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.
- “Hot In Herre,” Nelly
- “Nothin’,” N.O.R.E.
- “Gangsta Lovin’,” Eve (featuring Alicia Keys)
- “Feel It Boy,” Beenie Man (featuring Janet Jackson)
- “Days Go By,” Dirty Vegas
- “Love At First Sight,” Kylie Minogue
- “Objection (Tango),” Shakira
- “Underneath It All,” No Doubt (featuring Lady Saw)
- “BareNaked,” Jennifer Love Hewitt
- “Ordinary Day,” Vanessa Carlton
- “Landslide,” Dixie Chicks
- “I Care 4 U,” Aaliyah
- “Stingy,” Ginuwine
- “Don’t Know Why,” Norah Jones
- “Hero,” Chad Kroeger (featuring Josey Scott)
- “Running Away,” Hoobastank
- “In My Place,” Coldplay
- “One Last Breath,” Creed
- “Somewhere Out There,” Our Lady Peace
- “Everyday,” Bon Jovi
The Neptunes had a veritable monopoly on hit hip-hop and R&B production throughout the last decade. For ages, it’s seemed like no major-label album was complete without at least one Neptunes production—and hot damn if that Neptunes track didn’t end up as the first or second single. If a major-label rap act wanted to compete in the Darwinian ecosystem of pop and R&B radio, a Neptunes banger constituted the cost of entry.
Take one of my favorite groups, Tha Alkaholiks. Tash, J-Ro, and E-Swift were critical darlings and cult favorites, but they were never able to capitalize commercially on their underground buzz and all-around awesomeness. So in 2001, Tha Alkaholiks followed in the footsteps of seemingly every pop, R&B, and hip-hop act at the time and got The Neptunes to produce a song called “Best U Can.” Heck, they even got Pharrell to warble on the hook in his inimitable, tone-deaf Curtis Mayfield fashion.
That had to be good for album sales, eh? Sure, that one expensive Neptunes track probably swallowed half of Tha Alkaholiks’ modest recording budget, but it’d be worth it to finally nail that big crossover hit, right? “Best U Can” represented the trio’s last, desperate attempt to win over a mass audience, but radio programmers who had to decide between adding a Neptunes-produced Jay-Z song, a Neptunes-produced Snoop Dogg song, or a Neptunes-produced song from something called Tha Alkaholiks almost invariably went with the sure things. It didn’t help that the songs were liable to sound pretty much the same. Not surprisingly, Tha Alkaholiks’ big crossover attempt failed: The would-be hit dead-ended at number 64 on the hip-hop and R&B charts, and the group disbanded a short time later.
Other acts had better luck. When Nelly hooked up with The Neptunes for “Hot In Herre,” the kick-off track on the 11th volume of NOW! That’s What I Call Music, he scored one of his biggest hits and inarguably his best song. Sure, you could argue that other Nelly songs are better, but you’d be wrong, and you’d be shunned from society for holding such a misguided opinion. Also, you’d get punched in the face. “Hot In Herre” infiltrated the pop-culture bloodstream to such an extent that even today, eight years later, no one can comfortably say “It’s hot in here” without some smartass replying, “So take off all your clothes.” It’s a perfect chant-along chorus: nakedly sexual, irreverent, and infectious as fuck. What puts it over the top is the call-and-response between Nelly and his female backup singer. First Nelly, proposes the following: “It’s getting hot in here. Purely for the sake of comfort, it would be advisable for everyone to take off all their clothes.”
The female back-up singer is swayed by Nelly’s argument. In a case of what improvisers call “Yes, and” (that is, affirming a scene partner’s suggestion and expanding it) she acknowledges, that it is, in fact, getting so hot that she wishes to take her clothes off.
“Hot In Herre” is the perfect pop song, an irresistible celebration of dance-floor hedonism that delights in the empty pleasures of stardom. Over sultry organs and sexy drum patterns, Nelly raps about the awesomeness of being Nelly before indulging in a surprisingly fresh John Hughes reference: “Take it off like you’re home alone / You know, dance in the mirror while you’re on the phone / Checkin’ your reflection and telling your best friend, ‘Girl, I think my butt gettin’ big.’”
