U2 were in a weird place when the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards came around. The band was in the middle of their epic PopMart world tour, but their new album Pop failed to connect with fans or critics. Some stadiums in America had giant swaths of empty seats, and in a radio landscape dominated by Puff Daddy, No Doubt, the Spice Girls and Hanson, the band was starting to look more than a little passé.
The band was in the middle of the European leg of PopMart but flew to New York during a four-day break for the VMAs, hoping that a performance of “Please” on the broadcast would finally break one of the singles on the American charts. They were sandwiched in between Beck, Marilyn Manson, Jewel and the Spice Girls, all at the peak of their commercial powers. Puff Daddy stole the show by bringing out Sting for a mash-up of “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Every Breath You Take,” and the Wallflowers dueted with Bruce Springsteen on their huge hit “One Headlight.”
U2 were the only elder statesmen allowed to take the stage unattached to a younger act, and they were the only ones playing a song that wasn’t a massive hit. They left their flashy PopMart gear behind, opting to play on a mostly bare set. Bono covered his face with a hoodie, prompting host Chris Rock to later crack that he looked like the Unabomber. (That outfit has a different connotation today.) Their six-minute rendition of “Please” was significantly more powerful than the version on Pop, and further evidence that it would have been an better album if they had time to finish it. (U2 foolishly booked their tour long before the album was ready, forcing them to drastically rush the process in the end.)
Despite the amazing performance, “Please” failed to make an impact on the American charts. They wrapped up the tour the following March with a pair of shows in South Africa and finally scored a hit later that year when “The Sweetest Thing” (originally a B-side to “Where The Streets Have No Name”) was released as a single from their hits compilation The Best of 1980-1990. It wasn’t until “Beautiful Day” hit in late 2000 that they proved yet again they could still be a commercial force with new material.