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 examines what the series says about the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.
- “Crazy In Love,” Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z
- “Where Is The Love?”, Black Eyed Peas featuring Justin Timberlake
- “My Love Is Like… Wo,” Mya
- “Never Leave You (Uh Ooh, Uh Oooh!),” Lumidee
- “Right Thurr,” Chingy
- “Wat Da Hook Gon Be,” Murphy Lee featuring Jermaine Dupri
- “Thoia Thoing,” R. Kelly
- “Let’s Get Down,” Bow Wow featuring Baby
- “Senorita,” Justin Timberlake
- “I Want You,” Thalia featuring Fat Joe
- “Suga Suga,” Baby Bash featuring Frankie J
- “In Those Jeans,” Ginuwine
- “Walked Outta Heaven,” Jagged Edge
- “(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life,” Stacie Orrico
- “Why Can’t I?”, Liz Phair
- “Stacy’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne
- “Girls & Boys,” Good Charlotte
- “The Boys Of Summer,” The Ataris
- “Someday,” Nickelback
- “Here Without You,” 3 Doors Down
About seven years ago, I was waiting for my meal at a Chicago hot-dog place called Huey’s when I heard a strangely familiar voice on the radio. The song was almost comically overproduced; the singer’s voice was Auto-Tuned and processed and fussed over until it felt vaguely robotic, more the ghost in the machine than the product of a flesh-and-blood human being.
“Jesus Christ,” I thought, “Sheryl Crow has fallen off. I mean, she was no great shakes before, but at least she didn’t sound like a middle-aged woman trying to emulate the sappier side of Avril Lavigne.” About halfway through the song, I realized why the voice sounded so oddly familiar: It was Liz Phair’s new single, “Why Can’t I?” But it couldn’t be. Phair’s heat had cooled down considerably since the glory days of Exile In Guyville, but surely she wouldn’t release anything this nakedly, transparently, even tragically commercial.
Phair was independent rock’s blowjob queen, after all, a prodigiously gifted singer-songwriter who crashed the boys’ club that was 1990s alternative rock and documented the mating rituals of twentysomething hipsters with unflinching honesty and relentless candor. Why did she now sound like a neophyte angling for a slot on the second stage at Lilith Fair? Was Phair secretly scheming to score the theme song for a Dawson’s Creek revival? Were her days of rocking officially over?
I believe my exact response was, “What the fuck?” followed by, “Seriously, what the fuck?” We as a culture had a similar response when Phair recently unleashed this upon an unsuspecting world. Was this some sort of crazy postmodern Andy Kaufman-like stunt? Was Phair engaging in meta-commentary on the essence of commercialism and celebrity in contemporary society? What kind of motherfuckery was this? What was next, a scantily clad photo shoot for a Maxim spin-off called Stuff? Headlining a “Chicks With Attitude” tour? Landing prime real estate on the 13 Going On 30 soundtrack? Sadly, yes.
Was Phair that desperate for a hit? Was there even a market for a 36-year-old, recently divorced mother trying to recreate herself as both a saucy pop tart and a hit-maker for the Lifetime set? Phair was selling out, but was anyone buying? Yes and no. “Why Can’t I?” exposed Phair to a whole new audience (people who enjoy having bland music shoved down their throats), scored a lot of airplay, and sure enough, ended up in the film 13 Going On 30. But the self-titled album that “Why Can’t I?” was supposed to launch didn’t sell any better or worse than her previous albums. In Internet parlance, it was an epic fail.
Phair had always inspired fevered debate and strong emotions. When she skyrocketed to countercultural fame with Exile In Guyville, her success inspired derisive snickers from people who said her fame was attributable more to her gender, looks, and canny manipulation of the press than her music. As is generally the case, this criticism of a strong woman carried the unmistakable stench of sexist condescension.
Phair inspired contempt disproportionate to her modest fame and album sales. In perhaps the most vitriolic display of criticism, the always-diplomatic Steve Albini wrote a letter to the Chicago Reader decrying Phair and her peers in Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill as “three pandering sluts.” In an apoplectic rage, Albini dismissed Phair as “more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to.”
