When Bad Songs Happen To Good Bands #4

I suppose it’s fitting that Pop is the album where U2 embraced irony the most, because it’s perhaps U2’s least popular album ever. I say “perhaps” because at least people might still be able to name a song from it. Quick — name a song from October. Any song from October. You have ten seconds and you’re not allowed to look at iTunes, Wikipedia, Amazon, or any other site that would give you the answers. Oh, and the title track doesn’t count.

Just how un-beloved is Pop? Even U2 themselves have all but abandoned this album. Only five of its 12 songs have been performed live since the PopMart Tour in 1997. They even stopped playing a few songs from Pop during the tour that was meant to promote it! The only Pop song they’ve played live in full since 2001 is “Discotheque.” And before they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the “comeback” album that “brought them back to their roots,” they said, “We’re reapplying for the position of best band in the world.” Translation: “Hey guys! Sorry Pop sucked so much! Our bad! Here, look, we’re going to stop all this wacky experimentation now! It’s okay to like us again!” Cue the opening chords of “Beautiful Day.”

Of course, when an experimental album contains the worst song of said band’s career, it’s easier to understand when people condemn them for stepping out of their comfort zone. That’s the kind of thing that happens… When Bad Songs Happen To Good Bands.

A lot of people may disagree with what I’m about to say, but here I go: Pop wasn’t THAT bad. It’s not like U2 made the next Metal Machine Music. They went out on a limb and tried things that were quite different from what people expected U2 to sound like, and for the most part kept it pretty accessible. How many bands can you say have taken such drastic turns in their careers? There’s the Beatles, of course. Radiohead too, but they hadn’t even released OK Computer yet when Pop came out, let alone Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief. Metallica did it with The Black Album. A popular rock band going this far away from their established sound simply wasn’t all that common.

So why does Pop have such a bad reputation? Well, there’s the expected shock to the system of a popular rock band suddenly announcing, “And now for something completely different!” It’s an effect perhaps best summarized by Nick Hornby’s review of Kid A for the New Yorker. Much as I like Mr. Hornby – I am, after all, the guy who ripped off the Top 5 list idea from High Fidelity – his opinion basically boiled down to, “Hey! You’re a rock band! Where are all the guitars?” But let’s face it, if a band sticks to the same sound over and over and over again, it gets kind of boring after a while. (Not that that’s stopped certain bands from selling millions of records — ixnay on the Ickelbacknay.)

The difference between U2’s experiments and those of bands like the Beatles and Radiohead was that they weren’t quite as successful in the execution. Some of the songs worked –“Mofo” is a churning, hard-charging electro-rocker; “Last Night On Earth” has an absolutely killer chorus; “Staring At The Sun” and “Gone” make good use of the Edge’s arsenal of effects; and “Do You Feel Loved” effectively blends the old with the new. Others didn’t work quite as well – “The Playboy Mansion” is a heavy-handed attempt at pop culture satire; “Discotheque” is a ridiculous dance number that thankfully embraces its own ridiculousness and features a sweet guitar riff; while “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” is just kind of dull.

But one song in particular sticks out above all the others as the biggest failed experiment of all. This is not merely the worst song on Pop, people. It’s not even enough to say that it was the worst U2 song of the ‘90s. No… this is a very special breed of monster. This is “Miami,” the worst U2 song I’ve ever heard in my life.

What we have here is an attempt at pseudo-industrial music that sounds like its creators haven’t even listened to industrial music outside of maybe a couple Nine Inch Nails songs. There’s barely anything resembling a melody to be found in “Miami” aside from a two-note synth loop that plays over and over. As a result, Bono is mostly left to carry this song on his own, though the backing ba-ba-bas help his cause. Those ba-ba-bas in the background are actually the catchiest part of this song. Now, no matter what you may think of Bono’s politics or his activism, the man can sing his heart out when he wants to. Here he doesn’t even sound like he cares that much, and there’s simply not enough going on around him to hook the listener any further.

And then we get to the chorus. Oh, God, that chorus. First of all, the Edge’s guitar has never, ever sounded worse than it does in the studio version of “Miami.” Second, there’s Bono rhyming the titular city with “my mammy,” a phrase that hadn’t been used in popular music since Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Third, when the chorus comes back near the end and Bono starts screaming “MIAMI, MY MAMMY,” the only thing that tries to reach a climax is Bono’s voice, which again is screaming “MIAMI, MY MAMMY!” The whole thing is just kind of laughable. It also doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the lyrics, which basically pinpoint Miami as the heart of everything Bono finds ridiculous about American pop culture.

Just because it worked in 1927 doesnt mean it would have worked in 1997.

Not only did this man help usher in a new era of cinema, but he also inspired Bono's most ridiculous chorus lyric ever. It's almost enough to forgive him for donning blackface.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing about listening to “Miami” is just how unfinished it sounds. It’s like they got Bono to just sing over a rough demo of a song that could have turned out to be cooler. And given the story surrounding Pop’s release, this might not be too far off. U2 had to rush this album out the door even though they weren’t satisfied with how it sounded yet. Why? Because they’d already booked dates for the PopMart Tour and needed time to rehearse the new material.

As a result, by the band’s own admission, some of the songs actually were unfinished upon the album’s release. This is why every song from Pop that was featured on the band’s Best of 1990-2000 compilation appeared as a new mix – “Discotheque,” “Staring At The Sun,” and “Gone” were remixed for the official disc, while “If God Will Send His Angels” was given a mulligan on the bonus disc. Could “Miami” have been one of the songs that simply needed a little more time? Only the guys in U2 know for sure.

Is there any real saving grace to this song? Well, it sounds a little better live, with the most noticeable upgrade being the Edge’s guitar sound. But despite the improvement over the album version, “Miami” was still one of the first songs from Pop that the band dropped from their set list during the PopMart Tour. So even the band couldn’t have been too fond of this song.

Then again, this is the band that has pretty much disowned this album and the sound they attempted on it. They’ve gone back to writing straightforward, less experimental rock anthems — which is fine, because they do it well. But the fact that U2 have been around long enough and successful enough to do whatever they want and will still probably never attempt another song like “Miami” speaks volumes.

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One response

  1. miami

    Fantastic song.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:43 am

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