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.
- “Get The Party Started/Sweet Dreams,” Pink featuring Redman
- “I’m A Slave 4 U,” Britney Spears
- “Family Affair,” Mary J. Blige
- “Whenever, Wherever,” Shakira
- “Ain’t It Funny,” Jennifer Lopez
- “Livin’ It Up,” Ja Rule featuring Case
- “Rollout (My Business),” Ludacris
- “Lights, Camera, Action!” Mr. Cheeks
- “Raise it Up (All Cities Remix),” Petey Pablo
- “Caramel (Remix),” City High
- “Turn Off The Light,” Nelly Furtado
- “Gone,” ’N Sync
- “Emotion,” Destiny’s Child
- “Differences,” Ginuwine
- “Drowning,” Backstreet Boys
- “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” U2
- “Just Push Play,” Aerosmith
- “Dig In,” Lenny Kravitz
- “Wish You Were Here,” Incubus
- “Giving In,” Adema
When we first encountered Britney Spears, the first lady and plastic soul of the NOW That’s What I Call Music! series, she was in a sorry state. She lingered on the precipice of loneliness-induced death. Then she spied a vision of her own tabloid future in “Lucky” before proudly proclaiming in “Stronger” that she was stronger than yesterday, everything was going her way, and her loneliness wasn’t killing her anymore.
On “I’m A Slave 4 U,” her steamy contribution to the ninth installment of the NOW! series, she stops playing the wide-eyed coquette and embraces her inner porn star. Spears has worked the virgin-whore paradigm like no one since Madonna, but on “I’m A Slave 4 U,” she tosses the “virgin” part of the equation out like a stripper’s discarded pasties. “I’m A Slave 4 U” sounds like sex. In the liner notes for Phrenology, ?uestlove quoted Nelly Furtado saying that “Pussy Galore” sounded like walking through a Thai whorehouse barefoot, a description equally applicable here. Spears was playing the same coy game of double entendres and inference, but the sexual nature of her music was becoming impossible to deny.
In case there’s any doubt that Spears is whispering, in a breathy, teasing post-coital coo, about dirty, dirty fucking rather than an innocent night on the dance floor, the music video lingers on her sweaty, ripe flesh as she grinds through her trademark stripperoebics. Spears’ performance of the song at the MTV Music Awards goes even further; the overarching theme of her indifferently lip-synced turn seemed to be “omnisexual fuckfest at Poison Ivy’s lair.” Animal-rights activists complained about the use of jungle animals as background props and the widespread abuse of trouser snakes Spears’ performance provoked. “I’m A Slave 4 U” threw down the gauntlet. She was not a girl and not yet a woman, but she sure wasn’t a wide-eyed innocent anymore.
Fellow diva Pink began her career as a white R&B singer with punk-rock attitude and a big, black voice. In a world of interchangeable pop tarts, Pink was a shit-starter more interested in putting would-be Casanovas in their place than pining for dream dates. In her single “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” Pink complains, “L.A. [Reid, chairman of Jive] told me, ‘You’ll be a pop star / All you’ve got to change is all that you are.” Then she bitches about being compared to Britney Spears.
The sass-mouthed youngster became a pop star on her own terms, but “Get The Party Started/Sweet Dreams,” her contribution to the ninth volume of NOW!, is about as commercial as pop music gets, a fist-pumping, party-starting anthem awash in bratty attitude (or brattitude, as the Bratz might put it) and swagger. Rockwilder’s remix fuses “Get The Party Started (I’m Coming Out)” with another hit, the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” and adds an “urban,” “street,” “black” element courtesy of Redman, who won my heart forever for the following reasons:
- He’s consistently awesome
- He was the subject of the best Cribs episode ever, a subversive exercise in reverse wish-fulfillment, where he showed MTV his incredibly nondescript New Jersey home, a shambles where the doorbell only works if you push two wires together, and some random dude is perpetually asleep on the couch
- When I interviewed him a few years back, he shared his unusual strategy for developing a grassroots following: going to random bars and buying strangers Heinekens. That way, they’d always remember the night Redman came into the bar and bought them a beer, and they’ll also hopefully purchase all his subsequent albums. The sales of his latest releases suggest it didn’t work as planned, but he gave barflies across this great nation a story for the ages.
Under the tutelage of the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, Mary J. Blige cultivated a winning persona as a round-the-way girl with brass knuckles in her back pockets and serious anger-management issues. She was R&B’s Queen Of Pain, but on the irresistible Dr. Dre-produced “Family Affair,” she exudes pure joy. But Blige’s greatest contribution to our culture lies in the seismic change in dance-floor politics she instigated. Before “Family Affair,” there was a widespread consensus that the club was the perfect place for hateration and holleration. Then Blige revolutionarily declared that there was no need for either in this dancery. Hateration and holleration fell out of fashion overnight, while incidences of partiers getting crunk because Mary’s back increased sevenfold.
Great art elucidates the human condition and helps us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Great pop songs, by sharp contrast, sometimes just hoarsely order us to take off our shirts and whip them around like helicopter rotors. Actually, that’s true of only one great pop song: “Raise Up,” the Dirty South anthem of excitable North Carolina rapper Petey Pablo. The shout-along hit embodies everything great about pop music: energy, fun, youth, and infectious stupidity. Also, it encourages the indiscriminate whipping around of shirts, which is always a good thing. On the “All Cities” remix included on NOW! 9, Pablo shamelessly panders to everyone outside North Carolina by hollerating that the song belongs to everyone, especially people in major markets.