There was a germ of truth in the criticism. Exile In Guyville transcended the petty, insular world of indie rock in part because it was a bold, brilliant debut, but also because Phair was an attractive, educated woman who sang about sex and blowjobs. That invariably makes for good press, and Phair was savvy about her career at a time when wanting to sell albums was considered a flagrant violation of independent-rock ethics.
In a jaded pop-music realm, Phair felt exhilaratingly, transcendently new and honest. Plenty of folks my age and perhaps a little older experienced a sort of spiritual communion with Exile In Guyville; it was the truth, man. Phair stood for something. So it’s understandable that when Phair introduced her new persona, longtime fans felt not just disappointed or let down, but betrayed.
Exile In Guyville was bracingly, unapologetically adult, but by the time “Why Can’t I?” rolled around, Phair had regressed back to adolescence. In stark contrast to the literate, grown-up story-songs of Guyville, “Why Can’t I?” seems rooted in the giddy infatuation of puppy love. It’s the musical equivalent of a middle-aged woman getting a nose ring in a desperate attempt to appear younger. In her bid to appeal to an audience half her age, Phair enlisted the services of a production team called The Matrix. Perhaps she should have steered clear, for the following reasons:
- They’re a production team comfortable working with such icons of independent rock as Katy Perry, Hilary Duff, Ashley Tisdale, Britney Spears, and Avril Lavigne.
- They call themselves The Matrix.
- Their biggest objective in producing “Why Can’t I?” seemed to involve removing anything remotely Liz Phair-y about the song.
At the end of his rant, Albini scolds Reader critic Bill Wyman and his top-10 list thusly: “Shame on your lazy head. Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Ten years came and went, and Exile In Guyville, Wyman’s No. 1 album of 1993, holds up, as do many other entries on Wyman’s 1993 list. The same cannot be said of the music Phair made 10 years after that list.
Moving on to a different track on NOW That’s What I Call Music! 14… I hope you’re all sitting down and holding onto your monocles securely, because what I am about to say will blow your mind: Black Eyed Peas were once favorites of The A.V. Club. I shit you not. Hell, the group’s 2000 opus Bridging The Gap even made my year-end top-10 list.
Yes, Will.I.Am and those two other guys (I like to think of them as “Pras” and “Pras Jr.”) didn’t always suck. In fact, Black Eyed Peas took an interesting route to becoming the world’s least interesting superstars. Once upon a time, Black Eyed Peas were breakdancers/rappers signed to Eazy-E’s notorious Ruthless Records imprint.
Then Eazy died, Ruthless became a shadow of its former self, and the Peas recreated themselves as jazzy, breezy heirs to the Native Tongues legacy. Bridging The Gap featured guest turns from the eminently respectable likes of Chali 2Na, De La Soul, Les Nubians, Mos Def, DJ Premier, and Macy Gray, but by the time girl-group survivor Fergie joined the group in 2001, it had abandoned any pretensions to underground credibility and integrity.
The three original Peas never could rap, but Will.I.Am remains a gifted producer and multi-instrumentalist, as evidenced by his collaborations with folks like Nas and John Legend: His beats were impressive enough to overshadow the complete lack of lyrical substance. Black Eyed Peas try to get deep on “Where Is The Love?”, its contribution to the NOW! 14. But the group’s politics are fuzzy to the point of meaninglessness as it rails against “Nations droppin’ bombs / Chemical gasses fillin’ lungs of little ones with ongoin’ suffering as the youth die young.”
“Where Is The Love?” belongs to a subsection of message songs that essentially ask, “What’s up with all the war and unfairness? Wouldn’t it be better to have sunshine and peace?” It’s essentially a straight-faced version of message-song parodies like Dewey Cox’s “Dear Mr. President” and Flight Of The Conchords’ “Inner City Pressure,” only the Peas weren’t kidding. They genuinely wished somebody would do something about all the bad stuff and all the war and junk. But worse was to come, as we will discover in future entries in this series.
Power-pop is filled with incredibly catchy ditties that should be sure-fire No. 1 hits, yet have no chance of landing on top-40 radio in this Darwinian musical ecosystem. That’s the paradox of power-pop: It’s irresistible pop that’s seldom popular, and is resisted by all but a tiny subsection of diehards. It’s ostensibly commercial music that is somehow much less commercial than the infernal bleating of the hunger-dunger-dang set.
