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 34 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.
- “Rock Your Body,” Justin Timberlake
- “I’m Glad,” Jennifer Lopez
- “Girlfriend,” B2K
- “Excuse Me Miss,” Jay-Z
- “Hell Yeah,” Ginuwine featuring Baby
- “Pump It Up,” Joe Budden
- “I Can,” Nas
- “Don’t Wanna Try,” Frankie J
- “If You’re Not The One,” Daniel Bedingfield
- “Big Yellow Taxi,” Counting Crows featuring Vanessa Carlton
- “Feel,” Robbie Williams
- “Stuck,” Stacie Orrico
- “Lights Out,” Lisa Marie Presley
- “Girl All The Bad Guys Want,” Bowling For Soup
- “In This Diary,” The Ataris
- “The Hell Song,” Sum 41
- “Send The Pain Below,” Chevelle
- “The Road I’m On,” 3 Doors Down
- “Serenity,” Godsmack
- “Clocks,” Coldplay
Justin Timberlake leads a charmed life. When the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” scandal tore our nation apart and exposed millions of unsuspecting children to the brain-warping, society-destroying menace that is an attractive woman’s partially exposed nipple, Janet Jackson was vilified in the press while Timberlake emerged unscathed, even though he had warned the entire world that he would have her naked by the end of the song they were performing. If only we’d heeded his warning!
That’s just the beginning. For years, Timberlake was intimately and professionally associated with Britney Spears. When the pop princess went crazier than 2Pac in that flick Juice, did anyone hold him accountable? No, they did not. They just praised him for writing an awesome dis song, “Cry Me A River,” then casting a Spears look-alike in the video.
When ’N Sync, the Beatles of its era, disbanded seemingly permanently (breaking the hearts of the millions of critics and intellectuals who constitute its most committed fan base) so Timberlake could embark on a solo career and spend more time pursuing esoteric, provocative avant-garde art projects with his then-girlfriend Yoko Ono, did anyone take him to task? Nope, they just praised his debut solo album, Justified, to the high heavens.
But Timberlake’s reign of getting away with murder—sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally—goes back much further. Timberlake gave Judas 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Timberlake got Brutus and the other Roman senators to kill Julius Caesar. Witnesses to the Lincoln assassination reported seeing a curly-haired teen heartthrob with the phrase, “Sic semper tyrannis” tattooed on his upper back fleeing the Ford Theater alongside John Wilkes Booth the night it all went down.
According to Wikipedia, the Neptunes offered the beat for “Rock Your Body” to Michael Jackson, but sensing an opening, Timberlake slid in and told Jackson he looked like he was tired and in an awful lot of pain, and gave him the name of 50 or 60 disreputable doctors who might be able to help him with his various ailments, real and imaginary. Before you knew it, Jackson was swimming around in a giant pool of Percocet while Timberlake was riding “Rock Your Body” to international solo superstardom. Then he added insult to injury by exposing Michael’s sister’s almost-naked breast in front of a television audience of more than 10 billion people. (Yes, more people watch the Super Bowl halftime show than exist in the world. Don’t ask me how.)
Justin Timberlake can get away with anything. He’s almost too perfect. It’d be one thing if he was just another boy-band pretty boy, but he’s almost ridiculously talented. He writes great songs. He has a fantastic voice. He makes terrific albums, plays multiple instruments, beat-boxes, and dances up a storm. If all that weren’t bad enough, he sleeps with the world’s most desirable women, flies around in an invisible jet purchased directly from Wonder Woman, lives in a platinum-encrusted mansion, and has impeccable comic timing. Most impressively, he’s the voice of Boo-Boo in the forthcoming Yogi Bear film.
So if Timberlake nurses an arrogant belief that he will have everyone in the known universe naked by the time he stops singing “Rock Your Body,” he has ample reason to feel cocky. “Rock Your Body” is damn near perfect, a silky-smooth exercise in dance-floor escapism driven by a monster disco-funk bassline and the teasing interplay between Timberlake and his female backup singer. It’s so irresistible, fun, and funky that it could have resurrected Michael Jackson’s fading career and stopped his permanent professional freefall. Instead, it became a signature hit for a gent en route to apathetically being named King Of Pop. By passing over the track, Jackson unwittingly helped pass the crown from one generation of ridiculously talented boy-band alumni (cue flood of commenters protesting, “Why are you creaming all over Justin Timberlake? That guy sucks!”) to another.
