Introduction

It all began on the road to Milwaukee for an Inventory reading/signing. Keith warned Scott and me that we should make mix-CDs for the trip, or we would be forced to listen to the only CD he had in his car: volume three of NOW That’s What I Call Music! Scott and I failed to heed Keith’s call, however, so on the ride home, we were transported back to the bygone era of 1999. 

We had unwittingly hopped onboard a musical time machine; seemingly the sum of pop music in the late ’90s was represented on one magical disc, from the Latin explosion (Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailamos”) that briefly alerted the public to the existence of something called “Latinos” to obnoxious nü-metal rap-rock (Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie”) to the song that appeared in every movie trailer that year (Smash Mouth’s “All Star”). 

For the first time in forever, we were forced to contemplate what I contend is the single worst song ever written, Blessid Union Of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me).” (Runner-up: 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”) “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me)” is three and a half minutes of pure cheese that functions as the Date Movie of late-’90s novelty songs, a never-ending string of groan-inducing pop-culture references (Tyson Beckford, The Cable Guy, Fargo, Dirty Harry, Steve Buscemi) masquerading as entertainment. All you really need to know about the song is that it features these immortal lines:

She likes me for me
Not because I sing like Pavarotti
Or because I’m such the hottie
I like her for her
Not because she’s phat like Cindy Crawford
She has got so much to offer

The 18 songs on volume three of NOW That’s What I Call Music! function as one possible history of the past 13 years in pop. And like most histories, it’s written by the winners. The dominant word in the series title is “now”: These compilations exist forever in the present tense. So it felt almost heretical to listen to it 10 years after the fact.

So I thought it would be interesting, edifying, and, yes, even a little arousing to listen to the entire NOW That’s What I Call Music! series in chronological order to see what the albums say, individually and collectively, about the way music has evolved and devolved, and to explore some of the weirder and more obscure nooks and crannies of pop culture. With that in mind, I’m introducing a new feature called THEN That’s What They Called Music! a.k.a. “NOW That’s What I Call Music Revisited.” Each entry will tackle a disc in the series. We’re about to embark on a journey that will take us from Cherry Poppin’ Daddies to Drake, from Imajin to Lady Gaga. 

But enough preamble. Let’s get to the music! ’Cause isn’t that what the bestselling NOW compilations are all about? It’s even in the title, along with an exclamation point that lets you know that the people behind this disc mean business, that they’re dead fucking serious about sharing the music of Marcy Playground and Aqua with the world.

I come both to bury pop music and to praise it. Listening to the first few CDs in the NOW series, I was continually impressed by the craftsmanship found in even the most disposable pop songs. Though the sentiments expressed in the lyrics are often comically banal, the tracks themselves are shiny little masterpieces of pop production, filled with neat little details and flourishes. 

Take the song that kicks off the NOW series’ first disc, drawn from the years 1997 and 1998: Janet Jackson’s “Together Again.” It’s possibly the peppiest song ever written about a friend dying of AIDS. It’s musical Prozac that bops merrily along, driven by one of those ubiquitous four-on-the-floor disco beats and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ silky smooth production. (Dig those celestial harps!) 

The cotton-candy R&B found in the NOW collections frequently comes off as generic, but Jackson invests plenty of herself in the song. The same can’t be said about the next track, Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me,” a robo-ballad so achingly bland that I had to come up with an elaborate backstory for it just to avoid falling asleep. So I decided it was really about a young paranoid schizophrenic promising his object of desire that he loves her, even though she’s currently in a mental hospital for the criminally insane, after stabbing a hobo with a crude shiv.

The theme of mental illness and isolation from the outside world is established in the very first line, “loneliness has always been a friend of mine.” In case that wasn’t explicit enough, just a few lines later, the fellows confess, “People say I’m crazy and that I am blind.” Backstreet Boys repeatedly assure their lover that they don’t care about “what is written in your history” (i.e. her file at the mental hospital), that they don’t care who she is (a hobo-killing convict), where she is (in a mental hospital for the criminally insane) or what she did (murder that hobo for no good reason), as long as she reciprocates their lunatic affection. 

