In addition to being the thirtieth anniversary of U2’s first worldwide number one hit The Joshua Tree, 2017 marks another birthday – the twentieth commemoration of the release of what is probably U2’s most controversial album, Pop. Since we’ve spent the whole year up to this point celebrating The Joshua Tree, and there is, you know, a tour currently going on to observe that album, it seemed only fair to me that we spend a little time on the other album that’s celebrating a big anniversary this year. Since I’ve already covered Pop’s lead single, “Discotheque” (see here) I thought that it would be a good idea to start off our observance of Pop’s anniversary by talking about that album’s second single, “Staring at the Sun”.
In many ways, I’ve always thought of “Staring at the Sun” as the perfect balance between U2’s penchant for having messages in their song and the seeming frivolity of their “party album”, Pop. As such, it might be one of the songs from Pop, an album which was famously called “unfinished” by critics and the band itself, that was just right as it was originally recorded and released in 1997. The aforementioned message of the song is fairly simple: it’s easy to turn a blind eye to all of the world’s ills, but it will only hurt you in the long run. Aside from the chorus itself, which plainly spells out the song’s meaning, I particularly enjoy the second verse. “There’s an insect in your ear, if you scratch it won’t disappear. It’s gonna itch and burn and sting”. In this verse, the insect in the ear represents one’s conscience, niggling at the observer, compelling them to do something instead of continuing to ignore what’s right in front of them.
The music to “Staring at the Sun” is a definite highlight on the Pop album. The song is upbeat, catchy, fun-sounding, and all of the things that a pop single is supposed to be. The vocal melodies are strong, particularly in the irresistible chorus, and give the impression of urgency, which I’ve always felt us a key ingredient to great rock and pop-rock music. The drums play a necessary role, coming on strong just before the first chorus and helping to give that chorus the uplift that it should, and does, have. Edge’s guitar in this song is particularly interesting. It reminds me of what George Harrison used to play on the Beatles’ records. I’m not sure if this was an intentional nod to the grandfathers of pop-rock or if it was just a sound that caught Edge’s ear, but it definitely fits the song’s radio friendly mood.
The live history of “Staring at the Sun” is checkered at best. This song is one of the main reasons that the Pop*Mart Tour got such bad reviews at the start. The band really struggled to play the song in the album arrangement. At several shows, the band had to restart the song because their performance was such a mess. Finally, just over a month into the tour, the decision was made to abandon the full band arrangement of the song and to play it it acoustically, with just Bono and Edge. This version became a fan favorite and was even played a few times on the Elevation Tour, in some of the last performances of any song from the Pop album.