In early 2010, A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin decided to listen to and write about the bestselling, zeitgeist-friendly CD series NOW That’s What I Call Music! in chronological order. Each one of the 36 American NOW! collections compiles a cross-section of recent hits from across the musical spectrum. Beginning with the first entry from 1998, this column will examine what the series says about the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.
1. “Don’t Forget About Us,” Mariah Carey
2. “Stickwitu,” Pussycat Dolls
3. “Grillz,” Nelly, featuring Paul Wall and Ali & Gipp
4. “Run It!” Chris Brown
5. “My Humps,” Black Eyed Peas
6. “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want,” Rihanna
7. “Freshasimiz,” Bow Wow featuring J-Kwon & Jermaine Dupri
8. “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It,” Dem Franchise Boyz
9. “Stay Fly,” Three 6 Mafia featuring 8Ball & MJG and Young Buck
10. “I’m Sprung,” T-Pain
11. “One Wish,” Ray J
12. “Because Of You,” Kelly Clarkson
13. “Unwritten,” Natasha Bedingfield
14. “Photograph,” Nickelback
15. “Dirty Little Secret,” The All-American Rejects
16. “Dance, Dance,” Fall Out Boy
17. “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” Relient K
18. “Dare,” Gorillaz
19. “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Trace Adkins
20. “Everytime We Touch,” Cascada
I like to think of Jermaine Dupri as the Fagin of contemporary pop music. Only instead of dispatching moppets to pickpocket passersby, Dupri cunningly exploits children like Kris Kross and Bow Wow by turning them into instantly disposable pop icons. Like Madonna and David Bowie, Dupri is a cultural vampire who must feast on the lifeblood of the young and hot in order to retain his eternal youth.
How does Dupri keep his finger on the pulse of what the young people are up to? I suspect by going undercover and posing as a young person himself, not unlike the scheming adults in the Mr. Show sketch below, or Cameron Crowe when he researched Fast Times At Ridgemont High. It helps that the leprechaun-sized rapper/producer/starmaker/label head/all-around big shot could pass for a teenager if you squint really hard and don’t have much exposure to teens. I imagine Dupri spends his days lurking about schoolyards, trying to lure children into conversations like this:
Dupri: What’s crack-a-lacking, fellow young person? Do they still say crack-a-lacking these days?
Frightened Young Person: I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.
Dupri: I’m no stranger, youngster. I’m just a fellow high-school student who wants to know what’s jiggy and dope. What are the young people up to? Is there a dance they enjoy or a fad they’re all about? What’s fresh? What’s funky? What’s the higgedy-hops, dudemeister? Also, are there any handsome young boys around who can rap or sing? Maybe a Kris Kross or a Bow Wow for the new millennium?
[Frightened Young Person runs away in terror.]
In 2006, Dupri’s Spidey senses and regular visits to schoolyards and elementary-school locker rooms alerted him to the rising popularity of grills. Grills are metallic dental jewelry worn over the teeth by rappers eager to look like they’re sporting the world’s most expensive braces. According to Wikipedia, “Murray Forman, a professor specializing in popular music and hip-hop at Northeastern University, has suggested that grills, like other bling jewelry, symbolize monetary success, which is especially important for the social underclass.” Forman is one of the more popular professors at Northeastern. His “Stating The Obvious” course is always a favorite.
Dupri has never encountered a bandwagon he hasn’t hopped aboard, or a fad he hasn’t gleaned for a little filthy lucre, so he produced and did hype-man duty on Nelly’s “Grillz,” a No. 1 single that firmly and unmistakably took the idiotic trend of filling your mouth with precious metals and stones from the Dirty South underground into the mainstream.
“Grillz” is another quintessential NOW! song: dumb, fun, and infectious as fuck. It’s an empty-headed celebration of crass consumerism with a shelf life that can be measured in days, not years. It’s predicated on the somewhat questionable notion that women are irrevocably drawn to men who take their dental cues from Jaws, Richard Kiel’s towering henchman from a pair of James Bond movies. I wish the Bond series inspired more hip-hop trends; I would love to live in a world where rappers wore hats with brims that slice through flesh, like Goldfinger’s Oddjob, or lived inside a fake volcano on a tropical island. Actually, I’m pretty sure 50 Cent has already done that.
