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.
- “Teenage Dream,” Katy Perry
- “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” Usher featuring Pitbull
- “Take It Off,” Ke$ha
- “If I Had You,” Adam Lambert
- “Dynamite,” Taio Cruz
- “Just A Dream,” Nelly
- “Deuces,” Chris Brown featuring Tyga & Kevin McCall
- “Magic,” B.o.B. featuring Rivers Cuomo
- “Memories,” David Guetta featuring Kid Cudi
- “Misery,” Maroon 5
- “Animal,” Neon Trees
- “Secrets,” OneRepublic
- “King Of Anything,” Sara Bareilles
- “The Only Exception,” Paramore
- “September,” Daughtry
- “Stuck Like Glue,” Sugarland
- “Maybe,” Sick Puppies
- “Bang Pop,” Free Energy
- “Tennessee Me,” Secret Sisters
- “Suspicious Minds,” Elvis Presley
Like American-themed Japanese novelty T-shirts, the titles of Katy Perry singles often resemble random aggregations of hot, sexy, fun American buzzwords. It’s as if Perry takes a bag full of words like “girl,” “hot,” “E.T.,” “teenage” “California,” “firework,” “kissed,” and “Vegas,” scatters them on the floor, and picks out her next song title based on where they randomly land, not unlike South Park’s depiction of the Family Guy writing process. So “California Gurls” could just as easily have been called “Teenage California Firework” while “I Kissed A Girl” very nearly could have been named “Vegas E.T.” But Perry definitely knew what she was doing when she combined the magical words “teenage” and “dream” in her hit song “Teenage Dream.”
Perry mines a deep cultural vein that romanticizes the intensity and beauty of adolescence above all else and is ready to consign us to obsolescence the minute we hit 30. (Appropriately enough, Marc Bolan, who would not live to see 30, released a T. Rex single of the same name in 1974.) We live in a Logan’s Run world, and if the NOW series has taught us anything, it’s that pop music is forever a teenager with a raging erection and its head in the clouds.
Musically, “Teenage Dream” offers a tepid variation on the “You like me even when I don’t look like a glamorous sex bomb” ballad. The song finds Perry in dreamy-eyed romantic mode rather than sassy drag-queen mode as she serenades real-life love/Hop voice-artist Russell Brand for thinking she’s pretty “without any make-up on,” and thinking she’s funny when she gets the punchline wrong, and also, I would imagine, for not being condescending or talking down even though he’s infinitely smarter and more talented than her. Perry strains to hit the high notes until the chorus explodes into John Hughes-movie-montage bigness and a nervous little ballad relaxes into something tacky, familiar, and comfortable. In other words, something that feels at home on a NOW! compilation.
“Teenage Dream” is saccharine and calculating, but it has nothing on Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” a song that somehow manages to be sweeter and stickier than even a song called “Stuck Like Glue” by a country-pop duo named Sugarland has any right to be. “Stuck Like Glue” begins with what sounds like either a confused attempt at beatboxing or an asthma attack before chirpy acoustic guitar and singer Jennifer Nettles’ giggly vocals establish a tone of soul-obliterating perkiness. Nettles is so giddy she sounds like she’s trying to cheer up the dead. Then the song introduces an accordion before Nettles inexplicably slips into a bizarre, inexplicable PaRappa The Rapper-style reggae patois during the bridge, transporting this sugary country love song onto a Carnival Cruise ship bound for Jamaica.
I was simultaneously charmed and horrified by the song’s incoherent eclecticism. I really hope there’s an extended version featuring yodeling, raps from Gucci Mane and Tyler The Creator, a guitar solo from John Mayer, and an extended bluegrass fiddle breakdown. And would it kill them to throw in a techno beat or a spoken-word part? I was on the fence about “Stuck Like Glue” until the music video tilted me distinctly in its favor: It’s a cheerfully psychotic little number that finds the oppressively adorable Nettles lovingly stalking, kidnapping, and terrorizing the hapless object of her desire. A song this weirdly warped merits a video just as crazed.
If much of the chorus of “Stuck Like Glue” reeks of the Pixy Stix-infested playground, Ke$ha’s “Take It Off” nakedly borrows much of its chorus from the old schoolyard number about the place in France where the naked ladies dance. In its own way, the wholesale appropriation is perfect. What is Ke$ha if not a filthy Mother Goose dispensing gin- and sweat-soaked nursery rhymes to debauched overgrown children? If I were Ke$ha, I would run with that. I’d name my next album Gin- And Sweat-Soaked Nursery Rhymes For Debauched Overgrown Children. I’m guessing Ke$ha already has a slutty Mother Goose costume in one of her walk-in closets. I’m going to go even further and suggest that Ke$ha is going to plan ahead and have an entire closet devoted to slutty variations on a number of different costumes: slutty nun, slutty nurse, slutty cop, slutty prostitute.
Ke$ha is nothing if not prepared. In “Tic Toc,” she famously got ready for a day of carefree frolicking by washing her teeth with whiskey. Here, she furtively slips whiskey into her water bottle in preparation for a night on the town. Like all great artists, Ke$ha has a message: She’s gonna get drunk and fuck you. She’s got a plan, you see. She knows of this place downtown where the freaks all come around; it’s got a reputation as a place in the wall, a dirty free for all. So Ke$ha’s gonna wait until night unleashes her inner freak so she can round up her girls in her gold Trans Am.
Then comes the elaborate pre-game rituals; Ke$ha makes sure the texting capacities on her phone are operative so she can send inappropriately sexual text messages over the course of the evening. Ke$ha is so prepared she’s even anticipating the guilt and shame she’ll feel the next morning. She doesn’t just plan for the party; she plans for the hangover. She’s got her girls passing around a water bottle full of whiskey (using a clear bottle kind of defeats the purpose of sneaking booze, don’t it?) en route to the evening’s centerpiece: a boozed-up evening of debauchery that’s half riot, half orgy, and 100 percent sleaze.
“Take It Off” posits Ke$ha as a feral party girl. She’s Lady Gaga with 10 times the sex and one-10th the ideas. Ke$ha is so ferociously of-the-moment that she hurtles herself into a time capsule with instantly dated references to getting her “drunk text on.” This is pop music at its most defiantly ephemeral; musically and lyrically it’s all about instant gratification.
When it comes to a night of debauchery, Taio Cruz likewise comes prepared; he’s so organized he even makes reference to all his “plans.” Here’s the scenario Cruz has envisioned for himself and the night ahead:
- He is open to waving his hands in the air at some point and saying “Ay Yo.” He’s done this before and will do it again.
- He’s in the mood to dance, so he hits the floors with all his mans.
- While hitting the floor with all his mans and dancing, Cruz wants to be wearing all his favorite brands. All of them. Not just some. Jordache, Cross Colours, Karl Kani… Actually, I have no idea what kind of clothing Cruz favors but he states very clearly that it’s important that he wear clothing made by manufacturers he endorses while doing the aforementioned dancing with his mans.
Even by NOW standards, the lyrics to “Dynamite” are staggeringly stupid. Cruz crows he wants to “celebrate” and live his life as if someone were intent on stopping him. Like most of the pop effluvia found here, “Dynamite” ain’t about shit beyond Cruz’s need to assert that he exists, and therefore wants to party, dance, and tear the club up.
But what if “Dynamite” was actually about something that mattered? What if its vulgar energy and sadistic catchiness were used to disseminate the story of Hanukkah, with its riveting tale of a menorah that was more fuel-effective than previously imagined? That’s the beautiful dream of Maccabeats’ “Candlelight,” a parody/homage to Cruz’s song that has wracked up over 5 million views on YouTube.
I heard Maccabeats’ version before Cruz’s, so in my mind that’s the official version and Cruz’s take is a secular abomination. Pop culture increasingly resembles communal property; in a post-Girl Talk world, we’re all free to mix and mash and recreate the art and trash that speaks to us however we see fit. At least until the lawyers show up to ruin the fun. Sometimes that means transforming a club banger into a G-rated, squeaky-clean ode to the Festival Of Lights, and sometimes that means inexplicably fucking up an old Elvis song.
The 36th volume of NOW ends puzzlingly with what it dubs a “NOW Flashback Bonus Track: the Viva Elvis version of “Suspicious Minds.” Viva Elvis is the Elvis-themed Cirque Du Soleil show currently playing Vegas, and in an act of reverse alchemy, the geniuses behind the remix took a masterpiece and methodically stripped away its genius. It’s difficult to completely destroy a song built upon something as pure and brilliant as an Elvis Presley vocal, but a simultaneously cluttered and flat arrangement and tone-deaf overproduction combine to reduce a work of art into sad kitsch/background music for crazy homoerotic circus shenanigans.
Like most people, I devote far too much time to worrying about what inanimate objects think of me. You open yourself up to a whole new world of neuroses if you don’t limit yourself to worrying about the opinions of sentient objects. I’m especially concerned with impressing my iPod. Yet for a good six months, the first song in my iTunes was, thanks to this project, Aaron Carter’s NAMBLA-approved trench coat anthem “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It).” So I’m fairly certain that for a good half-year my iPod thought I was a pedophile. Or Lou Pearlman. Eventually I smartened up and deleted every single Aaron Carter track from my iTunes library. This left Adam Lambert as the lead-off man in my iPod, and his contribution to NOW 36, “If I Had You,” as the first song in my system.
This marks a big step up. I didn’t mind accidentally starting up “If I Had You,” but it didn’t feel me with joy either. I was and remain completely neutral to it. Like “Take It Off,” it’s lifestyle porn that luxuriates in the sleazy decadence of the wild life with its sordid tableaus of girls with stripper heels mixing with boys in Maseratis. But Lambert is a romantic as well as a hedonist, so his sexy rock-star life is empty without a soulmate to share it with. At least that’s what I think the song is about. I may need to accidentally start playing it a couple hundred more times to be really sure.
A recurring theme in this column has been the shattering of old boundaries separating genres and cultural divides for the sake of commerce. The old rules don’t apply anymore, so there’s nothing particularly strange about an Atlanta underground rapper-singer like B.o.B. collaborating with the lead singer of Weezer in a song produced by Dr. Luke, a writer-producer who has worked with Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Hudgens, and seemingly every other human being with a vagina under the age of 50. It’s all pop music now, and “Magic” is unapologetic cheese even before B.o.B. begins name-checking Mindfreak’s Criss Angel (whom B.o.B. adorably seems to think is actually named “Mindfreak”) and David Blaine. It’s ingratiating fluff from three men surprisingly comfortable with their superficiality.
The NOW bonus tracks tend to be a sad attempt to pawn off tax write-offs as the stars of tomorrow, but I was thoroughly taken with Free Energy’s “Bang Pop.” It’s a potent blast of pure power pop with a giant hook that implants itself into the psyche upon the first listen and refuses to let go. It’s a definite throwback that would sound more at place on a Merge or Matador sampler than NOW. NOW epitomizes everything that’s great and terrible about pop music and pop culture. NOW stands for many things; turning people onto cool, moderately obscure new music they might not be familiar with is most assuredly not one of them. Between the unexpected inclusion of cool power pop and unexpected exclusion of a single Black Eyed Peas or Fergie song (there’s not even a track featuring will.i.am!), it’s like I don’t even know NOW anymore. What happened to you guys? It used to be all about the money. Then you had to go and change.
Up next on THEN: Eminem and Rihanna love the way you lie, Willow Smith finally redeems her family’s sad history of failure and professional disappointment, and the Black Eyed Peas sample the Dirty Dancing soundtrack just to piss me off.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in pop music in winter, 2010
The Beatles release their catalog on iTunes and someone finally makes a little money off the boys from Liverpool.
Billy Corgan subjects the world to Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Vol. 2: The Solstice Bare.
Epic craps out the posthumous Michael Jackson album Michael to an underwhelmed public that, it turns out, won’t automatically flock to buy any old crap with Jackson’s name on it.