Before there was Michael Jackson, before there was Justin Timberlake, there was Elvis Presley, the original King Of Rock ’N’ Roll. He was the alpha and the omega, the truck-driving hick with the wiggle in his hips and the quiver in the voice who conquered the world and died on his throne. This rock monarch left behind but a single heir: Lisa Marie Presley. For much of her life, Lisa Marie was famous for two things: being the daughter of the King Of Rock, and being the ex-wife of the King Of Pop. Oh, and also that Music Video Awards where she and Michael Jackson engaged in a spontaneous, not-at-all-rehearsed, incredibly convincing kiss to show the world that, rumors to the contrary, Michael Jackson was in fact capable of pressing his lips against those of an adult woman for several seconds without shrieking in horror, projectile vomiting, and desperately pleading for a little boy to fondle. That televised kiss put all doubts about Jackson’s sexuality and the legitimacy of their marriage to rest. Clearly only a raging heterosexual deeply in love and lust with his wife could engage in such a wanton public display of affection.
Ah, but Lisa Marie inexplicably wanted to be known for something other than being born rich and famous and having a bizarre sham marriage with a walking freak show. She wanted to be an artist, man. So she hooked up with a fuckton of ringers, including producer/bassist Mike Elizondo (who has worked extensively with Dr. Dre and Fiona Apple), Prince And The Revolution alum Wendy Melvoin, Alanis Morissette/Michael Jackson producer-songwriter Glen Ballard, and Todd Rundgren guitarist Lyle Workman. (Some folks were impressed by Lyle’s work on Presley’s album, but I found his playing to be extremely workmanlike. Wordplay!)
With all this professional talent onboard, Presley’s heavily hyped debut, To Whom It May Concern, couldn’t be anything less than respectable. That’s the problem with “Lights Out,” her contribution to the 13 volume of NOW!: it’s totally okay secretary rock. There’s nothing at all embarrassing or distinguished about it.
According to pop-culture legend, Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips famously announced that if he found a white man who could sing like a black man, he could make a million dollars. Then he said that if he found a black man who could sing like a black man, he could perhaps make a much more modest sum of money. Then he started talking about how if he could find a Mexican who sang like Pat Boone, he could make somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000, and everyone realized he was drunk and talking out his ass. In the same vein, record executives gambled that if he could find a woman who could sing like Sheryl Crow but had Elvis Presley’s blood running through her veins, she could sell at least a modest number of albums. They were right: Both of Lisa Marie Presley’s albums have gone gold, a semi-triumph that reflects the perfectly adequate nature of her music.
Many progeny of pop icons go out of their way to distance themselves from their famous moms and dads. Bravely or foolishly, Presley heads in the opposite direction: She spends the entire song luxuriating in her father’s outside shadow. The lights out of the title refer to Memphis, where, as Lisa Marie reminds us unnecessarily, “That’s where my family’s buried and gone.” It’s a song whose resonance relies completely on Presley’s background as rock royalty; remove Elvis from the equation, and all you have is a mediocre middle-of-the-road pop tune with a guitar riff borrowed from Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy.” Judging by “Lights Out,” Presley’s music isn’t bad enough to be campy fun, but isn’t good enough to stake out an identity outside her father’s legacy.
The Pied Piper Of R&B, R. Kelly, makes his presence felt on a pair of singles he wrote for other acts: B2K’s “Girlfriend” and Ginuwine’s “Hell Yeah.” In a remarkable act of R&B ventriloquism, Kelly transforms B2K and Ginuwine into proxies who sound exactly like him. They have the same inflections, the same vocal tics, the same everything. The “Girlfriend” video even prominently features a cameo from Ron Isley (alongside Will Smith and Vivica A. Fox), an R&B great who has become Kelly’s sidekick/mascot in the past decade or so. Is it R. Kelly, or is it Memorex?
B2K flourished briefly in an age in which bands with names that consist of random groupings of letters and numbers were all the rage. It joined 3LW, 112, and lesser-known groups like HFDSKNH73H and ASAFJLMOP&@DJFJD at the top of the charts with peppy R&B anthems like “Girlfriend,” a pandering examination of the perils and shortcomings of fame along the lines of Sisqo’s “Incomplete.” Here, the lead singer crows about having all the material things a playboy could possibly ask for, except the perfect woman to share his life with. Could you, the listener, be that special someone who would make his life complete? No.
“Hell Yeah” finds Ginuwine celebrating the awesomeness of having all the material things a playboy could possibly ask for without being constrained by a girlfriend. It’s a loose, frisky, spectacularly dumb song highlighted by Ginuwine’s Michael Jackson shrieks at the very beginning. Damn, Michael, must you cast a shadow over every fucking song on this album?
Jay-Z is rightly heralded for his singles and commercial savvy, but as with NOW! 12, previous entry in the series, rival-turned-friend Nas outshines him on NOW! 13. While Jay-Z contributes “Excuse Me Miss,” another middling Neptunes-produced celebration of finding the perfect woman to shower with expensive luxury items, Nas cross-pollinates two great tastes that go great together: Beethoven and Slick Rick. Over a beat that samples the holy living fuck out of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” Nas borrows Slick Rick The Ruler’s vocal inflections and demented moralist/ghetto-griot persona to deliver a self-esteem lesson for young black children.