Our old friends in City High stop by with another remix, this time of its semi-hit “Caramel.” “Caramel” is Claudette Ortiz’s valentine to herself. The chorus says it all: “5’5” with brown eyes (caramel-complected) / Smile like the sunrise (body like heaven).” Yes, Ortiz seems taken with herself, and with good reason, even though the first verse seems stolen from a Match.com profile. It wouldn’t take much work to transform it into a personal ad like this:
“5’5” brown-eyed Caramel-complected looker with smile like the sunrise and a body like heaven seeks open-minded man who wouldn’t mind betraying his best friend and breaking up his group for me. I’m not into big names, but I like nice things. I watch boxing matches and football games. I wouldn’t mind being an actress, but I love to sing. I like to go out, taking walks and stuff. I don’t run with many girls, because they talk too much. I enjoy quiet nights at home. I’ll curl up next to you. Though I ain’t a virgin, that don’t mean I’m going to have sex with you. If interested, send email to Caramelhottie55@aol.com. No fatties!”
My favorite part of “Caramel” is the line “I like going out, taking walks and stuff.” Every song would benefit from the random inclusion of “and stuff.” Take my favorite song, “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered.” Wouldn’t it be better if it began, “After one whole quart of brandy, like a daisy I’m awake and stuff”? Try it. Insert “and stuff” into your favorite song and witness the remarkable improvement for yourself.
“Caramel” presents Ortiz as the ultimate dream girl. The video for “Wherever, Whenever,” goes even further by positing Shakira as a force of nature, a dynamo whose ass-shaking is powerful enough to induce stampedes and mudslides. I am an unabashed Shakira fan. She’s a quirky songwriter who pens simultaneously fascinating and bewildering lines like “Lucky that my breasts are small and humble so you don’t confuse them with mountains” that sound like they were poorly translated from Cantonese. On her latest hit, “She Wolf,” Shakira sounds alternately like the world’s most adorable werewolf, or Futurama’s “Aroo”-spouting Richard Nixon. Most importantly, she has an amazing ass and isn’t shy about letting the world know about it. Hell, she recorded a song called “Hips Don’t Lie,” which is just a short step away from putting out a single called “I Have An Amazing Ass And Want The World to Know About It.”
Women dominate NOW 9! With the exception of U2 and Ludacris, the men are a sorry bunch, especially the unfortunately named Mr. Cheeks, who scored a fluke hit with “Lights, Camera, Action,” a long string of inanities with a chorus limply stolen from OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson.” Here, Mr. Cheeks achieves powerful reverse alchemy, transforming a great song into mindless dance-floor fodder.
The ninth volume of the most important pop compilation ever features the debut of Ja Rule, a silly little man with a child-molester mustache and an aversion to wearing shirts. Rule embodies the sometimes-comic contradictions of being a mainstream gangsta-rap superstar. He hollers bloody murder throughout his lyrics—he literally gives a shout-out to his label, Murder Inc., in every other song, yet he became famous for crooning, in what 50 Cent indelibly dubbed his “Cookie Monster” rasp, alongside R&B beauties like Jennifer Lopez and Ashanti. Oh, and also he starred in this Grease-themed video with Ashanti. Nothing says “blood-crazed killer” like reenacting your favorite John Travolta movie while frolicking in a letter sweater at a fairground.
“Livin’ It Up” is Rule’s maiden contribution to the NOW! canon. I have a soft spot in my heart for Rule. He isn’t a terribly convincing gangsta, but he’s made some great guilty-pleasure pop songs, like “Smoking And Riding,” “I’m Real (Remix),” and the legitimately awesome “New York.” I also have a soft spot for “Always On Time,” because it contains perhaps my favorite line not just in Rule’s oeuvre, but in the history of music: “the pimp game is very religious.” What does that even mean? 50 Cent destroyed Rule’s career, but he leaves behind a rich legacy of gangsta-pop stupidity.
NOW 9 also marks the series debut of Nelly Furtado, who hadn’t yet reinvented herself as a teasing, tawdry dance-floor temptress. When “Turn Off The Light” came out, she was still an artsy, ambiguously ethnic bohemian singer-songwriter. In that respect, “Turn Off The Light” was a key transitional song, in that its remix featured Timbaland, the super-producer under whose tutelage she’d eventually pen couplets like “Love my ass and my abs in the video called ‘Promiscuous’ / My status ri-dic-dic-diculous, diculous, diculous!”
I yield to few in my love for Ludacris, whom I will be writing about extensively in entries to come, but “Rollout (My Business)” is one of his worst singles, a gruff blast of sonic aggression that lacks the wit and sophistication of his best work. “Rollout (My Business)” works best as a precursor to the similarly themed but much more infectious “Move Bitch.”
NOW 9 finds U2 in fine form on “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” The same cannot be said of its fellow oldsters in Aerosmith. “Just Press Play” is the musical equivalent of a midlife crisis, as the geriatric dinosaur rockers try and fail to update their sound with distortion and synthesizers. Instead, they come off like a 48-year-old who tries to stay hip and current with a long gray ponytail and a tiny earring. It’s hard out there for fiftysomething rockers. If you stay in your comfort zone, you risk looking like a lazy anachronism, but if you try to keep up with the kids, you risk looking desperate. Luckily, there’s a third option for a band that threatens to turn the happening teenage party that is NOW 9! into VH-1: retirement.
Up Next on THEN That’s What They Called Music!: Kyle Minogue can’t get you out of her head, a Baha Men song that isn’t “Who Let The Dogs Out,” Celine Dion gets all adult contemporary up in this bitch, and Nickelback ruins music forever.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in music in spring 2002
Sage Francis releases Personal Journals