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 38 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.
- “California Gurls,” Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg
- “Somebody To Love (Remix),” Justin Bieber featuring Usher
- “Getting’ Over You,” David Guetta and Chris Willis featuring Fergie and LMFAO
- “Rock That Body,” The Black Eyed Peas
- “Bulletproof,” La Roux
- “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga
- “Cooler Than Me,” Mike Posner
- “Billionaire,” Travie McCoy featuring Bruno Mars
- “Ridin’ Solo,” Jason Derülo
- “Impossible,” Shontelle
- “Pray For You,” Jaron And The Long Road To Love
- “This Afternoon,” Nickelback
- “Kissin U,” Miranda Cosgrove
- “My First Kiss,” 3OH!3 featuring Ke$ha
- “Undo It,” Carrie Underwood
- “Lover, Lover,” Jerrod Niemann
- “Stronger,” Jennette McCurdy
- “Speakers,” Days Difference
- “Obsession,” Sky Ferreira
- “Shut The Front Door (Got My Girls),” Tiffany Dunn
People don’t talk much about Master P these days. It’s as if we have a secret culture-wide agreement that we’re all just going to pretend to forget how ridiculously popular and successful the guttural-scream enthusiast was in the late ’90s. We have a case of culture-wide amnesia that blinds us to the inconvenient truth that for a while, everything Master P released went at least gold and usually platinum. At the height of No Limit’s power and popularity, Master P had the magic touch. He could head over to the liquor store and hire a wino to record an album and Some Dude I Found At the Liquor Store would go gold within a month.
Master P is like the crazy old aunt in the attic of hip-hop, but a lot of what’s wrong not just with hip-hop but pop music as a whole has its roots in the Master P-ification of rap. Master P’s aesthetic was all about quantity over quality. Why have one guest rapper on a song when you can have five? Why not showcase the whole fucking label on every song? Why put out an album with 13 tight tracks when you can release a 73-minute monstrosity with 23 songs and skits and random bullshit? Why not release a double-disc set of 73-minute discs?
The No Limit capo worshipped at the altar of Death Row, but Death Row had Dr. Dre, a musical genius who maintained some semblance of quality control. The Death Row roster shared an aesthetic, a vision. It was the home of some of the greatest partnerships in musical history. There’s something beautiful about the idea of two or more men or women blessed and cursed with such phenomenal chemistry that the universe angrily demands that they collaborate. There’s something pure about the idea that if you stick Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in a studio together for two months, something magical is going to happen, something beyond the powers of each man is capable of individually.
P’s abuse of guest appearances did the practice irreparable harm. It was an event when P.E. hooked up with Ice Cube for “Burn Hollywood Burn.” Now it’s an event if a major rapper puts out an album with almost no guest appearances, as Jay-Z did on The Blueprint. P made guest spots mandatory and expected; over a decade later, we’re still inhabiting that paradigm even though P himself has slid into richly merited obscurity.
As NOW! increasingly illustrates, guest appearances and collaborations are no longer the exception; they’re the rule. It’s rare when a collaboration on one of the NOW! discs makes sense as anything other than a commercial ploy, but NOW 35 kicks off with a man who knows how to make the most out of a guest appearance: Snoop Dogg.
Like Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg is a figure who bridges disparate worlds. Also like Nelson, Dogg has transcended his original cultural context to the point where it seems silly to even think of him as a West Coast gangsta rapper or even as a rapper-actor. Snoop’s an entertainer. He’s more than that. He’s an American treasure, a goodwill ambassador who fits cozily into seemingly any cultural context. I can see Snoop playing golf with Bill Gates just as easily as I can imagine him playing Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering Of The Juggalos while high off his ass at 3:30 in the morning. Like some other giants I’ll be discussing later, he’s accomplished so much over the course of his career that he has a free pass for life.
Snoop Dogg can go anywhere and do anything. He’s earned that right. He’s the living embodiment of West Coast escapism, the ultimate good-time guy. Snoop’s career stretches from the golden days of Death Row to the ugly bastardization that was No Limit and now into a post-gangsta world where he’s less the world’s most famous Crip then a pop star splashing around in the kiddie pool alongside some of his more fetching peers.
I’ve listened to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” on which Snoop guests, maybe 300 times. It’s the perfect summer anthem, sonic cotton candy that hearkens back past Snoop’s Death Row days to the endless summers of the Beach Boys and Jan And Dean. In the inimitable Katy Perry/Snoop fashion, it’s naughty and nice, sugary and sassy. The pairing of Perry and Snoop makes perfect sense: They’re like some weird MTV prom king and queen greeting their minions. It’s strange to think that Snoop used to cut an ominous figure. If he were any cuddlier these days, he’d be a Care Bear. Fine, fresh, fierce, he’s got it on lock.
