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.
- “Overprotected (Darkchild Remix),” Britney Spears
- “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” Kylie Minogue
- “Escape,” Enrique Iglesias
- “I’ve Got You (Ric Wake Version),” Marc Anthony
- “Girlfriend (Neptunes Remix feat. Nelly),” N’ Sync
- “I’m Gonna Be Alright (Track Masters remix feat. Nas),” Jennifer Lopez
- “Don’t Say Goodbye,” Paulina Rubio
- “Move It Like This,” Baha Men
- “More Than A Woman,” Aaliyah
- “Uh Huh,” B2K
- “Always On Time,” Ja Rule w/ Ashanti
- "Sugarhigh,” Jade Anderson
- “Halfcrazy,” Musiq
- “Underneath Your Clothes,” Shakira
- “A Thousand Miles,” Vanessa Carlton
- “A New Day Has Come,” Celine Dion
- “We Are All Made Of Stars,” Moby
- “First Date,” Blink-182
- “Stillness Of Heart,” Lenny Kravitz
- “How You Remind Me,” Nickelback
About a decade ago, my older sister went to Israel for six months as part of a program to bring a much-needed influx of Jews into that troubled country. The fates cursed her with a roommate who listened to nothing but Celine Dion. At first, this drove my sister into an apoplectic rage. Dion’s infernal caterwauling and screeching haunted her nightmares and plagued her every waking moment. She and her compatriots in the program seriously contemplated staging an intervention in which they would physically restrain the Celine-lover in their midst and dramatically smash all of her Celine CDs. For her own good. For the good of them all. For the good of humanity.
Then one day, something snapped in my sister, who once upon a time took me to Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest shows. In a blatant bit of pop-culture Stockholm Syndrome, my sister decided that she didn’t hate Celine Dion after all. In fact, she loved Celine Dion. Celine Dion became her favorite singer. It was as if she’d been taken over by a malevolent alien life force that really enjoyed the music of melodramatic French-Canadian divas married to their grandfathers.
My sister and I are alike in many essential ways, and wildly antithetical in others. For example, Celine Dion aside, my sister has roughly zero interest in pop culture. She does not own a television, though she’s thankfully not one of those insufferable souls who feels the need to broadcast that fact at every occasion. I, on the other hand, follow pop-culture casually. I’ll catch a movie every now and then if I like an actor or actress, and make a point of watching television every couple of weeks.
I think many of us process ubiquitous songs the way my sister did Celine Dion. At first, we’re annoyed by the glossy overproduction, shamelessness, and pathological catchiness of songs that dominate entire seasons, that blare from seemingly every passing car, store, and boom-box. The kids still use boom-boxes on some Radio Raheem shit, right? With the rapping and the baggy pants and the Jell-O pudding pops?
Eventually, resistance becomes futile. We’re going to fucking hear 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” or the newest Lady Gaga song 50 million times whether we want to or not, so we might as well at least attempt to enjoy the experience. To put this theory to the test, I decided I would subject myself to a bite-sized version of my sister’s Israel ordeal, and listen to songs from two of the most reviled acts of the past 20 years 10 times consecutively, to determine if I, too would fall under their sinister sway.
The test subjects in question, are, appropriately enough, Celine Dion and Nickelback, with “A New Day Has Come” and “How You Remind Me,” their respective contributions to NOW! That’s What I Call Music 10: Money Never Sleeps. The trial I am about to endure isn’t exactly unique. Music writer Carl Wilson spent a year listening to Celine Dion in a heroic attempt to understand her widespread allure for Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste, his contribution to the 33 1/3 book series. And my friend Steve Delahoyde once made a short film in which he listened to nothing but ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” on repeat over the course of a long car ride.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of this column, I am going to pretend that what I’m doing is unique and that I’m capable of original thought. But enough preamble. Here we go.
First listen: It really sounds like Dion is singing from heaven, though it’s a paradise with lots of synthesizers and space-gun noises. Dion sings “I can’t believe I’ve been touched by an angel.” Dude, just because your husband/grandfather has been shadowboxing the Grim Reaper for decades doesn’t mean he’s an angel. Still, this is very soothing, with reassuring washes of strings and buttery double-tracked back-up vocals. It’s the musical equivalent of taking a pleasant nap.