N.O.R.E. of Capone-N-Noreaga probably wouldn’t have a solo career if it weren’t for The Neptunes. Where Nelly hopped onboard the Neptunes train to hitsville late in the game, N.O.R.E.’s star rose alongside those of frequent collaborators Pharrell and the other guy. (I think his name is Chip or something.) On “Nothin’,” N.O.R.E. goofs around ingeniously over one of The Neptunes’ snake-charmer beats.
Like Nelly, N.O.R.E. manages to make clumsy, awkward pop-culture references strangely awesome through his lighthearted, goofball delivery, like when he vows to “sell more records than Creed” and raps, “At the white-boy club while I’m buyin’ the bar / They like, ‘Hey now, you're an all-star!’” I have a soft spot in my heart for N.O.R.E., because he’s the rare pop star who concedes when his work sucks. Also, he’s insane. He named his second album Melvin Flynt: Da Hustler, for example, because it combined two of his role models: Hustler’s Larry Flynt and Melvin Udall, the fussy romance novelist Jack Nicholson plays in As Good As It Gets. I am so not making that up.
At least one gangsta rapper saw As Good As It Gets (surprise No. 1) and identified so strongly with Nicholson’s ornery misanthrope, he decided to name his next album after him (surprise No. 2). That’s kind of awesome. The other reason I love N.O.R.E. is because on Capone-N-Noreaga’s “Invincible,” he raps, “Melvin Flynt drop, my whole collasso stop / I can’t believe I fucked up and made a half-assed album / My excuse is, my pops just died / And I ain’t wanna make music, my pops just died.” I don’t know which is more awesome: that N.O.R.E. acknowledged that he fucked up and made a half-assed album, or that he rhymes “my pops just died” with “my pops just died.” God bless you, N.O.R.E. I’ll miss you most of all.
The Neptunes’ third contribution to NOW! 11 is much less memorable. Pharrell and the other guy dicked around with synthesizers and a drum machine for a few minutes and came up with the beat for Beenie Man’s “Feel It Boy” featuring Janet Jackson. Jackson later regretted working with Beenie, since he’s the one dancehall artist with a less-than-enlightened attitude toward homosexuality, and Jackson has always been queer-friendly.
If I had written this entry two weeks earlier, I would have had precious little to say about Vanessa Carlton except that she makes the whitest music imaginable for an audience of melancholy sorority girls. Thankfully, Carlton came out as bisexual recently. To borrow an old Woody Allen line, that’s a good way to double your chances of getting a date on Saturday night.
Now, I don’t know the intimate details of Carlton’s Sapphic endeavors, so I’m just going to assume that she drives from town to town in a vibrator-shaped “Pussy Wagon,” seducing entire cheerleader squads and engaging in all-night lesbian make-out parties. It’s very brave of Carlton to come out as bisexual when there’s nothing heterosexual men find more repulsive than a beautiful young woman making love to other beautiful young women for hours and hours and hours.
Speaking of gay icons, Kylie Minogue, last entry’s MVP, turns in another super-sexy slice of disco perfection in the form of “Love At First Sight.” Minogue is characteristically sexy in the video, but compared to the clip to “Spinning Around”—which prominently features a close-up of the dance-floor diva in gold hot pants—it might as well have been directed by the leaders of the Taliban.
Minogue’s sister in hotness, Shakira, follows up “Wherever, Whenever” and “Underneath Your Clothes” with “Objection (Tango),” an unexpectedly simpatico fusion of Eddie Cochran-style rockabilly (dig that “C’Mon Everybody” surf-rock riff) and tango. It boggles the mind that so many Shakira singles revolve around the Colombian spitfire’s anxiety that some large-breasted trollop will steal her man, though it’s strangely comforting to know that even someone like Shakira wrestles with sexual insecurities. Here, Shakira remains curiously obsessed with the relative humbleness of her breasts, fretting, “Compared to her cheap silicone I look minimal.” This invites the question, who exactly does Shakira think she’s competing with? Chesty Bigboobs, Titsy Hugemelons, Silly McJokename? Or this woman:
Where Shakira’s sexuality is explosive, Norah Jones is tantalizingly understated, as illustrated by “Don’t Know Why,” a smoky little smooth-jazz number that made Ravi Shankar’s elegant daughter an unlikely superstar and gave jazz label Blue Note a multi-platinum breakout act. If Jones’ instant coffeehouse standard classes up the disc, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s almost inconceivably awful “BareNaked” drags NOW! 11 back into the pop-culture gutter where it belongs.
