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.
- “Stronger,” Britney Spears
- “Gotta Tell You,” Samantha Mumba
- “Bye Bye Bye,” ’N Sync
- “Around the World (La La La La La),” ATC
- “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” Jennifer Lopez
- “Independent Women Part 1,” Destiny’s Child
- “It Wasn’t Me,” Shaggy featuring Rikrok
- “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right),” 3LW
- “Crazy,” K-Ci & JoJo
- “I Wish,” R. Kelly
- “Shape Of My Heart,” Backstreet Boys
- “Crazy For This Girl,” Evan And Jaron
- “Yellow,” Coldplay
- “Again,” Lenny Kravitz
- “Hemorrhage (In My Hands),” Fuel
- “With Arms Wide Open,” Creed
- “Drive,” Incubus
- “Beautiful Day,” U2
- “AM Radio,” Everclear
I do not want this series to turn into a twice-monthly report on Britney Spears’ mental state. Between this series and Lindsay Lohan month over at My Year Of Flops, I’ve devoted more time to contemplating the ripe sexuality of teenage girls than anyone this side of Humbert Humbert or R. Kelly.
But Spears and NOW That’s What I Call Music! 6 make it difficult to ignore her stumbling evolution by opening with “Stronger,” a 2000 single from her second album that directly references and answers her first hit, “…Baby One More Time.” Spears’ debut found her mired in a state of profound romantic despair. Her sanity and life hung in the balance as she sang of loneliness so all-consuming that it threatened to kill her, and a love so strong that without it, she was in danger of losing her mind.
It was, all things considered, a grim state of affairs. Clearly Spears would die or go mad if her object of desire didn’t throw her a mercy fuck. We worried about our Britney. Would she be okay? Would she make it out of adolescence with her sanity relatively intact? So it is my distinct honor to report that on “Stronger,” the leadoff track on NOW! 6, Spears happily announces that she’s stronger than yesterday, that it’s “now nothing but my way,” and that her loneliness ain’t killing her no more. Yes, everything is going to be all right for Britney forever.
Of course, we now know better, but “Stronger” registers as an infectious, shiny declaration of independence, however wishful it ultimately was. Ah, but Spears wasn’t just singing for herself: She was giving the world a self-esteem anthem.
Independence is a recurring theme on NOW! 6. It even appears, surprisingly, on Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” where the stern-yet-sexy Beyoncé invokes the holy trinity of Charlie’s Angels stars—“Lucy Liu with my girl Drew and Cameron D”—to celebrate female autonomy. Knowles’ unique brand of fourth- or fifth-wave feminism prioritizes going dutch as the key to self-respect. “Always 50/50 in relationships” Knowles insists in that sultry dominatrix voice of hers. That dovetails neatly with one of my cardinal rules: A gentleman always goes dutch.
’N Sync celebrates its escape from the groping hands and parasitic business practices of pop-music supervillain Lou Pearlman with the spunky, defiant “Bye Bye Bye,” a song whose title seems to reference Pearlman. True, the song is addressed to a girlfriend, but it seems awfully suspicious that the woman in question is described as a morbidly obese, balding, fortysomething con-artist and proprietor of a fraudulent blimp company, a woman named “Louise Schmearlman.” Not exactly subtle, guys.
Speaking of pop-music villains, the detestable Scott Stapp and his unforgivably awful band Creed make their NOW! debut with “With Arms Wide Open,” a maudlin celebration of new fatherhood that finds Stapp bleating goat-like over melodramatic strings and third-rate grunge.
A lot of people hate Scott Stapp, mainly because he fucking sucks. They hate how Creed combines the worst elements of grunge—humorlessness, pretension, hunger-dunger-dang over-singing, melodrama—with the worst parts of Christianity: self-righteousness, faux-piety, rank hypocrisy. They hate how the monobrowed Stapp looks like the lovechild of Billy Ray Cyrus and a caveman, and they hate his penchant for striking Jesus poses. But mostly, as I argued earlier in this paragraph, they hate him because he fucking sucks.
A culture-wide tidal wave of Schadenfreude ensued in 2006 when Stapp was busted while getting a drunken blowjob from groupies alongside Kid Rock on Kid Rock’s tour bus. At that time, he could be heard loudly espousing family values throughout Clear Channel nation. Of course, blowjobs from groupies aboard tour buses is one of the preeminent perks of rock stardom, but it felt a little creepy coming from a guy keen to tell women what they should and should not be able to do with their bodies. (On “In America,” he thunders, “Only in America we kill the unborn to make ends meet.”) For those keeping track at home safe, legal access to abortion = morally wrong. Getting a sloppy BJ alongside the man who wrote “Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp” = awesome.