Speaking of adorable collaborations, how fucking adorable is that Justin Bieber kid? Such a punim on that one! You just want to pinch his little cheek and pat him on the head and give him a shiny nickel for being such a good boy. Usher obviously feels the same way. He was so blown away by the Bieber’s Bieberosity that he signed him to his vanity label and collaborated with him on the remix for “Somebody To Love.” “Somebody To Love” isn’t just a great pop song; it’s a ceremonial passing of the torch from one generation of teen idol to another. This series has instilled in me a deep love for bubblegum pop and the oft-disparaged subgenre doesn’t get much better than “Somebody To Love.”
Sometimes artists pool together their obnoxiousness so that collectively they can irritate more people than they would separately. The grating, insufferable electro-snot rock posturing and irritatingly random spelling of 3OH!3 is plenty annoying on its own, but if you throw in the Molotov cocktail of obnoxiousness and irritatingly random spelling that is Ke$ha, you suddenly have a strong bid for the most obnoxious song ever written by anyone other than Will.i.am. Kissing noises, sneering, naughty little sing-alongs: “My First Kiss” has got it all. And it’s all fucking dreadful.
In “Rock Your Body,” Will.i.am collapses three decades of dance and hip-hop into four unstoppable minutes of electro-funk madness. The song’s base is a sample of Rob Base And DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” that sounds like it was dropped into the pit of a vast electronic ocean, then sent soaring back to the surface on the strength of millions of BPM. It’s electro, it’s techno, it’s uptown, it’s downtown, it’s old-school, it’s hip-hop, it’s pop. It’s the embodiment of the Black Eyed Peas’ fascist dance-floor mentality: You will submit to the groove or the Peas will crush you. Choice doesn’t enter into the equation. If Will.i.am and Fergie’s crazy robot voice on the track want you to rock your body, then you better well do what the man says.
Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me” is another incarnation of a pop-music perennial: the casual put-down of a snooty poser (generally, but not always female) who thinks she’s better than the singer of the song because she’s got breeding and an expensive purse and knows all the hippest bands. She thinks she’s so great that it falls upon the singer to knock her off her high horse and put her in her place. My favorite version of this song is, of course, Toby Keith’s “High Maintenance Woman” (so much better than “Like A Rolling Stone”), which is about a high-maintenance woman what done think she’s too good for a lowly maintenance man, though the theme courses through such standards as “Uptown Girl” as well.
“Cooler Than Me” gives the conceit a hipster spin. The poser in question is a scenester party girl whose designer shades hide dead eyes and a moribund soul. Elvis Costello is the king of this song. Compared to the lacerating nastiness of “Alison,” “Cooler Than Me” registers as little more than affectionate ribbing. “Cooler Than Me” has a loosey-goosey, stoner, Jack Johnson vibe that renders it easy on the ears but just as easy to forget.
Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars’ “Billionaire” follows the same easy-breezy slacker-pop template as “Cooler Than Me,” as the fellows delineate some of the reasons possessing a voluminous amount of cash might ultimately prove advantageous. It’s quintessential summer fare: disposable, ephemeral, and pretty dumb.
Every once in a while, the NOW series accidentally includes something relatively cool and obscure like “Bulletproof,” a bratty blast of new wave attitude from La Roux that gives the disc a funky underground vibe it quickly loses.
As my colleague Genevieve Koski noted in her review of Lady Gaga’s last album, the music on Gaga’s breakthrough debut The Fame is infinitely less provocative and daring then her public image. I suspect that Gaga is able to get away with being such a bold provocateur precisely because she so dependably delivers the goods from a pop perspective. Gaga’s impeccable commercial instincts give her the freedom to be so brazen and outrageous in her videos, performances, and interviews. If “Alejandro” didn’t feel like something ABBA and Human League might have cooked up together, I doubt the label would have sprung for Gaga’s nearly nine-minute-long artsy music video extravaganza.
It’s the same with Kanye West: If West didn’t possess some of the most dependable commercial instincts in pop music, there’s no way he’d get away with being such a giddy eccentric. But we forgive Kanye everything as long as he keeps putting out albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, just as we give Lady Gaga free reign to let her freak flag fly just as long as the hits keep coming. We have different rules for geniuses. We should. And if an artist is a genius and a consistent hitmaker a la West or Gaga, then we give them all the freedom in the world. We just ask that they not abuse that power, even though we know that’s a central component of an eccentric pop genius’ job description.
Up Next on THEN: Fucking Elvis, man, Taio Cruz is going to light it up like it’s dynamite, and B.O.B. and Rivers Cuomo go on a Dr. Luke-orchestrated musical play-date
Outside the Bubble: What else was happening in pop music in fall, 2010
Arcade Fire releases The Suburbs.
Bilal returns after an endless hiatus with the underrated Airtight’s Revenge.
John Legend and The Roots team up for the collaborative covers album Wake Up!
Joe Satriani releases an album called Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards, presumably on a dare.
Hannah Montana releases an album, Hannah Montana Forever, despite being a fictional character on a television program, not a real person.