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 35 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.
1. “My Band,” D12
2. “Hey Ya!,” OutKast
3. “Naughty Girl,” Beyoncé
4. “Move Ya Body,” Nina Sky featuring Jabba
5. “Dip It Low,” Christina Milian
6. “Hey Mama,” Black Eyed Peas
7. “Dude,” Beenie Man featuring Ms. Thing
8. “Freek-A-Leek,” Petey Pablo
9. “Slow Motion,” Juvenile featuring Soulja Slim
10. “Leave (Get Out)” JoJo
11. “One Call Away,” Chingy featuring J Weav
12. “Everytime,” Britney Spears
13. “Take My Breath Away,” Jessica Simpson
14. “The Reason,” Hoobastank
15. “Where Are We Runnin’?”, Lenny Kravitz
16. “Ocean Avenue,” Yellowcard
17. “Just Like You,” Three Days Grace
18. “Meant To Live,” Switchfoot
19. “Heaven,” Los Lonely Boys
20. “Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson
A few years back, I read the great Nick Tosches’ not-so-great Where Dead Voices Gather, an attempt to discover the elusive truth about a legendarily enigmatic blackface minstrel-show performer named Emmett Miller. Tosches posits Miller as a pop-culture Rosetta stone who reveals the hidden links behind country, blues, pop, jazz, and Western swing. Miller has been cited as a major influence on everyone from Hank Williams to Jimmie Rodgers to Bob Wills, and his high, otherworldly, nasal yodel ricochets through the history of pop music. Yet precious little is known about the man or his music. To musicologists, he’s more myth than man, a phantom giant who cast a long shadow, yet left behind the faintest of footprints.
Tosches doesn’t learn much more about Miller. The trail had grown too cold even for such a dogged journalist, so Tosches is reduced to riffing at length about identity, posturing, role-playing, and how popular culture reflects and distorts our nation’s long, complicated, often ugly racial history. He’s a little like a brilliant student who didn’t read the assigned text, so he turns in an inspired essay only tangentially related to the subject at hand.
Tosches presents rap, particularly gangsta rap, as a form of modern-day minstrelsy, a blackface routine that caters to, and cynically exploits, negative stereotypes. I think that’s a pretty reductive take on a complicated, heterogeneous genre, but at the time I read Where Dead Voices Gather, I was also listening to the first D12 album, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels between the hip-hop supergroup (as in, it has one superstar and a bunch of other dudes) and the blackface routines chronicled in Tosches’ book.
Why did D12’s shtick strike me as modern-day minstrelsy when, say, NWA’s music didn’t? They both exploit stereotypes about black people being violent, aggressive, hypersexual, drug-addled, and disrespectful of authority. They’re both broad representations of black masculinity, but the anti-heroes of NWA have the cartoon swagger of blaxploitation heroes. They were the late-’80s incarnations of The Mack or Sweetback: total badasses.
The members of D12, in sharp contrast, don’t present themselves as profane black superheroes; they’re more like sniveling comic relief, shameless schemers whose sad little plots invariably go awry. Beyond that, D12’s songs often have the structure of little vaudeville skits, complete with plots, self-deprecating banter, and a comic payoff—something the band shares with frontman Eminem, who frequently resorts to doing a wide array of wacky character voices to give his songs the comic back-and-forth of skits. Recall Eminem’s 1999 single “Guilty Conscience,” which is essentially a vaudevillian two-hander with an appropriately dark comic premise: A pair of notorious rappers counsel young people on morality, with Eminem serving as a devil and Dr. Dre playing the angel before both parties agree that a construction worker they’re counseling should, in fact, murder his cheating wife.
The minstrelsy goes both ways: On his earliest albums, Eminem indulges in a form of whiteface minstrelsy, exploiting and arguably subverting negative stereotypes about what less-sensitive souls than I might deem white trash. And in “My Band,” D12’s leadoff contribution to the 16th incarnation of the most important music series ever, Eminem engages in a specific form of whiteface minstrelsy. In his spoken introduction and kick-off verse, Eminem adopts the exaggerated stoner-dude drawl of a cartoon rocker, right down to the gratuitous usage of “dude.” It calls to mind one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the past few years: “Party Like A Rockstar” by Shop Boyz, a hip-hop group whose conception of the rock-star mentality—which not so coincidentally is also the name of its debut album—began and ended with smashing guitars, staying up late, and saying “totally” or “dude” every other sentence.
Eminem has made a fortune combining fact and fiction, his real life and the role-playing of hip-hop. Of course, every posse has its superstar, and then there’s everybody else. D12, for example, is Eminem and five other dudes lucky enough to hang out with him. “My Band” pushes this dynamic to a comic extreme by having Swifty, Kuniva, Kon Artis, Proof, and finally Bizarre rap about the humiliations, minor and major, of being infinitely less popular than the frontman for your group: Eminem fans not knowing their names, having the boss ask them to carry his bags, dressing rooms “smaller than a decibel,” reporters who only want to talk about Eminem, getting stopped by security at their own shows, and being relegated to the background in music videos and photo shoots.
D12 is kidding, but it’s kidding on the square. It can’t be easy lingering in the shadow of the top-selling rapper of the past decade. In his hilariously awful tell-all, Shady Bizzness, onetime Eminem bodyguard Byron “Big-Naz” Williams writes that even though he was Eminem’s best friend and partner, the late Proof was treated more like a roadie on Eminem tours than as Eminem’s equal.