Grills invariably send out a message: “I am rich, dumb, and eager to waste my money in the most irresponsible, childish manner possible.” It’s materialism pushed to comic extremes. God only knows why rappers would spend tens of thousands of dollars to make it look like, in Paul Wall’s immortal words, they’re “chewing on aluminum foil.” Then again, Paul Wall, a rapper synonymous with grills, is one of the ugliest men in the world; it’s entirely possible that he kick-started the grill trend in the South so people would concentrate on the shiny metal in his mouth instead of the aesthetic nightmare that is the rest of his face.
In his liner notes for American Recordings, Johnny Cash writes, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother and God.” I also like those kinds of country songs. When it comes to the kind of shiny plastic pop found on NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilations, my tastes are a little different. When it comes to pop, I love songs about silly dances, stupid trends, breasts, asses, getting fucked up, fucking, getting fucked, breaking up, dancing, new slang terms, girlfights, being nonsensically proud of your city or hood, metallic dental jewelry, cartoon characters, food, drinking too much, and the glory of being dumb and young and full of cum.
So it pains me deeply to report that NOW 21 has two musical travesties that fail to do justice to the noble art form of the booty song. In the past, I have written nice things about Hologram Man (but not, it should be noted, his colleagues Ex Meth Lady, The Other Guy, and the Other Other Guy). I would like to take them all back now, for we are about to investigate the unimaginable horror that is “My Humps,” inarguably the worst song ever written.
Where to begin? Musically, the song is little more than a tacky rinky-dink rehash of “Push It,” all snake-charmer synthesizers, nyah-nyah-nyah vocals, and heavy breathing. (Apparently Black Eyes Peas hired a perverted crank-caller with bad asthma to provide backup vocals.) But it’s the lyrics that make “My Humps” such a singular atrocity.
It’s a song about the glory of breasts and asses so surreally misguided, it’s destined to create a new generation of eunuchs by describing the most sexualized parts of the female anatomy in ways that make them seem unattractive at best, and disease-ridden and repulsive at worst.
For starters, Ex Meth Lady refers to her bodily curves as, alternately, “my humps” and “my lovely lady lumps.” To everyone other than Will.I.Am, the word “Humps” immediately brings to mind the tortured hero of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame or Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Igor. “Lady lumps,” meanwhile, makes it sound like Fergie has contracted some sort of horrible, perhaps fatal illness, like the measles or rubella or cholera.
Yet “My Humps” was a giant hit anyway. There are only three possible explanations:
- Will.I.Am’s deal with the devil won’t expire until sometime around 2014.
- People are really fucking stupid and have terrible taste.
- Record buyers get turned on thinking about camels, measles, and hunchbacks.
Remarkably, NOW! 21 contains a song about asses that might be even worse than “My Humps.” The title says it all: Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Has there ever been a clumsier fusion of African-American slang and hillbilly culture? In a sex-offender growl, Adkins orders his band to play loud and fast in hopes that a honky-tonk temptress with an ass that reduces grown men to tears will get up and dance, so they can leer unbecomingly at her drool-inducing backside.
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” doubles as an encyclopedia of outdated slang and cheesy pop-culture references. We learn, for example, that the Hee-Haw honey in question has got it “going on like Donkey Kong,” can really shake her money maker to display in all its glory what her momma gave her. At long last, Mr. Adkins, have you no shame? Considering you wrote and recorded a song called “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” I’m guessing the answer is no.
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” (just because it rhymes doesn’t mean it has to exist) leaves nowhere to go but up, so now I’m going to highlight some songs that go around owning motherfuckers like Jason Statham in Crank 2. “Stay Fly,” by Oscar-winners Three 6 Mafia (incidentally, I love that I can now write the phrase, “Oscar-winners Three 6 Mafia”) is a spooky slab of Southern-fried menace that sonically recreates the feeling of walking barefoot through a haunted disco with bloody feet while high on bad acid. It’s all mood and menace, a horrorcore swag-a-thon you can dance to.
