The Nineties had its own version of Sixties counterculture- it was called the Alternative Revolution. The Alternative Revolution was more limited in scope than Sixties counterculture was- not only were the numbers not there for those who were young adults in the Nineties (rather than the number deluge for the Baby Boomer generation), popular culture was splintered in a way that it wasn't splintered in the Sixties. During that era, the Beatles covered Smokey Robinson and Chuck Berry, and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett covered the Beatles and the Stones. In the Nineties, with minor exceptions, black and white popular musicians remained segregated. Likewise the British rock musicians who comprised the "Brit-Pop" movement remained wary about Americans, so that, for the entirety of the Nineties, a wide gulf separated America and England. Still, the Alternative Revolution was widespread, and represented a rejection of the corporate ethos which had dominated American popular culture in the Eighties. The Nineties version of the Love-Ins, Be-Ins, and Woodstocks of the Sixties was Lollapalooza, a traveling festival which toured America in the early-to-mid Nineties. It was a fusion of rock and other forms of popular music with revolutionary, liberal politics, and, even though entrance was paid, a huge smash among young Americans.
The place of sexuality in the Nineties and the Alternative Revolution is conflicted- many Alternative figureheads were coy about sexuality, and this generation of rock musicians (born in the Sixties) had no Mick Jagger. If kids were looking for a figurehead to channel their psycho-sexual energies, they would have to look somewhere else. The place of U2 in the Alternative Revolution was strange and strained- they consolidated their position as a major rock band in the empty Eighties, playing expansive, earnest, conservative mainstream rock. They wrote about politics and love without being overtly sexual; part of their appeal to the mainstream was that (unusually) they advertised themselves as practicing Christians. Because they ran out of steam at the end of the Eighties, and because winds of change were in the air around "indie" rock like R.E.M. going mainstream (indie into mainstream being one of the most well-worn paths of the Alternative Revolution), U2 holed up and decided to redo their image and everything else about them. In a miracle of timing, when U2 emerged with Achtung, Baby in the fall of '91, it was coterminous with the release of Nirvana's Nevermind, the album which publicly announced the emergence of the Alternative Revolution to the world. Kurt Cobain's Nevermind songs, especially the four singles ("Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come as You Are," "In Bloom," "Lithium") rebelled against overt expressions of sexual desire. They focused instead on channeling the psycho-affective energies of America's adolescents. In many ways, Cobain was an anti-Jagger; sexual desires were not only not exteriorized but were stigmatized as well.
Tellingly, the only song on Nevermind about sex, "Polly," was about destruction and deviance- the song narrates from inside the head of a rapist (shades of Jagger's "Midnight Rambler"). What Achtung, Baby offered rock fans was the exact opposite- a fully sexualized, sexually self-aware version of U2. What separates Bono's lyrics from Mick Jagger's is that they're also about blood-and-guts, in-the-trenches intimacy- a resolutely adult world where sex carries with it emotions other than lust, egotistical pride, and envy. Bono, at the time, went out of his way to bludgeon his image into shape with his lyrics- gone were the Everyman uniforms, in were black leather pants a la Jim Morrison, Ray-Ban shades a la Lou Reed (one of his main lyrical avatars at the time), and the self-conscious, anti-piety haughtiness of the major league rock star. Did this work? Because Bono was already set in place as a rock star, and because Achtung, Baby was an immediate success, it did, even if the persona Bono created ("The Fly") was more like a David Bowie character than something Bono wanted to establish as permanent. Interestingly (and, for those who know post-modern art, oddly), U2's foray into fully-blown, mature sexuality coincided with a heavy flirtation with the ethos of post-modernity- irony, the embrace of surfaces and images, pop culture for its own sake, etc. The Zoo TV tour which followed Achtung, Baby was a post-modern spectacle- what Bono forced into place on the tour was an idea Andy Warhol might've approved of: post-modern sexuality.
In a way (and probably without knowing it), what Bono was doing was much more interesting than the post-modern art which had achieved success in the "haute" art world- Bruce Nauman, Jeff Koons, etc. Koons, particularly, got trumped by Bono's inclusion of emotion in his explorations of sexuality. Bono's protagonists in songs like "One" were well-rounded. Bono's achievement was also more interesting than those of someone like David Byrne, whose non sequiter ethos too often dissolved into cuteness and smarm. Byrne, also, was not good at incorporating emotions into his songs. The place of Bono and U2 in the Alternative Revolution was ambiguous- they weren't outcasts (which they probably would've been had they stayed in Joshua Tree mode), they weren't necessarily embraced either. The Achtung, Baby songs got played on Alternative Rock radio stations alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and the rest; the Zoo TV tour filled stadiums. They outsold the Alternative Rock bands, sometimes outrageously. In retrospect, what U2 had to offer was something the Alternative generation rejected; maturity and intimacy (albeit wrapped in a post-modern package). It constitues, in rock history, a kind of stand-off. In an era of stand-offs, U2 versus the Alternative Revolution was a major one. Happily, a big chunk of rock fans chose to embrace both.