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Toronto Star : U2’s ironic mass-marketing bubble Pops

lundi 14 avril 1997

Source : Toronto Star

From The Toronto Star :

U2’s ironic mass-marketing bubble PopsBY NAOMI KLEIN

The music moguls are bawling into their spreadsheets, devastated that U2’s new albumPop isn’t performing as well as anticipated - as if it were Bre-X stock or something.

How could this have happened ? The forces of magazine covers, video stations, musicreviews and network news had all converged to create a feeling of cosmic inevitability that the album would spark a global gold rush.

There was just one problem. How can a band be as huge and earnest as U2 and still be cutting edge (i.e. kitsch-laden, star-hating, inaccessible and ironic) ? Unlike those bafflingelectronic artists who are all the rage with the kids, the members of U2 clearly love being massive rock stars. They’re prone to sweeping lyrics about the state of the HumanCondition and Bono’s voice seems custom-made to echo off the walls of baseballstadiums.

No problem, said the band. They can do self-conscious irony. They can do suspicion ofmass marketing. And like everything they do, they’ll do it HUGE. It will be huge and it will be about being huge. And so the repackaging began.

If irony is in, then they will name their album Pop, put Warhol-inspired graphics on thecover and write deep lyrics about our shallow culture : "If O.J. is more than a drink/and aBig Mac bigger than you think" Bono sings on "The Playboy Mansion".

If the kids want faceless techno music, not rock stars with big guitars, then U2 will havethe hottest electronic producers remix their album. If there’s a backlash againstmass-marketed corporate rock at a time when Wal-Mart is the largest music retailer in America, then Bono and the boys will hold their press conference inside Kmart,underneath a sign that says "Pop Group."

"PopMart at Kmart. We’re here on business," Bono told the reporters - an exaggerated,self-aware nod to his own commodification.

If stadium rock is a relic of plastic ’80s excess, then the PopMart tour, which begins at the end of the month, will see the band performing under a 100-foot-high McDonald’sGolden Arch and beneath "the world’s largest video screen," letting us know in no uncertain terms that they are as appalled as we are.

And if U2’s image is too earnest, they will festoon their stage with kitsch accessories and ironic icons on steroids, including, according to the press release, "a 12-foot-wideinternally illuminated stuffed olive on a 100-foot-tall toothpick."

It seemed a winning combination : the cachet of underground electronic music without any of that annoying anti-star nonsense that is so bad for magazine sales. The cynicism atspoon-fed spectacle with projected tour revenues of $ 260 million. The malaise at thefranchising of rock with Kmart as a de facto sponsor and the kids chomping on Big Macsfrom the concession stand.

It even worked for a while. Pop debuted at Number 1 in 27 countries. But by its fourth weekit had plummeted to Number 12 in the U.S. and Number 7 in Canada. And falling. By thetime the tour makes it to SkyDome in October, the show may well be renamed PopFleaMart,with the band auctioning their merchandise at two-thirds off, swearing it will be retro by 2001.

Though it sounds unkind, I can’t help feeling a little hopeful about U2’s tongue-in-cheekflop. Over the past few years, mass culture has adjusted to incorporate the ironic viewer bycreating products that pander and smirk simultaneously. Beavis and Butt-head aren’t justwatching TV and being stupid, they are making a subversive statement about us watching them on TV - built-in kitsch.

Similarly, when the sexploitation flick Showgirls flopped spectacularly in the theatres, MGMrelaunched the movie six months later as an "instant camp classic," hiring drag queens with bullhorns for the New York screenings.

And the mantra of the Star Wars revival appears to be "This time with synergy," as Hollywood retroactively cashes in on merchandising tie-ins beyond the imaginations of late-’70smarketers.

Clearly the American entertainment industry takes both earnest and ironic credit cards.

There does seem to be a limit, however. Perhaps baseball stadiums are just too big for irony. It bounces off the walls and comes back as the real thing. Or maybe it’s just that you can’tnail kitsch with a sledgehammer - even if it is the world’s largest sledgehammer, 100 feet tall, internally lit and rotating.

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