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 33 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.
- “Larger Than Life,” Backstreet Boys
- “You Drive Me (Crazy),” Britney Spears
- “I Need To Know,” Mark Anthony
- “Candy,” Mandy Moore
- “Blue (Da Ba Dee),” Eiffel 65
- “It Feels So Good,” Sonique
- “I Belong To You,” Lenny Kravitz
- “I Knew I Loved You,” Savage Garden
- “I Wanna Know,” Joe
- “Try Again,” Aaliyah
- “Waiting For Tonight,” Jennifer Lopez
- “Get It On Tonight,” Montell Jordan
- “Steal My Kisses,” Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals
- “Then The Morning Comes,” Smash Mouth
- “Meet Virginia,” Train
- “I Try,” Macy Gray
- “This Time Around,” Hanson
- “All The Small Things,” Blink 182
Who can forget the Latin pop explosion of the late ’90s? The music industry woke up one morning and recognized an untapped market that was growing larger by the day. Today, Latinos constitute 15 percent of the U.S. population, but studies show that by 2035 the United States will be 175 percent Latino. How is that even possible? I’m not sure. All I know is that if you’re Irish today, in 25 years you’ll be doubly Mexican. It’s just going to happen. Don’t fight it. And would it kill you to learn Spanish? Must you always be such an ugly American?
Suddenly everything Latin American was muy caliente. But it wasn’t Latin music or culture these acts were peddling so much as a cartoon caricature of lusty machismo. Being Latino became a marketing gimmick. Perhaps nothing symbolized this better than Christina Aguilera needing to learn Spanish in order to record a 2001 Spanish-language album Mi Reflejo, originally entitled Latin Lover Girl.
But it was the Latin lover boys who made the biggest impact at the turn of the century. Lou Bega cha-cha-chaed his way into our hearts with “Mambo #5.” We all waited breathlessly for Mambos number 6, 7, and 8 to replicate the original’s success, but that was not to be. Those two fat guys taught the world how to do the Macarena. Enrique Iglesias proved that it was possible to become rich and famous despite being the son of a huge celebrity. And a Menudo alumnus named Ricky Martin gyrated his way to crossover superstardom. The title of Martin’s breakthrough single said it all: For a brief idyll they were all living la vida loca.
It was great to see an underrepresented minority make such a big splash, but it was troubling that these acts peddled such a reductive, stereotypical take on Latin culture. It would be like a wave of Jewish stand-up comedians achieving massive crossover success for the first time with Jackie Mason-style acts.
On his breakthrough hit “I Need To Know,” Anthony unleashes his inner Pepe Le Pew; his tone is aggressively sexual but the lyrics reek of schoolyard crushes. Anthony begins by making the following assertions:
- Around the way they say you’ve asked for him.
- There’s even talk about you wanting him.
- He must admit that’s what he wants to hear.
- Yet this news, while encouraging, is mere talk until you take him there (by “there” I can only assume he means to the malt shop for a kissing date).
With its mariachi horns, congas, seductive rhythm, and heavy-breathing sexuality, “I Need To Know” fit snugly into the Latin Pop Explosion of the late ’90s, offering sounds at once familiar and exotic.
Anthony must have a charming personality; he married a former Miss Universe and then Jennifer Lopez despite looking like Gollum’s sentient skeleton. Anthony is a homely, homely man. Rumor has it that he matriculated at Ugly University and became Dean Of Students, then set up the Mark Anthony Scholarship For Excellence In The Field of Hideousness. I’m honestly a little surprised that you’ve asked for him. I’m even more surprised by the talk of you wanting him.
Jennifer Lopez’s future third husband aside, pop music is largely, if not exclusively, dedicated to attractive young people pretending to be sexually attracted to their fans in exchange for money and fame. Boy bands are particularly adept at this tactic. Few tracks are as shameless or as effective in manipulating emotions than Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life.”
You know how back in the ’90s A.J., Howie, the one with the facial hair, the other one with the facial hair, and the one I like to call “Beardy” were your heroes? Well I hope you’re sitting down because in reality you were Backstreet Boys’ heroes. You’re the one who is truly larger than life. In fact, without you screaming front row at every concert, the Backstreet Boys would die. “All of your time spent keeps us alive,” they contend while also giving you credit for cheering them up whenever they’re feeling down. In the song’s key line, one of the Boys (I think it’s Beardy or Tito) wishes he “could thank you in a different way, c’mon!”
We all know what that “different way” of thanking fans entails. That’s right: a big old fan appreciation pizza party with soda pop and pin the tail on the donkey and everything! That, or they wish they could deflower you on a bed festooned with stuffed animals, Backstreet Boys posters, and stickers in a bedroom redolent of Clearasil and desperation. The video for “Larger Than Life” expresses the song’s theme in a depressingly literal fashion: by having the band pretend to be dancing androids on a spaceship. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its shamelessness and pandering, “Larger Than Life” is my second favorite Backstreet Boys song: It rocks moderately hard, and as a look into the psychology of fandom and the symbiotic relationship between pop superstars and their devoted acolytes it’s unintentionally revealing.
Mandy Moore played the game of teasing and titillation from a different angle. Like Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears, Moore was at the forefront of what folks referred to as “Pedo-Pop,” bubblegum R&B that brazenly played up the precocious sexuality of girls in their mid-teens. I’m surprised the gals never toured together under the banner “Humbert Humbert Presents… A Night Of Naughty Nymphets.”