In her trashy tell-all Nas Ain’t Nothing But A Broke-Ass Wannabe Player and I’ve Had It With His Bullshit, Carmen Bryan, the mother of Nas’ daughter, accuses him of hypocrisy for trying to inspire other people’s children while being such a terrible father that Bryan and her family and friends nicknamed him “Uncle Daddy.” Whatever his failings as a human being—and according to Bryan, they are vast and all-encompassing—Nas remains a great artist with an overlooked gift for killer pop singles.
Nas isn’t the only lyrical heavyweight with woman troubles. Until Slaughterhouse resurrected his career, Joe Budden was best known for being a respected wordsmith with a semi-hit back in the day. Budden’s ex-girlfriend Tahiry joins Amber Rose (for a time, Kanye West’s girlfriend), Kat Stacks (a prostitute notorious for calling out rappers for being cheap and/or terrible in bed) and super-groupie Karrine “Superhead” Steffans as part of a strange new breed of semi-celebrities who are famous primarily, if not exclusively, for fucking famous rappers. For at least a year, Budden’s relationship with sex symbol Tahiry received much more attention than his music.
That’s unfortunate, since Budden is a clever rapper with a real gift for punchlines and wordplay, as evidenced by his Just Blaze-produced single “Pump It Up.” It’s a party song with a brain as Budden dresses down a potential conquest with the lyrics “I ain’t gotta be bothered, be cute on your own / My jump-off doesn’t run off at the mouth so much / My jump-off never ask why I go out so much / My jump-off never has me going out of my way / And she don’t want nothing on Valentine’s Day / My jump-off don’t argue or get rebellious / And she don’t mind hanging out wit da fellas / My jump-off’s not insecure or jealous.”
It sounds like Budden would be better off sticking with his jump-off. Budden makes her sound like a version of Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree that’s skilled at rolling blunts and giving head. Ya got a winner there, Mr. Budden. Can’t say the same for your ultra-timely The Ring-themed music video.
In 2002, Counting Crows, in its infinite wisdom, decided what the world really needed was another wimpy version of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” on account of the 17 million previous versions just didn’t suffice. Even Amy Fucking Grant covered that song. The fellows were supported on their pointless quest by sex-crazed Sapphic sensualist Vanessa Carlton, who wouldn’t have felt the need to switch the genders of the lover the “big yellow taxi” of the title took away, just to conform to bullshit hetero-normative conventions. Shame on you, Counting Crows!
Speaking of bullshit songs that waste everyone’s time with their awfulness, Bowling For Soup makes its NOW! debut with “Girl All The Bad Guys Want,” a nerdy little Butch Walker-penned pop-punk ditty about a geek who desperately pines for an edgy bad girl who seems to belong to every quasi-rebellious subculture in existence. We learn that she’s crazy into rap-metal and loves men with mullets and mustaches (do rap-metal fans generally look like truckers from 1974?), loves NASCAR, and even smokes marijuana and drinks alcohol.
The song gets off to a singularly unpromising start as the singer whines about loving from afar a girl “a little cooler” than him, a “rocker with a nose ring.” Has anyone used the phrase “rocker” unironically since 1965? Does this rocker consort with Teddies and Mods and greasers and Beatniks and flappers? The song closes, as all songs must, by borrowing the arc of Grease. The punk-rock geek decides to don the mantle of coolness in an attempt to conform to her narrow conception of manliness. So clichéd. So lame.
“Girl All The Bad Guys Want” kicks off a string of “rockers” that range from forgettable to egregiously awful: The Ataris’ “In This Diary,” Sum 41’s “The Hell Song,” Chevelle’s “Send The Pain Below,” 3 Doors Down’s “The Road I’m On,” and Godsmack’s “Serenity,” before Coldplay’s “Clocks” sends the album out on a high note with the classiest song you’re likely to hear while waiting for the dentist.
“Clocks” was featured so heavily in trailers and commercials for movies and television shows that when it began, I half-expected the movie-trailer narrator guy to portentously intone something along the lines of “In a world of disposable music, in a time of crisis, one man began a journey that would become an adventure. This fall, give in to the music, the magic, the wonder. Zac Efron is Nathan Rabin in THEN That’s What They Called Music!: The Movie!” Has a nice ring to it, eh? I’m pretty sure you could get the rights for cheap.
Up Next on THEN! Beyoncé is “Crazy In Love” with Jay-Z, Black Eyed Peas want to know where the love (and its integrity) went, Liz Phair discovers her inner Avril Lavigne, and Fountains Of Wayne briefly become the hitmakers they were always meant to be.
Outside the NOW! bubble: What else was happening musically in summer 2003:
TV On The Radio debuts with the EP Young Liars.
Prince continues his long slide into irrelevance with the instrumental jazz/fusion album N.E.W.S.
A dying Warren Zevon records his final album, The Wind, reduces me to tears every time I hear “Keep Me In Your Heart.”