Joshua Tree made U2 the biggest band in the entire world. It was mega-mega-successful-- which may have been one "mega" too many. Maybe the general public-- including the fans who shepherded the band along the way to super-stardom-- wanted to see them brought down a few pegs.

      I'm likening it to the Red Sox. In 2004, when they were chasing the World Series championship, everyone loved them. Their "idiotic-underdog" chic captured everyone's imagination. They continued to coast on that goodwill in 2005, despite some serious post-World Series overexposure. But by the time they won the World Series in 2007, things changed somewhat.

      Oh, they're still crazy-popular. They still sell out Fenway. But you know what's changed? The phenomenon of playing in an opposing team's stadium and hearing half the fans cheer for the Red Sox-- that's changed. That showed, to me, that the Sox were no longer media darlings, no longer "America's" ballclub.

      And maybe their success had a lot to do with that: They loved the Sox when they were scratching their way to the top. When they got to the top... they moved on to something else. Even worse: they wanted to tear them down. Maybe the same can be said for U2 in the case of Rattle and Hum.

      So, yes, I understand that backlash happens, that in many ways it's inevitable, but I'm still not sure why it happens. Is it a product of overexposure? Are people disappointed? Bored? Ready to move on to something else? Or is it resentment? Do people resent when a band, team, friend, colleague makes it? Do we resent someone else's fame and success?

      I don't know... but the backlash phenomenon is powerful enough to make me wish this blog is never successful. My skin just isn't that thick.

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