In a perfect world, power-pop geniuses Fountains Of Wayne should have amassed enough smash hits for a box set. Songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood write funny, sad, poignant, beautifully realized songs with the succinct brilliance and pointed detail of great short stories. Songs like “All Kinds Of Time” and “The Senator’s Daughter” compress entire melancholy worlds into three-minute pop songs. Fountains Of Wayne has an unparalleled gift for hooks that burrow their way into listeners’ subconsciouses, yet the group sold so poorly, Atlantic dropped it after releasing the great 1999 album Utopia Parkway.
Then in 2003, something astonishing happened: A group whose songs all sound like hits actually scored a hit. But the success of “Stacy’s Mom” was attributable less to the band’s unique combination of pop craftsmanship and witty storytelling than to a music video that tapped into the greatest power known to man: boobs.
Since it featured a scantily clad Rachel Hunter playing the title role in a tongue-in-cheek homage to Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the video for “Stacy’s Mom” delivered masturbatory fodder you could sing along to, spank material for power-pop snobs. Like so many Fountains Of Wayne songs, “Stacy’s Mom” explores the heightened emotional terrain of adolescence with irreverence and empathy, in the process of chronicling the protagonist’s doomed infatuation with his friend’s mother. It’s the best single The Cars never recorded, but I don’t think anyone was surprised when the hits didn’t keep coming. Fountains Of Wayne became accidental pop stars, and after “Stacy’s Mom” ended its reign atop the pop charts, the trio went back to side projects, work-for-hire jobs, and cult semi-fame between new albums.
While Fountains Of Wayne were perhaps never meant to be chart-toppers, the force of nature known as Beyoncé Knowles was born a star and bred for greatness. Knowles frequently comes off like a control freak, but on “Crazy In Love,” her monster contribution to NOW 14, she sounds thrillingly, uncharacteristically out of control. It’s a song all about giving yourself over to the sugar-rush of new love, driven by a horn sample that punches you in the face with awesomeness. True, Jay-Z’s verse is nothing special, but it’d take more than a lazy guest turn to sink a song this perfect.
Beyoncé’s less-successful competitor Mya returns to the series with “My Love Is Like… Wo.” It’s a song with an important message, namely:
- Mya’s love is like wo
- Her kiss is like wo
- Her touch is like wo
- Her sex is like wo
- Her ass is like wo
- Her body’s like wo
I was certainly receptive to this message, especially when accompanied by performances like those found below. But others felt Mya may have been trying just a little too hard. For if a woman’s love, kiss, touch, sex, ass, and body are all like wo, she shouldn’t have to broadcast that fact any more than Jennifer Lopez should have to reiterate incessantly that she’s real, grounded, and also not a robot.
St. Louis’ emergence as an unlikely hip-hop hot spot is represented by two tracks: Chingy’s “Right Thurr,” a clattering contraption heavy on the rolling Rs that Nelly made famous, and Murphy Lee’s grammatically disastrous “Wat Da Hook Gon Be?” On the latter, producer/magical elf Jermaine Dupri asks the title question to St. Lunatic Lee, only to have the rapper defiantly proclaim that he don’t need no fucking hook on this beat: All Lee needs is the track in the background, his headphones loud, and a blunt rotating merrily around the recording studio.
I hope you’re all once again sitting down, both because it would be really weird/uncomfortable if you read this standing up, and because what I’m about to tell you will blow your mind straight through your skull and into a neighboring state: Dupri asking what the hook is going to be and Lee angrily insisting that the track didn’t need a hook is the hook. My mind is like… wo!
NOW! favorite R. Kelly favors us with “Thoia Thoing,” the sole new track on his greatest-hits compilation The R In R&B. The song finds Kelly on familiar ground as he sings of taking honeys to the V.I.P., threesomes, and popping bottles with top models. Black Eyed Peas and Liz Phair could reinvent themselves all they want, but your boyfriend Kells sticks with the classics. Besides, when you’re money, from the moment you wake up to a crushing hangover and guilty conscience to the time you stumble drunkenly into bed with a bevy of skanks, you don’t need to sell out.
Outside the NOW! bubble: What else was happening in music in winter 2003:
Michael Jackson is charged with child molestation, later cannily rehabilitates image by dying young and mysteriously.
Triumph the Insult Comic debuts triumphantly with the surprisingly awesome Come Poop With Me.