When caught creeping with the skanks next door, Stapp would have been wise to have followed the advice of Shaggy in “It Wasn’t Me.” At the risk of hyperbole, “It Wasn’t Me” is probably the greatest song ever written. It’s as edifying as it is entertaining. Shaggy isn’t just mumbling gibberish in an incomprehensible Jamaican accent, he’s feeding the soul, dispensing invaluable life lessons.
In “It Wasn’t Me,” a young man (voiced by Rikrok) is despondent after being discovered by his apoplectic girlfriend slipping the afikomen to “the girl next door.” On the album version, Rikrok confesses, “Picture this: We were both buck-naked, banging on the bathroom floor.” Not very romantic, eh? Out of deference to more delicate sensibilities, the offending lyrics were changed to “Picture this: We were both caught making love on the bathroom floor.” I like this second version better, because it suggests that Rikrok and the temptress were staring soulfully into each other’s eyes and communicating their passionate love for one another physically, not doing anything as coarse as buck-naked banging on the bathroom floor.
In his time of need, Rikrok does what anyone in his situation would do: He seeks romantic advice from a novelty bubblegum reggae artist who sounds like a cartoon frog. Rikrok lays out the following damning evidence in this order:
- Honey came in and caught Rikrok red-handed, creeping with the girl next door.
- At the time of this unfortunate discovery, both parties were without clothes.
- As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in the act of either making love or banging buck-naked on the bathroom floor.
- Rikrok has only himself to blame, as he foolishly gave his girlfriend an extra key to his home. This invites the question: Did he want to get caught? Shades of Gary Hart’s shenanigans aboard the Monkey Business.
- The girlfriend then watched Rikrok cheat on her on the kitchen counter.
- Then she caught them making the beast with two backs on the sofa.
- And also in the shower.
- Like Stapp’s indiscretion, Rikrok’s was even captured for posterity on camera.
- The girlfriend saw the marks on Rikrok’s shoulder.
- The girlfriend could hear the screams of passion and Rikrok’s pillow talk, and in a fit of masochism, she stayed and watched her boyfriend fuck another woman all over the house.
Damning, huh? You’ve got to wonder why neither Rikrok nor his lady-friend noticed the girlfriend’s presence during what appears to have been a three-hour, wildly adventurous, acrobatic, roving marathon fuck session. Were they willfully oblivious, or in a trance-like state due to the ferocity and intensity of their lovemaking?
Alas, Shaggy doesn’t seem particularly curious about any of the above questions. With the wisdom of Solomon and the legal acuity of Johnnie Cochran, he admonishes Rikrok to deny everything by adopting the song’s title as his mantra. Shaggy’s label never intended to release “It Wasn’t Me” as a single. For starters, it finds Shaggy playing a secondary role to his ostensible guest star. If “It Wasn’t Me” was The Godfather—and I think we can all agree that it’s the reggae novelty story-song equivalent to Francis Ford Coppola’s towering masterpiece—Rikrok would be a conscience-stricken Michael Corleone, and Shaggy his consigliere, Tom Hagen.
“It Wasn’t Me” attained such cultural prominence that Slate writer Josh Levin dubbed R. Kelly’s legal strategy for his child pornography cases “The Shaggy Defense.” Like Rikrok and Stapp before him, Kelly (or perhaps his heretofore-unknown identical twin brother) was caught on camera having sex with an underage girl (and engaging in even-less-savory endeavors) yet was able to George Jefferson-stroll out of court a free man, more or less by saying the man who looked exactly like him wasn’t him.
Kelly is the Teflon Don of R&B. He’s gotten away with antics that would have destroyed the career of lesser men many times over. But goddamn, do I love the man’s music. “I Wish,” Kelly’s nearly six-minute-long contribution to NOW! 6, offers a master class in Kelly’s pet obsessions. He invokes and addresses his saintly dead mother, luxuriates in the sepia-toned nostalgia of bygone days street-performing and playing basketball, wonders if his friends would abandon him if it weren’t for his success, ponders suicide (“Dreaming of windows black-tinted like a hearse / And waking up to life sometimes seems worse”), seeks the healing power of God’s forgiveness (“Somebody pray for me”), and alternates between self-pity and delusions of grandeur, as when he earnestly inquires, “For me to save the world I don’t understand / How did I become the leader of a billion men?”
In keeping with Kelly’s maximalist aesthetic, “I Wish” is a song of giddy excess, most notably in the form of the children’s choir that helps out on the chorus. It’s a song of disarming tenderness and naked vulnerability, an after-midnight meditation on a life spiraling out of control and a lost world no amount of money or fame can reclaim.