Second listen: This time around, I’m going to try to really listen to the lyrics, to capture their casual profundity and deceptive depth. Oh fuck, this is another fucking swooning ballad about parenting, isn’t it? Dion used to be all about the two Ps: partying and pussy. Now she’s gotten all domestic and shit. According to a website called experienceproject.com, people have associated the following “life experiences and meanings” with “A New Day Has Come”:
- I Will Never Be Good Enough
- I Am A New Mommy
- I Want To Draw Happy Faces On My Friends
- I Used To Be Painfully Shy
- I Love G-d
- I Will Share Many Canadian Authors
- I Started A New Job
- I Have Written A CV And Got A Job
I too associate the song with all eight of the above life experiences and meanings, especially being a new mommy and wanting to draw happy faces on my friends.
Third listen: Actually, I do have a life experience I strongly associate with a Celine Dion song. When my first college girlfriend dumped me, I was despondent. I remember overhearing Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me” on a bus in Madison and tearing up. In my weakened state, I interpreted the song as a sign from the heavens that I should try to get back together with that ex-girlfriend. Thankfully, I resisted the impulse, but I can’t hear “It’s All Coming Back To Me” without thinking about that formative heartbreak. The third time around, “A New Day Has Come” continues to gently lull me into a mellow frame of mind. It’s unrelentingly positive and optimistic in a touchy-feely, vaguely new-age kind of way.
Fourth listen: This song would so fucking kill as background music in a candle shop at the mall. All the housewives would start fist-pumping and beating up the beat when it came on, like, “Oh shit, that’s my jam, son!” I think this song is definitely about having a child. In a fuzzy way, the lyrics seem to comment extensively on Dion’s long, public struggle to conceive. According to rumors I just made up, the following factors made it difficult for Dion to have a baby:
- She was born a man
- Since she’s married to her grandfather, there were concerns that this product of incest might have birth defects commonly associated with the British royal family
- Her husband is so old that what used to be baby batter is now just dust and cobwebs
Nevertheless, scientists were able to make Dion’s dreams of motherhood come true, a process that in turn led to the creation of “A New Day Has Come.”
Fifth listen: From its title, “A New Day Has Come” would be a really good theme song for a creepily optimistic cult. A New Day Has Come! Let us prostrate ourselves at the feet of Brother Moon Spirit and prepare for the spaceship that will take us to Planet Heaven!
Sixth listen: For a diva notorious for her histrionics, Dion is surprisingly restrained here. It’s sentimental, sure, but Dion thankfully seems to be holding back.
Seventh listen: Aw yeah, that part where the choir kicks in along with the string and drums toward the end? That’s my shit right there. That’s when Dion takes it to that proverbial “next level.”
Eighth listen: Maybe my older sister is onto something. I used to work at a Goodwill store where the station was always tuned to the adult-contemporary channel. If this came on back then, I would have found it mildly tranquilizing in a pleasing fashion.
Ninth listen: “A New Day Has Come” is really a very involved production. There’s a whole lot going on, but it seldom feels busy or cluttered. It isn’t a great song, or even a particularly good song, but it’s soothing, glossy, and devoid of jagged edges. It almost sounds like a lullaby.
Tenth listen and summation: I can’t say this experience left me with a burning desire to listen to more Celine Dion, but I can appreciate the craftsmanship of both the singing and production. It’s the sonic equivalent of a cup of chamomile tea before bedtime, but sometimes that’s all we really want.
Now I will tackle an even more formidable challenge: listening to Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” 10 times consecutively.
First listen: The song gets off to a terrible start with the opening lines “Never made it as a wise man / I couldn’t cut it as a poor man stealing / Tired of living like a blind man / I’m sick of selling out a sense of feeling.” Such a noxious combination of pretentiousness and meaninglessness. So very freshman poetry.
Second listen: Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger always sounds like he’s passing a kidney stone. When he bleats, “These five words in my head scream, ‘Are we having fun yet?’” I always think of Adam Scott’s character on Party Down. Now that is a good show. Way better than the music of Nickelback.
Third listen: “How You Remind Me” may be the most passive-aggressive kiss-off song ever. It’s nothing but curdled sarcasm, self-pity, and unbridled contempt.
Fourth listen: Nickelback combines the worst elements of grunge and dinosaur rock. It beats the soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic into a fine pulp, alternating wimpy acoustic whining with macho power chords and hoarse shouting.