The smorgasbord of genres, artists, and tones found on NOW That’s What I Call Music! volume one has a curious leveling effect. Within the series’ nothing-but-hits, all-killer-no-filler, short-attention-span world, it doesn’t matter if a song comes from Harvey Danger—a smartass pop-punk outfit with a lead singer whose vocal style can best be described as “Nyah, nyah, nyah!”—or from an evil boy-band genius like Lou Pearlman. If you’re on NOW That’s What I Call Music!, you’re a hitmaker. You performed a song that resonated with the public; that’s all that matters.

A strange spirit of musical democracy pervades the CD. It’s a curious world where one-hit wonders like Marcy Playground breathe the same rarified air as Janet Jackson and Radiohead. For a brief period, they were peers, at least where Billboard and NOW That’s What I Call Music! is concerned. 

Part of the train-wreck fascination of NOW That’s What I Call Music! involves seeing familiar songs in bizarre new contexts. To cite volume one’s most extreme example, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” is sandwiched between Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Everclear’s “I Will Buy You A New Life.” 

Aqua and Radiohead don’t seem to inhabit the same universe, but here they improbably share the same bestselling disc. Actually, the series doesn’t re-contextualize songs so much as it de-contextualizes them. NOW throws the sum of pop music in a blender, then serves it up straight. Somewhere, somehow, the man, woman, or computer who programmed the compilation ascertained that of course Radiohead should follow a bizarre novelty song positing Barbie as a vacuous Euro party girl! It just makes sense! (To be fair, the demo version of “Karma Police” does prominently feature the line “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party!” so maybe that’s where they saw the connection.)

Remember the swing revival of the late ’90s? No? Me neither. I had blotted it out of my memory until NOW 1 cruelly resurrected traumatic memories of the swing class I took as a college senior, which involved Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot,” a song so doggedly generic, its melody was probably found on a Casio under the setting “Upbeat Swing Song.”

There’s a good reason history has forgotten so many of these songs: NOW is a Whitman’s Sampler of crap. Cringe at the overwrought bleating of Tonic’s “If You Could Only See.” (That song embodies a vocal style my old editor Stephen Thompson used to call “Hunger Dunger Dang,” because it always sounded like they were moaning those sounds in a depressed haze.) Recoil in horror at the lazy aggregation of purloined riffs and rock-dinosaur attitude that is Lenny Kravitz’ “Fly Away,” which begins with the lines “I wish that I could fly into the sky / So very high just like a dragonfly.” And just try to listen to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” without losing a few brain cells. 

In college, I worked at a Goodwill store where the radio was always tuned to the adult contemporary station. During that time, I became disproportionately grateful for George Michael’s “Fastlove.” It isn’t the kind of thing I’d seek out on my own, but in the midst of endless maudlin ballads, its clean, infectious pop songcraft was like manna from heaven.

I felt the same way about NOW tracks like Hanson’s “MMMBop” and Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There,” the latter a “Wannabe” knock-off, but a good one. For those too young to remember, Hanson was an Iowa teen group featuring a pretty girl singer, a bassist who looked like a yeti, and a drummer who was actually a sentient fetus. But they wrote some fucking catchy songs, and their producers, the Dust Brothers, shined them to a fine gloss. 

I listened to the first installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music! with nostalgia and dread. I was revisiting parts of my past (and pop culture’s past) that I had long forgotten. It seemed to capture a pop realm fragmenting into a thousand little niches, but I don’t know whether that says more about the era the compilation documents, or the nature of compilations like NOW That’s What I Call Music! that are all breadth and zero depth in their approach to archiving pop history as it happens. 

Living inside NOW That’s What I Call Music! for a good week was an immersive exercise in cheap nostalgia, but my journey has just begun. The American NOW That’s What I Call Music series runs to 33 volumes (not counting all the special sidebar discs and the longer-running UK series), so we’ve got 32 more entries in this series to go.

Next up in THEN That’s What They Called Music: NOW Vol. 2, the disc that finally brings together the jailbait pop wizardry of Britney Spears, The New Radicals, the existential wisdom of someone who is not Baz Luhrmann, and Fatboy Slim. 

Outside the bubble: Here’s some of what was going on in 1998 outside the shiny pop world of NOW That’s What I Call Music! 

Mos Def and Talib Kweli release Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star on Rawkus:


Lauryn Hill releases The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill:

Rufus Wainwright releases Rufus Wainwright:

Celine Dion releases “My Heart Will Go On”:

Matchbox 20’s Yourself Or Someone Like You sells 12 million copies, thanks to songs like this (and reminds us all that life isn’t fair):

More THEN That's What They Called Music!