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Zoo TV: A Multidisciplinary Masterpiece

What does it mean for the human experience when technology is blurring the lines between real life and entertainment, past and present, experience and memory? That is the central question that U2 were exploring with their 1991–93 tour, Zoo TV.
Zoo TV: A Multidisciplinary Masterpiece

Earlier in the year, before the novelty of our new social reality had totally worn off, some friends organised a slide show presentation night. I subjected them to a 10 minute presentation on a topic close to my heart and I felt was particularly relevant in this moment: U2’s Zoo TV tour. Many months later the themes covered feel even more relevant than before. This is a transcript of that presentation.

What does it mean for the human experience when technology is blurring the lines between real life and entertainment, past and present, experience and memory? That is the central question that U2 were exploring with their 1991–93 tour, Zoo TV. The tour revolutionised the stadium rock show and delivered U2’s boldest artistic statement.

Zoo TV was a technical achievement well ahead of its time and a sophisticated statement on the role of mass media, television and rapid technological advancement on our culture and ourselves. The questions that U2 were grappling with in the early 90s feel as relevant as ever as our society has become almost entirely mediated through this pandemic.

Before I dive into Zoo TV, I want to place it in the context of U2’s career.

The Joshua Tree had made U2 the biggest band in the world in 1987 with hits like With Or Without You, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Where The Streets Have No Name.

But in 1988 U2 stumbled.

Their album/movie Rattle & Hum was an inconsistent mess that received mixed reviews. Even though there are more than a few classic tunes on Rattle & Hum, the band’s awkward stumbling around with Americana royalty struck many as pretentious and self aggrandising. The backlash had begun.

They were the biggest band in the world. But U2 just couldn’t stop themselves from reading the bad things people wrote about them. When U2 ended their Lovetown Tour (yes, really) in Dublin in December 1989 Bono told the crowd that the band needed to “go away and dream it all up again”.

Zoo TV was, at it’s core, a reaction to the band’s reputation for being earnest and overly serious. It’s no secret they read their own reviews and U2 had a point to prove. Zoo TV is still one of the most elaborate and expensive tours ever conceived. But pure spectacle would have been too easy. They had to make it art too.

Achtung Baby was recorded in Berlin as the wall came down in 1990. While they were were recording the record, U2 had been watching footage of the Gulf War on CNN while flicking around to watch German soap operas and ads. The band began to reflect on how cable television was blurring the lines between news, entertainment and home shopping.

As they began to become more obsessed with the medium of cable television U2 started to imagine a show that would push the medium to its limit. In the process of creating the biggest stadium spectacle they world had every seen, they would ask real questions about human nature and technology and grappled with what it means to be human.

Lost in a sea of static, rapid montages and slogans, the band were obscured by the stage they had created. While we have become used to this experience at a stadium concert now, in 1991 it was entirely new. Were you there to see the band? Or to see the band on a screen? What if you couldn’t even see the band? Does it matter if it’s live or recorded?

Bono had a range of characters that he played throughout the tour. Most well known was “The Fly” the manic lounge singer from hell, or Mirrorball Man, an unsettling perceptive read on the TV televangelist.

Televangelism was a perfect subject for Zoo TV. It’s a personality that simply couldn’t exist without mass media and was shaping America. The televagialist was changing people’s spirituality and our faith, cutting to the core of who we are and manifesting a new political reality. America the religion was born of the mass media that these televangelists embraced.

Zoo TV was a barrage of media. There was simply too much information to make meaning of, the only choice was to surrender to it.

Bono would use a giant remote to flick through TV stations as the crowd would cheer or jeer at whatever was on the screen. The tour regularly featured live crosses to war torn Sarajevo and Bono made prank phone calls on stage, often to the White House.

Women were invited onto the stage for Trying To Though Your Arms Around The World where they were given cameras to film Bono. Invited to get closer to their rock start idol that they ever imagined, and then asked to live that experience through a camera.

There was a confessional booth outside all of the shows where the audience was invited to confess secrets to a camera. Enticed by the the promise of being on the big screen people divulged shocking secrets and personal stories. Lost in a sea of information, you add to the noise just to see yourself reflected back in amongst the static.

Of course none of this would matter if the music wasn’t great. Achtung Baby is regularly cited as U2’s best album and won U2 a new generation of fans. But the spirit of Zoo TV was captured best in Zooropa. Zooropa was recorded on a break during the tour and captures the band at their most playful, creative and forward looking best.

Expanding on the tour’s themes off technology, alienation and consumption, Zooropa did everything that OK Computer did but better and 4 years earlier.

One of the album’s highlights is Lemon. Inspired by footage that Bono found of his dead mother dancing in a yellow dress, Lemon reflection a mediated existence.

A man makes a picture
A moving picture
Through light projected
He can see himself up close
A man captures colour
A man likes to stare
He turns his money into light
To look for her

As our connections to each other become more mediated, time and distance are flattened. Memory and experience are blurred. When we look into the screen are we looking for others or simply to see ourselves reflected back? Or are they they same thing? Does it even matter?

Babyface is a love song about bass player Adam Clayton’s relationship with supermodel Naomi Campbell. Because of their schedules they would rarely see each other, but he had infinite access to images of her. Babyface challenges us to ask what is the difference between consumption and connection.

A question that is even more relevant in this moment. Media now gives us so much control over our experience of the world. We can bring unnatural beauty into our lives through the exact same medium we can bring real people into our lives. What does that kind of control do to us and our expectation of others?

Obviously there has always been a critique of unreasonable beauty standards in media. But as we are forced to live our whole lives through that media, those lines between real friend and media personality become increasingly blurred.

While made decades earlier, Zoo TV’s thesis is even more relevant in the time of e-girls, YouTube personalities and podcasters we have intimate relationships with. What is an authentic experience in a hyper mediated world?

The televangelists of the 90s have been replaced by alt-right hucksters, a new kind of grift for a new kind of media. Reshaping the world nevertheless.

In the age of the internet this can all seem like a fairly passé critique: “what if internet, but too much?” has become a punchline for dismissing luddite boomers.

But Zoo TV was so much more than that. This wasn’t afraid of the technology, it embraced it. It took the form of televisual art to new extremes.

The very notion of a stadium rock band couldn’t exist without mass media. Just as the televangelist couldn’t exist without television the global rock star couldn’t either. The scale required to deliver this kind of critique could only be realised by fully being a part of it. The layers of contradictions that live within the project and the band themselves are exactly what makes Zoo TV so fascinating.

It would be too easy to give the audience a simple morality to cling to through the information overload, but U2 offers no moral guidance to the world they created. There was no grand unifying theory and no easy answers. U2 simply threw themselves into the contradictions, asking questions without expecting answers.

Achtung Baby and Zooropa were U2’s most intimate and personal albums. Perhaps the abstraction provided by the scale the new medium afforded them the comfort to express themselves more honestly than ever before.

Perhaps technology and mass media gives us new ways to dig deeper into ourselves and connect more authentically with each other. Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe its both. The technology can’t be separated from economics and culture, maybe Zoo TV was never a commentary on technology but simply on capitalism’s alienating drive.

Zoo TV wasn’t for answers, it was simply a mediation on what it means to be human in a media saturated world. But mostly, it was a bloody entertaining rock show.

For further reading, I can not recommend Bill Flanagan’s U2 At The End Of The World highly enough.