“BareNaked” belongs to a curious subgenre of secretary-rock songs that cycle through a long list of banalities masquerading as bite-sized profundities. Think “Ironic.” Hearing “BareNaked” for the first time, I thought “Wow, this sounds like a bad Meredith Brooks outtake.” So I wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that Brooks co-wrote and produced the song. “BareNaked” asks a series of questions, each more inane the last. They are, in order:
Did you ever have that dream where you’re walking naked down the street, and everyone just stares?
Did you ever feel so deep that you speak your mind to put others straight to sleep and wonder if anyone really cares?
You ever go downstairs to start your day but your car’s not there?
You ever try your luck with a pickup line, but you just sucked?
Bear in mind, I’m not really paraphrasing these lyrics. They’re pretty much a word-by-word transcription. “BareNaked” and “Ironic” both try to pass off a series of unfortunate events as a pop song. That seems crazy easy, so I’m going to spend the next five minutes writing one of these babies myself. Here goes:
Did you ever get stuck on the side of the road
And realized you’d left your AAA card at home like some choad?
Yeah, you feel just like an ass
Did you ever try to mail a Netflix envelope back and leave your disc in the player
Then you think about Adam Lambert and wonder if he could be any gayer?
Yeah, that would be unfortunate
Because these are deep thoughts
So try not to get lost
I think so deep I might just drown (4X)
You ever pick up the phone but it’s a telemarketer
You feel vaguely irritated
You ever been at a traffic light and the light was red
Yeah, that means you cannot go ahead
You really wish that it was green
You ever woken up and had bedhead
So bad you wish that you were dead
Yeah, your hair looks kind of dumb
Because these are deep thoughts
So try not to get lost
I think so deep I might just drown (4X)
With apologies to Jack Handy, I call this inane, hastily composed ditty “Deep Thoughts.” If you’re a former child star interested in recording it, I’ll be happy to sell it to you at a reasonable cost.
After a first half dominated by The Neptunes and divas, we end with a punishing gauntlet of hunger-dunger-dang dinosaur rock, beginning with “Hero,” a song that proves that the only thing worse than Nickelback is a fucking solo song from the lead singer of Nickelback, Chad Kroeger. “Running Away,” Hoobastank’s maiden contribution to NOW!, keeps the suckfest going. Coldplay’s lovely “In My Place” provides a brief respite from interchangeable, gruntingly executed sub-mediocrity. Then Creed, Our Lady Peace, and Bon Jovi deliver back-to-back-to-back blasts of testosterone-driven cock-rock.
Why must seemingly every NOW! compilation end with a punishing gauntlet of mainstream radio-rock at its dispiriting, soul-crushing worst? Commenters have accused me of being rock-phobic, but I’m only prejudiced against rock music that’s fucking terrible. That seems to be the only kind that gets played on the radio and pops up on these compilations. Just as it’s easy to get the impression that hip-hop is about nothing but money, sexism, and violence if your only exposure to it is through mainstream radio, it’s easy to think rock is dead if you only listen to the radio. That’s wholly misleading, of course. There’s plenty of great rock out there. You just won’t find it via NOW!, a franchise devoted to compiling the most ephemeral, pop-friendly hits from across a broad spectrum of suckitude. And also, every once in a very long while, a song that reminds you why you fell in love with pop music in the first place.
Up next on THEN!:
Don’t be fooled by the rocks that she’s got, J. Lo is still Jenny from the block, Jay-Z hooks up with Beyoncé, LL Cool J tries to get his comeback on with some help from The Neptunes, Nas made you look, and Snoop thinks you’re beautiful.