Kelly writes and sings with disarming emotional directness, treating listeners like therapists, priests, and confidantes. Kelly isn’t afraid to expose his emotions. He’s strong enough to look tender and weak, especially in the repeated last line, “C’mon and braid my hair.” I can’t think of another mainstream pop star who would end a song that way, but it embodies the combination of eccentricity and softness that makes Kelly’s music so singular and enduring.
In the video, Kelly encounters a ghost-cloud filled with the spirit of his dead mother, who asks what it profits a man to gain the world but lose his soul. This sequence offers an almost unbearably intimate glimpse into Kelly’s fractured psyche and mother issues, but I’ve also heard that Kelly was merely laying the groundwork for a WB sitcom called My Mother The Wisdom-Dispensing Ghost Cloud.
Jennifer Lopez, or Jennifipez, as I like to call her, recorded songs slightly less singular and enduring than Kelly’s. But her music did serve a valuable public service by giving her an excuse to model a series of skimpy outfits while gyrating seductively. This was the real purpose of Jennifipez (who famously comprised half of ubiquitous celebrity couple JennifAffleck). Everything else was secondary.
Lopez’s singles fall into one of two thematic categories. They are, respectively:
- “Let’s party and have fun.” (All her dance songs.)
- “In spite of my almost inconceivable wealth, fame, and beauty, I am still the grounded, humble around-the-way-girl I’ve always been, as evidenced by this music video in which I wear furs and designer clothing and drive sports cars.”
“Love Don’t Cost A Thing” falls into the second category. Lopez tries to wrap her mouth around a punishing gauntlet of tortured, instantly dated slang. She sounds roughly as natural singing lines like “Think you gotta keep me iced, you don’t,” “If I wanna floss, I got my own,” “balling out of control,” and “I could see the Rolly bling” as your grandmother would reciting the complete lyrics of T-Pain to her Bible-study group.
Lopez has collaborated with countless rappers and dallied with Diddy, but her co-opting of hip-hop has always been painfully awkward. Case in point: on the “I’m Real” remix, she sings the couplet “Now people screamin’ ‘What’s the deal with you and so-and-so?’ / I tell them niggas mind they biz, but they don’t hear me though.” Lopez got into trouble because it turns out it’s just a little offensive for non-African-Americans to use that word. Lopez responded by saying Ja Rule helped her write the lyric in question. In Lopez’s defense, a lyric that brilliant is so screamingly, undeniably, transcendently brilliant that it justifies the use of every offensive racial epithet in existence.
U2 classes up the joint with “Beautiful Day,” a feel-good anthem that once again finds Bono seeking and finding transcendence from the drudgery of everyday life in the wonders of human existence and the life-affirming power of music. Everything about it is huge: the soaring melody, the epic chorus, its macro view of a world full of infinite mystery and joy.
So it seems apt that NOW! 6 features the series debut of both U2 and the group many see as its creative heir, Coldplay. When Coldplay and Travis first came out, the two bands were paired in the public imagination, since Travis frontman Fran Healy and Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin both sound an awful lot like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Since then, Coldplay has ascended to international superstardom, while Travis has sunk into semi-obscurity, though I still think “Driftwood” and “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” are better songs than “Yellow.” For some reason, the earnestness and bigness I love in “Beautiful Day” just doesn’t do much for me in “Yellow.”
NOW! 6 concludes with “AM Radio,” a blatant act of nostalgic pandering from our old friends in Everclear. Over a sample of Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Art Alexakis enthuses about how groovy everything in the ’70s: bellbottoms, the television shows, and especially the technology, which was so much better than ours on account of being so clunky, inflexible, and incredibly limited. Seriously, has anyone ever improved on the 8-track?
Cheap nostalgia is bad enough, but what really irritates me about the song is its chant of “I like pop, I like soul, I like rock, but I never liked the disco!” Is there anything more tired than reactionary anti-disco sentiments 20 years after the fact? In conclusion, fuck you, Art Alexakis. Disco never liked you either. “A.M. Radio” sounds extra-smug coming at the end of a compilation that mindlessly, randomly celebrates the sum of pop music, not just the kinds considered cool by that asshole from Everclear.
Up Next on THEN! That’s What They Called Music: Beyoncé survives, Backstreet Boys gets down with Clipse, Eve and Gwen Stefani blow your mind, and Steven Tyler and Aerosmith hold it down for the grandpas.
Outside the NOW! bubble: What else was going on in music in spring 2001:
Don’t call it a comeback: Run DMC releases the almost mind-bogglingly awful Crown Royal:
T.A.T.U. releases its debut album, a triumph for fake underage lesbians everywhere:
Stephen Malkmus goes solo: