Vol. 38 (May 2011)

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 examined what the series says about the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.

  1. “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga
  2. “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You),” Enrique Iglesias featuring Ludacris & DJ Frank E
  3. “S&M,” Rihanna
  4. “Hold It Against Me,” Britney Spears
  5. “Blow,” Ke$ha
  6. “Grenade,” Bruno Mars
  7. “E.T.,” Katy Perry featuring Kanye West
  8. “F**kin’ Perfect,” Pink
  9. “Coming Home,” Diddy-Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey
  10. “Look at Me Now,” Chris Brown featuring Lil Wayne & Busta Rhymes
  11. “Down On Me,” Jeremih featuring 50 Cent
  12. “The Time (Dirty Bit),” Black Eyed Peas
  13. “More,” Usher
  14. “Rolling In The Deep,” Adele
  15. “Forget You,” Cee Lo Green 
  16. “What The Hell,” Avril Lavigne
  17. “Tonight Tonight,” Hot Chelle Rae
  18. “You And Me,” Parachute
  19. “I’ll Be Waiting,” Michael Franti & Spearhead
  20. “All Day,” Cody Simpson 

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. This is the last entry in THEN, so we might as well skip the foreplay and get right to the fucking. That’s the theme of the 38th volume of NOW. No more waiting, no more coy one-liners, no more sly double entendres. No more wondering just what a 16-year-old Britney Spears might have meant when she begged to be hit one more time on the second installment of NOW!  I don’t mean to be rude, but the most important compilation series in the history of music is fucking you tonight, whether you like it or not. It’s just going to happen.

Or rather, Enrique Iglesias is fucking you tonight, and he serves as a synecdoche for NOW! and pop music as a whole. Iglesias is a second-generation musical lothario. I have it on good authority that his father and Willie Nelson used to wolf pussy together back in the 1980s. They even recorded a song together to commemorate their tail-getting alliance. So it’s understandable why he might feel more than a little entitled. Actually, entitlement is what “(Tonight) I’m Lovin’ You” is all about: Enrique isn’t asking. He’s not wooing. He’s not meekly inquiring. He’s making a blanket statement: He’s fucking us tonight. Every last one of us. There’s something incredibly refreshing about the bluntness of “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You),” even in its softened-for-radio, profanity-free form. After decades upon decades of songs that coyly danced around the singer’s desire to fuck you, Enrique and his collaborators have the balls to remove the subtext from every love song ever written and place it front and center. That’s a very NOW thing to do.

I had a friend who was roommates once with a man who stared at her very intently and said with absolute certainty, “You will have sex with me. And you will enjoy it,” as if it were a fait accompli. (And something that might happen.) I always found the man’s certainty amusing. He was taking the pesky element of chance out of the equation. There was no if. There was only the crushing inevitability that fucking would be happening. And that, in his mind at least, it would be enjoyable. Iglesias isn’t any subtler. Why should he be? He’s Enrique Iglesias, and he’s fucking you tonight. As the horndog pop star lasciviously concedes, you know his motivation (to fuck you tonight) given his reputation (as a dude who is fucking you tonight), so he doesn’t want to be rude and all, but tonight shit is going down in Fuck Town, population you and Enrique Iglesias.

I haven’t even mentioned Ludacris. Ludacris is one of my favorite rappers in the world, but “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You)” is so decadently awesome that it doesn’t really need him; his presence is just piling on. Or at least that’s what I thought before I saw the nudity-laden video for “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You).” I like to imagine that Ludacris agreed to appear in the video solely on the grounds that he delivers his entire rap in the backseat of a limo being driven by Colonel Sanders while drinking Conjure, the cognac brand he co-owns, and surrounded by four scantily clad hotties. Heaven forbid Ludacris should actually have to stand up, take off his sunglasses, or drink a brand of liquor he doesn’t have a financial stake in, just because he’s in somebody else’s expensive music video. God bless you, Luda. We’re all living through you. 

Though the word “fuck” never appears in the NOW radio edit of “(Tonight) I’m Fucking You,” there’s no mistaking Iglesias’ motivation, given his reputation. We don’t really need to hear the word “fuck” for it to come through loud and clear. The same theoretically should be true of “Fuck You,” Cee Lo Green’s inescapable smash. We shouldn’t need to hear Green say “fuck you” for his righteous rage to register. The song shouldn’t need profanity; this isn’t Eamon sneaking “fuck” into the chorus of a shitty ballad (“I Don’t Want You Back”) to give it a little cayenne. “Fuck You” is a legitimately great Motown throwback with a gorgeous chorus, great lyrics, sneering attitude, and irresistible vocal. So why does the censored “Fuck You” feel as weak as a bald-headed Samson?

I suspect it’s partially because I fell in love with the explicit version of the song, whereas I’ve never actually heard Enrique Iglesias proclaim his desire to fuck me tonight. It’s the interplay of naughty and nice, classic song structure and newfangled vulgarity, that makes “Fuck You” something more than just a great song. There’s also the minor matter that “loving” and “fucking” have the same number of syllables, whereas Green mercilessly crams in a fatal extra syllable to transform the title of his smash into something radio and MTV-friendly. Without that glorious profanity, we might as well be watching Gwyneth Paltrow sing that shit on Glee. 

If NOW has taught us anything, it’s that pop stars are liars, and pop music is one great big lie. At the very least, pop stars tend to be disingenuous about their motivations: In the last installment, for example, I recounted how Ke$ha tries to pass off her homelessness and desperation as raging horniness. On the hit single “Grenade,” meanwhile, a troubled young man named Bruno Mars similarly attempts to pass off masochism and a startling death wish as romance. The song begins with Mars delineating all the reasons the woman he’s hopelessly in love with is terrible, if not history’s greatest monster. Mars grouses that she’s a taker and a user who took all Mars had and threw it in the trash. He tells her, “Tell the devil I said ‘hey’ when you get back to where you’re from.” As if all that weren’t incriminating enough, the shrew in question smiles in Mars’ face, then rips the brakes out of his car. 

This woman sounds like the worst human being in existence. Yet Mars boasts that he’d happily endure a gauntlet of unbearable physical pain for her benefit. He’d catch a grenade. He’d slice his hand open on a blade for her. He’d jump in front of a train for her. He’d take a bullet straight through the brain for her. He’d do anything for her. The only thing he asks is that she reciprocate. And she won’t. Why would she? Mars doesn’t come across as a hopeless romantic, he comes off as an insane masochist looking for a reason to harm himself or end a life ruined by this horrible, dreadful, redeeming-facet-free nightmare. In order for Mars’ theoretical sacrifice to have any resonance, we’d have to understand why he loves this horrible, horrible woman. 

“Grenade” epitomizes one of my pop-culture pet peeves: romantic songs or movies that assume we’ll root for a relationship’s future even when we’re given no reason to. “Grenade” incoherently slurs the language of love even as it lurches into the seedy neighborhood of dysfunction and self-sabotage. Besides, isn’t it a little counterproductive to name a hate song disguised as a love song “grenade” in a world where the steroid-addled misogynists of Jersey Shore have hijacked the word and given it an unsavory connotation?  What possibly could have impaired Mars’ judgment to such an extent he thought this was a good idea? Oh yeah.

I find Diddy fascinating as a hype man, businessman, actor, pop icon, and cultural figure. So why do I find him so unforgivably dull as a rapper? I suppose my apathy veering into contempt begins with Diddy somewhat famously not writing his own rhymes. That’s relatively common for big-name producers-turned-rappers, and is probably more common for big-name rappers in general than you’d think, but Diddy is especially open about it. In one of his best-known lines, Diddy brags, “Don’t worry if I don’t write rhymes / I write checks” as if those two were somehow equal or equivalent. Also, having read a bitchy tell-all from one of those unfortunate souls who actually writes Diddy’s rhymes, I can vouch that Diddy isn’t big on writing verses or checks, at least for other people. I have no doubt that Diddy writes himself million-dollar checks every hour on the hour just for being so damn awesome.

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Dr. Dre doesn’t write his own rhymes either, yet he’s respected as a rapper in a way Diddy never will be. A crucial difference between the two superstars: Dre can rap. He doesn’t sound like he’s reading his lyrics off a page for the first time and trying to sell them through hoarse volume, the way Diddy still does. For a man who has run marathons and starred on Broadway, it’s almost impressive that Diddy has been “rapping” for decades without getting any good at it. This is a man who strives for perpetual self-improvement, yet he remains a rank amateur when it comes to rapping. Of course the problem with being the man who sold the world is, you always sound like you’re selling something. That’s Diddy.

On “Coming Home,” his contribution to NOW 38, Diddy is selling a dodgy simulacrum of honesty and introspection. But in Diddy’s glossy world, the song’s “soul-searching” feels more like “Introspection By Diddy,” a pretty-smelling product launch, instead of the real thing. Alas, “Introspection By Diddy” is fatally devoid of introspection and Diddy. Diddy’s ghostwriters try to get inside the impresario’s mind, but he remains a distant, unknowable presence. Diddy does introspection the way he does everything: with chest-beating melodrama, bleary excess, and taste that’s isn’t questionable so much as deplorable.

The song’s regrettable conceit finds Diddy loudly, gracelessly proclaiming his hatred for songs like “Tears Of A Clown” and “A House Is Not A Home” because their messages resonate so acutely with his own inner struggles. In the kind of observation it’s difficult not to associate with the open-minded spiritual exploration that occurs around bongs in lesser colleges every hour, Diddy frets “It’s easy to be Puff, but it’s harder to be Sean.” Introspection does not come easily to Diddy. And his ham-fisted delivery of terrible lyrics drains “Coming Home” of any poignancy.

It also feels a little disingenuous for Diddy to keep rapping about murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G. when it’s hip-hop’s worst-kept secret that the rotund rapper was planning to leave Bad Boy. There’s something inherently pointless about Diddy rapping to begin with; he will never be respected, so it’s probably best for him to focus on the 70 aspects of his career where he doesn’t completely suck.

It takes a fuck-ton of chutzpah to release a sadomasochism-themed single named “S&M” under any circumstances. It takes something beyond chutzpah to do so when you’re Rihanna and you’re as famous for being a victim of domestic abuse as you are for your music. “S&M” consequently feels like a brazen provocation first, and music second. Rihanna’s history with Chris Brown lends the song an uncomfortable air of danger and decadence. So is “S&M” an exercise in unconscionably bad taste from a pop star who appears to be making light of violence against women, or a subversive act of empowerment from a woman boldly taking control of her sexuality in the face of intense public scrutiny and criticism? I hesitate to even venture a guess, but “S&M” raises some provocative questions. 

If my old arch-nemesis Will.I.Am and his puppets in Black Eyed Peas represent pop music as fascism, the musical equivalent of a mink boot stomping humanity’s face in perfect four-on-the-floor time for all of eternity, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” epitomizes pop’s genius for personal liberation. It also speaks to disco’s subversive genius for smuggling empowering social and personal messages into songs so catchy, audiences don’t realize they’re internalizing disco’s inclusive cultural aesthetic. They’re so busy boogying, they don’t realize they’re furtively being tricked into accepting homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans, Europeans, and everyone else who made disco what it was.

On “Born This Way,” Gaga turns the vernacular of church folks on its head by transforming homey old chestnuts about how we all must be special because God don’t make no mistakes into an affirmation of the dignity and self-worth of outsiders, minorities, and beautiful freaks of all stripes. Gaga’s rhymes are sometimes tortured, and her rapping is god-awful, but her motives are pure, and the beat is monstrous in the best possible way. “Born This Way” realizes Gaga’s boundless potential for afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. And it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

The mind-boggling awfulness of “My Humps” left Will.I.Am with a formidable challenge. How do you top yourself in terms of sheer skin-crawling awfulness when you’ve already engineered maybe the worst song ever written? Will.I.Am is never one to shy away from a challenge, so with “The Time (Dirty Bit),” the Black Eyed Peas’ contribution to NOW 28, he lured the corpse of the Dirty Dancing chestnut “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” onto the dance floor à la Terry Kiser in My Weekend At Bernie’s, pumped it full of some evil rejuvenation juice, then had it prance about like a deranged marionette while he contorted its strings. Listening to “The Time (Dirty Bit),” I experienced a familiar sensation: my brain violently rejected the notion that what Will.I.Am was doing constituted music in even the fuzziest conceivable sense. It’s as if Will.I.Am is once again begging us to call his bluff and banish him from the world of music, as opposed to the land of cross-promotion and jingles that is Will.I.Am’s natural habitat.

When Will.I.Am and his collaborators shout, “I’m! Having! A Good! Time! With! You!” it sounds like they’re trying to convince themselves more than anyone else, as if they’re trying to strong-arm their way into happiness. The song offers a combustible combination of elements that are toxic individually but prove apocalyptic in tandem, whether that means Will.I.Am doing bad “I Love The 80s” karaoke through fucking AutoTune, or Apl.De.Ap becoming the 4,000th person to rhyme “swagger” with “Jagger.”

They’ve saved the worst for last. Maybe my Weekend At Bernie’s metaphor was inapt. “The Time (Dirty Bit)” suggests that Will.I.Am is intent on destroying pop music. He’s not the puppet-master or Neo or even Jonathan Silverman. He’s Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, waving his cowboy hat and screaming “Yee haw!” as he drives a nuclear bomb straight into the heart of pop music.

Ah, but you can’t kill pop. It’s like a cockroach produced by Dr. Luke and co-written by Linda Perry. It’s too beautiful and horrible and ephemeral and everlasting to destroy, even if you’re an evil genius like Will.I.Am. So I’m going to end THEN with the above clip, which anticipates Will.I.Am’s sinister attack on pop music. 

Or does it? The day after I wrote the above, Black Eyed Peas announced that it was going on indefinite hiatus so that members like Hologram Man, Meth Lady, The Other Guy, and the Other Other Guy could concentrate on sucking separately. I do not want to claim credit for this development. Oh, who the fuck am I kidding? I want nothing more than to take credit for the Black Eyed Peas breaking up. That would be such a triumph.

Alas, I cannot. I don’t want to end THEN on a down note, so I am going to speculate that Hologram Man was listening to some Marvin Gaye and doing some serious soul-searching when he realized that he really didn’t want to destroy pop music. That would be a little like Tyler Durden calling off Operation Mayhem at the last minute. Yes, I would like to think that Will.I.Am searched his soul and realized he didn’t want to continue to perpetrate the ultimate musical evil.

Rather than incontrovertibly destroying pop music by continuing to record and perform with his three minions, Will.I.Am is sacrificing his professional and economic future for the sake of humanity, or at least pop-music fans. In that respect, he’s Christ-like in his compassion, not unlike Jim Caviezel in that Mel Gibson movie. Yes, Will.I.Am is definitely either Jesus, Satan, Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy in Weekend At Bernie’s (but not Weekend At Bernie’s 2), Neo, and/or Tyler Durden. Or possibly all of them at the same time. Like Walt Whitman, Will.I.Am contains multitudes.

Have we seen the last of Will.I.Am? Or will he emerge from the dead three days after his musical crucifixion? Will he go back to the dark side and recommit to his plan to destroy pop music? No one knows for sure, so for the indefinite future, we here at THEN will be in our underground bunkers (you’d be amazed how cheap you can buy a bomb shelter these days) dreading the still very real threat of a Will.I.Am-engineered musical apocalypse. 

Up Next on THEN: Nothing! 

Outside the bubble: What else is happening in music now