Dream Up the World You're Gonna Live In: How U2's 'Zooropa' Got the Future Wrong, 25 Years Later

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U2 arrived in Berlin to record the album that would become Achtung Baby the evening before East and West Germany reunified. It was October 1990, and the wall dividing the city had fallen, unexpectedly, less than a year earlier. On July 5, 1993, one quarter a century ago today, the band released the follow-up to that album. 

Zooropa came out some restless recording sessions U2 pulled together in a break between legs its massive Zoo TV world tour. It was the band’s even more European sequel to its most concertedly European album, but where Achtung had been tense and guilty, Zooropa was unabashedly consumerist: infatuated with the possibilities pleasure. Insistently artificial and deliberately irreverent, it was an uncharacteristically disposable work -- just ten tracks long, from a band keenly aware their importance, as well as their self-importance. Perhaps incongruously, it would also end up as arguably their last great album.

“What do you want?”

That was the ethereal, beguiling question bubbling over the synth swell  Zooropa’s opening and title track. Over burbling ambiance -- which might as well have been manufactured in parody the Brian Eno–produced slow-build guitar lattices that the Edge used for signature U2 singles the previous decade -- Bono mouthed koans tech Utopianism. “Vorsprung durch Technik,” he fered, swiping a slogan from the German car company Audi. The song ended in open embrace the future: “She’s gonna dream up the world she’s gonna live in/ She’s gonna dream out loud.”

U2 had reinvented itself for the self-conscious 1990s as a band elaborate ironic poses: postmodern compositions built from industrial and club music influences, a stadium tour constructed from video collages, with Trabants -- the iconically shitty East German car -- recycled as lighting equipment. But Bono has always been helplessly earnest, even as an ironist, and whatever his intentions, on Zooropa his celebration the victories capitalism and technological innovation sounded sincere.

Listening to the album 25 years later is like glimpsing a tomorrow that never arrived. “Zeerust” is what the British humorists Douglas Adams and John Lloyd called it: “The particular kind datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.” Zooropa is to the '90s what The Jetsons were to the '60s, but instead flying cars and stratospheric suburbia, it is a world where sex, faith, and commerce have achieved perfection through the conduits connectivity and technology.

“Babyface” and “Lemon” are lithe and sinuous celebrations video, the former for its erotic potential and the latter for its capacity to preserve and commodify the present. “A man captures color,” Bono sings on "Lemon." “He turns his money into light to look for her.” Time dissolves; on “Babyface,” he lusts after a woman caught “in freeze-frame.” He says, “I’ve got slow motion on my side.” She’s coming “from outer space,” we hear; satellite transmissions have unbound man’s desire from any fixed moment or place. 

The mid-tempo rock ballad “Stay” -- parenthetically titled “Faraway, So Close!” after the Wim Wenders fantasy the same name about angels in Berlin -- is more sober, with intimations domestic violence, but it has a protagonist who spends her time “up with the static and the radio.” She’s “dressed up like a car crash,” and the next track promises “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”; money in the 1990s could do more than summon light. "Daddy's" is a discordant industrial groove driven by propulsive dance rhythms, and is introduced with a blast pompous Russian orchestration -- salvaged, the credits inform, from a Soviet release titled Lenin’s Favourite Songs. The Cold War is over and the loser’s artifacts are now pop kitsch. Drums keep pounding and the beat chugs on.

In the 33 months between U2’s arrival in Berlin to begin work on Achtung Baby and the release  Zooropa, the entire world turned upside down — and Europe was the epicenter this upheaval. The Soviet Union, a global superpower, disintegrated, and the specter communism was exorcised from the continent. Nations behind the former Iron Curtain democratized and some disintegrated: Czechoslovakia peacefully, Yugosla not. Meanwhile, the Maastricht Treaty, signed in February 1992, created the pan-national economic and governance institution that, in November 1993, would take shape as the European Union. A continent that had been ruptured by war for a century -- for centuries -- was coming together in peaceful accord. There was even talk a shared currency.

Further afield, an international coalition led by US president George H.W. Bush repulsed the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion Kuwait. Cable news channel CNN transformed war reporting by beaming images across the world American missiles burning fluorescent trails over the desert. The war was a success, but Bush was judged not to be; he lost his bid for re-election to an Arkansan upstart named Bill Clinton. At MTV’s televised Inaugural Ball honoring the new president, U2’s rhythm section, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton, performed the Achtung Baby ballad “One” under the ad hoc moniker Automatic Baby, with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills R.E.M. A new global order had been created, and the possibilities for the future were endless. According to the title a book by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the world had arrived at the End History.

History didn’t end. In 2018, the victory won by the free West has congealed into a market-driven supremacy that wrecked the world’s financial systems and bestowed inequality and social instability upon its economies. “With satellite television you can go anywhere,” Bono promised in “Stay,” but now an ever more interconnected world means social media trolling campaigns, along with authoritarian regimes spreading conspiracy theories and fake news to undermine democratic institutions. In Europe, nations like Poland and Hungary, which tore themselves free from behind the Iron Curtain, have been captured anew by nationalist and right-wing governments. The European Union is being undermined by populist and ten xenophobic movements; the United Kingdom voted in 2016 to exit the organization. Zooropa’s cover art shows the stars the EU flag superimposed on digital noise; in 2018, the static threatens to triumph.

U2’s most compelling work has always drawn resonance from the anxieties its age. The brittle post-punk  War captured the nuclear tension the early 1980s, while The Joshua Tree imbued its critiques American foreign policy a half-decade later with a Reaganesque optimism about American potential. After it captured the chaotic end the Cold War on Achtung Baby and the ensuing capitalist exuberance on Zooropa, U2’s sound would never again so effectively channel the political sentiments the current moment into its recorded work.

“What do you want?”

In the final third the album, Bono turns to matters spiritual in a pair spare and comparatively subdued songs faith and foretelling. “The First Time” is a reverent hymn with an irreverent twist: It speaks a prodigal son who opts not to return. “The Wanderer,” however, is irradiated krautrock -- featuring Johnny Cash, then still unrescued from unfashionability by his 1994 American Recordings album, picking over the detritus a ruined culture “under an atomic sky” and through “capitals tin.” It is an eerie finale for an album infatuated with possibility, yet the end the band imagines is portended not by a return to politics and faction, but by apocalyptic blankness.

The album closes with the clanging sound the siren that broadcasters use to alert DJs that they are transmitting dead air. The only end the band could see for the new world was a literal one. After the pleasure and play is done, all that will remain are radio waves, and an eternal Johnny Cash striding through a disco at Armageddon.