If the Britpop/shoegazer scene of the early ’90s were a high school, Damon Albarn would be class president and valedictorian with early admission to Oxford, and Shaun Ryder would be the drunk kid people paid a dollar to eat his own boogers. As the frontman of the Happy Mondays, Shaun Ryder was a professional fuck-up. He was a shambling, cracked-out mess of a man whose best days were behind him until Albarn gave him a ring and had him shout semi-coherently at relevant points in “Dare,” Gorillaz’s characteristically awesome contribution to NOW! 21.
Ryder’s vocals are so echo-laden and remote, it sometimes sounds like they were recorded during a crack binge in the Bahamas sometime in the mid-’90s, then delivered to Albarn and producer Danger Mouse over a bad phone connection. Yet the song still kicks all kinds of ass.
You know what else kicks a whole lot of ass? Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” That might seem like an odd assertion, given my aversion to what I dubbed “secretary rock,” but “Unwritten” really snuck up on me. It’s as close as secretary rock can get to being crunk. Seriously. I always get a little amped up every time I hear it. That’s the mark of a true anthem: It becomes your theme song every time you hear it. Whenever “Unwritten” plays, I bet secretaries are all “That’s my joint, son” and smash their mugs of Sleepytime tea in defiant celebration.
In this column, I’ve tried to single out great songs regardless of genre, so I’m sending my cynicism on vacation so I can give in to the optimism, brightness, and insanely catchy chorus of “Unwritten,” a song about greeting each new day with a blank slate and boundless sense of possibility. That, or it’s about anal sex. Seriously, what do you think “Release your inhibitions / Feel the rain of your skin / No one else can feel it for you / Only you can let it in” means? I’m pretty sure those lines specifically refer to taking it up the ass. But I’ve been wrong before.
Now that we’ve made our way through the best and most of the worst, let’s race through just about everything in between. Mariah Carey’s “Don’t Forget About Us,” Pussycat Dolls’ “Stickwitu,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Because Of You” are all saccharine, sleepy ballads, while “Run It” is a misguided attempt at crunk from Chris Brown. (Man, fuck that guy. He can get fucked with a sandpaper dick.) “I’m Sprung” is a solid robo-soul joint from T-Pain that fails to reach the same tacky, dizzy heights as “I’m ’N Luv (Wit A Stripper)” and “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snapping).”
Elsewhere, Bow Wow postures like a manly man on “Fresh Azimiz,” while Dem Franchise Boyz popularize a dance craze with “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It.” Like “Lean Back,” it posits its title boogie as a dance for gangstas too tough and hard to do real dances. Then again, I think that’s what it’s about; I’m not entirely sure, since the version on NOW! 21 is so heavily edited, I could only make out every 10th word or so.
Ah, but I’ve saved the worst for last. Our old arch-nemesis Nickelback returns with more third-generation grunge riffs and hunger-dunger-dang bleating on “Photograph,” an agonizingly dull exercise in wistful remembrance where the lead singer gazes at old photographs and thinks back to how, like, he used to hang out with his buddies and ditch school and do stuff. A more sympathetic man might argue that its ordinariness makes it relatable. Not me. Great art makes the personal universal. Songs like “Photograph” make the personal mundane, depressing, and generic. In other words, it does for cheap nostalgia what “My Humps” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” did for asses: absolutely nothing.
Next up on THEN! Rihanna sends out an S.O.S., the pigs want to catch Chamillionaire riding dirty, Daniel Powter has a bad day, and, Jesus, another fucking Nickelback song? I really am a glutton for punishment.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in music in Spring/Summer 2006:
- D12’s Proof is shot and killed outside a nightclub
- The Flaming Lips are At War With The Mystics
- The Streets disappoint the world with The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living
- Bruce Springsteen covers Pete Seeger on The Seeger Sessions
- The BBC releases the Flight Of The Conchords radio show on CD