Five listen: Aw man, I wish I was still listening to Celine. I don’t care if she is an 8-foot-tall Canuck catwoman married to a hundred-year-old man. At least she isn’t Nickelback.
Sixth listen: Listening to “How You Remind Me” is like being inside an argument between a deeply unpleasant couple. It isn’t edifying or psychologically astute; it’s just filled with the kind of bitterness and long-held resentments that characterize so many fights between lovers. I don’t like “How You Remind Me,” but I suspect its popularity is largely attributable to its universality. Who hasn’t been in a toxic relationship?
Seventh listen: I’d imagine the naked emotion on display plays a role in the song’s popularity as well. Okay, this is getting pretty painful. Are we having fun yet? No, we are not.
Eighth listen: For me, the key lines are, “It must have been so bad / ’Cause living with me must have damn near killed you.” Ah, self-pitying exaggeration, a fixture of many, if not most, domestic quarrels. To expand on an earlier statement, “How You Remind Me” isn’t so much a penetrating exploration of a fatally flawed relationship—like, say, Husbands And Wives, the films of John Cassavetes, or the upcoming Blue Valentine—as it is the musical equivalent of overhearing a couple have a bitter fight at a TGI Fridays.
Ninth listen: Still not loving, or even liking it, but I can understand why people would see something substantive in it.
Tenth listen: Yes! It’s over. I look forward to never listening to Nickelback ever again. Oh, wait, they pop up seven more times in the NOW That’s What I Call Music! series. Damn you, Nickelback, you magnificent bastards!
Listeners couldn’t get “A New Day Has Come” and “How You Remind Me” out of their heads, not unlike my favorite song on NOW! 10, the Kylie Minogue smash “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” (The segue king strikes again!) Minogue has gone through many permutations since I first encountered her as a fresh-faced Aussie soap star crooning a wholesome cover of “Locomotion” back in the day. She dallied with Pauly Shore while they filmed Bio-Dome, and played a prominent supporting role in the god-awful first adaptation of Street Fighter. By the time she released “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” she’d successfully reinvented herself as a sex bomb, a diminutive dance-floor diva with an ass of Shakira-like splendor.
Over a sultry dance-floor groove, Minogue sings seductively in a breathy coo that’s half Brigitte Bardot frisky sex-kitten, half Mae West campy vamp. It’s a perfect pop song, three and a half minutes of disco dreaminess that reestablished Minogue as a major pop star/sex symbol. Commercials like the following didn’t hurt either. (NSFW. You’re welcome.)
Songs don’t get more annoyingly, infuriatingly, blood-clot-inducingly catchy than Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out.” The group constitutes a quintessential one-hit wonder. I expect that a typical Baha Men concert consists of the group performing “Who Let The Dogs Out” over and over for 50 minutes or so. Yet, shockingly, Baha Men recorded other songs, including “Move It Like This,” the group’s “contribution” to NOW 10. It’s the laziest, most pandering dance song imaginable, an upbeat, glorified Disney Channel jingle where Mr. Baha and his Men admonish listeners to do a series of dances with silly names, including dances that haven’t been popular since Jan-Michael Vincent was able to walk in a straight line and remember his name. In rapid succession, Baha Men shout out The Twist, The Electric Slide, Chocolate Bump, The Running Man, The Mashed Potato, Walking The Philly Dog, and the Pee-wee Herman. It’s terribly negligent of Baha Men to not mention the Steve Martin or the Redd Foxx (which, granted, is a dance I made up in which you clutch your heart and pretend to have a heart attack while gyrating erratically).
The cotton-candy call-and-response chorus finds the group asking listeners if they can, and I quote, “Move it like this.” Rather than answer that question, what appears to be a 10-year-old white girl instead volunteers, “I can shake it like that.” Goddamn it! The Baha Men didn’t fucking ask if you could shake it like that. They asked if you could move it like this. The lines of communication became hopelessly muddled. Also, dig the video’s hilariously stereotypical white-guy caricatures. Nasal, whiny voice? Check. Cardigan draped girlishly around the shoulders, sorority-girl style? Unwillingness to party and get funky unless black people show him how to get funky? Check. Fear of minorities and their infectious island rhythms? You better believe it. But by the end of the video, even the hopeless white people are both moving it like this and shaking it like that.
The reluctant party animals in the above video are white, but they aren’t even a fraction as white as Vanessa Carlton, whose contribution to NOW 10 may just be the whitest song ever written. It’s musical mayonnaise on white bread with a slice of iceberg lettuce on top, a piano-driven ballad with lyrics that feel like they should be scribbled inside a middle-schooler’s Trapper Keeper festooned with puffy-heart stickers. The song, did, however, prove that not even the combined suckitude of White Chicks and “A Thousand Miles” can keep Terry Crews from being hilarious.
“A Thousand Miles” features words set to music, as does Moby’s “We Are All Made Of Stars.” (The segue king strikes a second time!) It’s a song of heartbreaking fragility in which Moby sings in a trembling, spacey monotone that alternately suggests New Order’s Bernard Sumner and the poignant detachment of David Bowie during the “coked out of his gourd” Berlin phase. Moby even wears a spacesuit throughout the video, Major Tom style. The clip renders the title deliciously literal by featuring guest appearances from what Triumph The Insult Comic Dog might call a who’s who of who cares? There’s Kato Kaelin, Verne Troyer, Corey Feldman, Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Angelyne, J.C. Chasez, Dave Navarro, Dominique Swain, Ron Jeremy, Thora Birch, Robert Evans, and some motherfuckers I didn’t recognize in a series of sordid Hollywood tableaus.
Ben Folds has described the music of Ben Folds Five as “punk rock for sissies,” a description that applies equally to Blink-182’s “First Date,” an almost nauseatingly sappy, sentimental song about the butterflies, excitement, and terror of going on a first date. It owes more to Norman Rockwell than the Sex Pistols. I’m all for men exposing their feelings and broadcasting their vulnerability, but even I wanted to shove the band in a locker by the halfway point.
You know who has nothing whatsoever to do with Blink-182? Shakira, who contributes “Underneath Your Clothes,” a quasi-remake of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” that’s casually infectious enough to justify, if not excuse, its blatant thievery. Check out the uncanny resemblance for yourself:
In the last entry, I wrote of my guilty, guilty love of Ja Rule—specifically his song “Always On Time,” which contains my personal motto: The pimp game is very religious. Actually, pretty much all of “Always On Time” is hilarious, from the incongruously chirpy, romantic R&B chorus to the amusingly clumsy attempts to censor the naughtiness of the album version. My favorite ham-fisted, wildly unsuccessful substitute is when Rule awkwardly replaces the line “money over bitches, Murder Inc.” with “Money over brodys, Murder Inc.” He makes a good point, though: You should always prioritize commercial success over hanging out with Brody Jenner and other, similarly sketchy people also named Brody.
Like a lot of gangsta-rap “love” songs, “Always On Time” boasts seemingly untenable contradictions. It sounds like a sappy ballad, but Rule’s lyrics are filled with couplets like “But baby, you know the name, and love is about pain / So stop the complaints and drop the order of restraints.” Is there anything more romantic than asking for a restraining order to be removed? If there is, it’s the lines “I got two or three hos for every V / And I keep ’em drugged up off that ecstasy.” Oh, Ja. You’re quite the leprechaun-sized, gravel-voiced little charmer.
“Always On Time” arrived at the height of Rule’s staggering popularity, before a scruffy young up-and-comer named 50 Cent ethered his career. According to Billboard, it was the 33rd most successful song of the decade. The entire decade. It spent two weeks at No. 1 before being replaced by another Ja Rule duet, the Murder Inc. remix of Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real.” If this series has taught us anything, it’s that today’s unstoppable megastar is often tomorrow’s half-forgotten walking punchline. Fame is fleeting, but humiliation and disgrace can last forever.
Up next on THEN! Nelly wants you to take off all your clothes, N.O.R.E. and The Neptunes make a great song about “Nothin’,” Dixie Chicks cover Fleetwood Mac, Norah Jones wonders why you didn’t call back, and Jennifer Love Hewitt briefly reminds people that she apparently is also a singer or something.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in music in summer 2002
• Soundbombing III represents a last gasp for onetime independent rap giant Rawkus
• Yoshimi battles some pink robots, and Flaming Lips has the play-by-play
• Cee-Lo Green goes solo with Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections
• Bruce Springsteen gets all inspirational and hopeful with The Rising
• John Mayer releases his debut EP, I’m A Giant Fucking Douche.