I’d always thought of Moore as the good girl of the bunch, an apple-cheeked pop princess in a world of tawdry teen tarts, but listening to “Candy,” her lascivious debut single, I was struck by just how filthy and wrong it sounds. Like so many teen-pop songs, “Candy” posits desire as an explicitly sexual hunger, a ferocious visceral addiction. In a comical attempt at a sultry voice, the 15-year-old growls/squeaks, “I’m so addicted to the lovin’ that you’re feeding to me / Can’t do without it / This feeling’s got me weak in the knees.”
From the way Moore delivers the lines, you’d think her producer glared at her as she recorded and screamed, “More sex! More sex! We have a nation of perverts and pedophiles to appeal to!” after every take. Moore spends most of the song pretending to be sexual and experienced beyond her years until the queasiest section of an extremely queasy exercise in jailbait sensuality: a spoken-word interlude where, in an unsettling burlesque of wholesome childhood innocence, Moore brightly enthuses:
You know who you are [horny suburban dad ogling his high school daughter’s friends’ cleavage]
Your love’s as sweet as candy
I’ll be forever yours
Love always, Mandy
Then, and only then, Moore sounds much younger than her years.
“Candy” got Moore’s career as a teen idol off to a singularly creepy start, yet Moore has managed to buck the odds and make a substantive career for herself. She’s stayed out of the tabloids and rehab and reinvented herself as a grown-up with the well-received 2009 release Amanda Leigh. Some folks, it seems, have the psychological resources and resilience to survive being paraded before the public at a young age as a teen nymphet.
Speaking of seduction (am I the king of segues or what?), Montell Jordan’s infectiously obnoxious “Get It On Tonite” offers listeners an offer any self-respecting woman would refuse: the opportunity to help Jordan cheat on a girlfriend he can barely tolerate. Is there anything more seductive than infidelity and misogyny? Over a sultry groove, Jordan maps out a sordid scenario. His girl is ice-grilling him and his one-night-stand-to-be from across the dance floor but he could care less. He’s got a Benetton heart and an undiscriminating cock.
Jordan spends half the song seducing a new love and half of it disparaging his current lover. In the most cutting line, Jordan says of his boring old girlfriend, “She’s a chicken.” Jordan means, of course, that the unfortunate woman is a chickenhead, which is to say a hoodrat of low moral character. But I prefer to think he’s being literal. “Get It On Tonight” is much more compelling as a story song about a love triangle between a man, a sexy young dancefloor temptress, and an actual chicken than it is as a sleazy, familiar tale of cheating. The image of a chicken squawking unhappily as its black, uncomprehending eyes glare at Jordan and his new skank makes me happy. Who can blame Jordan for wanting to cheat on his girl if he’s stuck in a doomed relationship with livestock? Who wouldn’t feel sorry for an R&B lover-man reduced to fucking poultry?
Here at Then That What They Call Music! We try to dole out props where props are due, so while I’ve written of Smash Mouth before in less than glowing terms, I am a fan of “When The Morning Comes,” the band’s contribution to Now That’s What I Call Music 4! Oh sure, the aptly named Greg Camp’s lyrics are as nonsensical as before, but the song marks one of the few times the band sounded genuinely psychedelic instead of just stoned and lazy. And dig that Farfisa!
Other winners from this volume: Sonique’s old-school disco smash “Feels So Good,” Macy Gray’s majestic “I Try,” and Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” a slinky little R&B number that showcases the late singer’s sultry sexuality and gift for understatement, a rare and glorious quality in a genre full of Mariah Carey-style belters intent on overpowering songs with glass-shattering force.
The Now series sets out to capture the sum of pop music in microcosm—the good, the mediocre, and the egregiously awful. It does an especially good job with the egregiously awful part here. It’d be hard to come up with a song more obnoxious and migraine-inducing than Eiffel 65’s “Blue,” a clamorous Eurotrash novelty song about a blue man who lives in a blue world where everything is blue because he ain’t got nobody to listen to. But the soulless hacks in Train prove more than up to the task.
Train’s “Meet Virginia” is really two god-awful songs in one. During the verses, it’s an insufferable faux-alternative quirkfest about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who is really just a laundry list of twee eccentricities. The precious little princess in question “never compromises,” “loves babies and surprises,” and if all that weren’t crazy enough she “wears high heels when she exercises.” What a nut! Surely a kooky character like that must skip merrily through a charmed life, right? That’s where you’re wrong. During the song’s hideously overwrought chorus, the lead singer bleats of the title character’s internal anguish:
She wants to be the queen
then she thinks about her scene
pulls her head back as she screams,
“I don’t really want to be the queen”
Cutesy and painfully earnest, self-satisfied and histrionic, pretentious and meaningless, “Meet Virginia” is a third-rate imitation of a second-rate Counting Crows song, especially during the chorus.
According to Billboard, the fourth installment of Now That’s What I Call Music was the first compilation of previously released hits to debut at the top of the chart. In a world before the iPod shuffle, dilettantes welcomed the opportunity to sample the entire spectrum of pop music in one handy disc. The iPod would change music forever, but in 2000 the CD was still king and Now That’s What I Call Music still occupied prime real estate at the red-hot epicenter of everything pop.
Up next on Then That’s What They Called Music: N’Sync battles Backstreet Boys, The Neptunes change the sound of pop forever with “Shake It Fast,” Destiny’s Child keep the club jumping, jumping, and Aaron Carter channels the Fresh Prince for the benefit of the creepy trenchcoat crowd.
What was going on in music outside the Now That’s What I Call Music 4! Bubble in 2000
A skinny D’Angelo unleashes his Voodoo
Outkast drops Stankonia
Radiohead blows minds with Kid A
Eminem releases The Marshall Mathers LP
The surprise smash soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou briefly makes bluegrass popular