“My Band” builds to an extremely vaudevillian/minstrel-show climax: The scheming black guys try to usurp their popular white boss by singing the chorus in his place, but prove comically inept at the task of matching Eminem’s own comically inept crooning. (Layers within layers, friend.) To add even more meta-weirdness, Eminem ends the song by caricaturing the overemotional bleating of a boy band and doing a crude impersonation of a mariachi while simultaneously semi-parodying Kelis’ “Milkshake.”
Yes, there’s a whole lot going on in “My Band.” Too much, in fact. The song feels more exhausting than exhilaratingly dense, in part because it’s a throwback to an era where every song Eminem “produced” had the same rinky-dink keyboard sound, and in part because it loses its freshness and much of its comic value after the first listen. Also, it’s simply not a very good song.
You know what is a good song? OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” Actually, “good” doesn’t do it justice. It isn’t a good song, it’s a great song. It isn’t just a great song, it’s one of the best. Years from now, you will go to a wedding for a college friend you no longer have anything in common with, and “Hey Ya!” will get played, and even though you’ve heard it literally thousands of times before, you’re going to pump your fist in excitement and think, “Holy fucking shit! I love this song!” “Hey Ya!” is a perfect song. It’s timeless. It’s perennial. The first time I heard it, it blew me away. When I listened to it again for this column, it felt just as fresh and revelatory.
“Hey Ya!” was the best conceivable introduction to André 3000 as a solo artist, even though it was technically credited to OutKast. When “Hey Ya!” conquered the world and penetrated pop culture down to its deepest levels (which is to say my ex-stepmother in Marietta, Georgia liked to listen to it at the gym), André 3000 seemed unstoppable. He had an unimpeachable pedigree as the mad genius behind OutKast, one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. He had plenty of precedents—there’s an awful lot of Prince, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix in his music and persona—but he was also thrillingly, exhilaratingly new, an almost preternaturally gifted, charismatic superstar who wrote songs for himself and other artists, played multiple instruments, was a brilliant rapper and a singer with boundless potential, and radiated charisma and cool. He was cooler than cool. He was ice cold.
André 3000’s future was so blinding that he required protective eyewear just to gaze at it safely. What came of all that promise? Since “Hey Ya!” and its accompanying OutKast album(s) Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, André 3000 released the muddled period hip-hop musical Idlewild and its less than rapturously received soundtrack, and he appeared in the films Be Cool, Four Brothers, Revolver, and Semi-Pro. True, André 3000 wrote, produced, and rapped for other artists, and he’s working on an OutKast album and a solo album, but I can’t help feeling like he’s realized only a fraction of his promise; he’s capable of so much, yet musically, his output has slowed to a trickle.
By the time “Hey Ya!” was released in 2003, André 3000 had become almost too big for hip-hop. “Hey Ya!” condensed five decades of music evolution into the perfect pop single. It was soul, sort of, but it also had the spastic energy of new wave, the swagger of rock, and the sugar-rush high of pop.
Caucasians have stolen so much and so flagrantly from black culture that we tend to get disproportionately excited and flattered when black artists borrow from movements historically and culturally considered white. I think part of the reason artists like Kanye West, MF Doom, and Lupe Fiasco have won large white audiences is because their music is full of references to comic books, science fiction, vaudeville-era slang, and other endeavors favored by Cracker-Americans. On a similar note, I think part of the reason “Hey Ya!” was embraced on such a widespread level is because it was rooted in the (ostensibly white, secretly black) traditions of rock and pop more than in R&B and hip-hop, right down to a music video inspired by The Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Now that’s we’re deep into the tricky waters of race, let’s turn our attention to Beyoncé Knowles and Scott Storch, the performer and producer, respectively, of “Naughty Girl.” Storch began his career as a keyboardist for The Roots before establishing himself as a producer/multi-instrumentalist with a distinctive sound rooted in sort of a cartoon burlesque of Eastern music.
Storch was a sought-after producer with one big problem; his compositions all sounded pretty much the same. Then again, given the homogeneous nature of contemporary hip-hop and R&B, that isn’t an insurmountable problem. Oh, and also, at some point, Storch became convinced that he was Diddy, and not an ugly, awkward, thirtysomething Jewish man. So Storch spent much of his vast fortune on diamond-plated yachts and mansions, and dressing like a cartoon pimp. Also, giant shoeboxes of cocaine.
With deadening predictability, Storch spent much of his $70 million or so on wine, women, and song. The rest, he wasted. In the parlance of Behind The Music, he’s now high on life and working with Dr. Dre on a comeback. But Storch’s roller-coaster ride wouldn’t have been possible if he wasn’t capable of churning out scintillating tracks like “Naughty Girl” in his sleep.
The Rolling Stone article I linked to is fascinating, but I’d love to read an entire book about Storch. As for Beyoncé, she was never heard from again, though she looks damned good in the below clip.
Beyoncé is without peer in the field of R&B, but Christina Milian, The-Dream’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, conveyed a distinctly Beyoncé-style sexuality on the ragingly hot “Dip It Low.” The song offers advice on how to preserve a love grown stale, though I’d imagine looking and moving like Milian is enough to keep just about any man. Not The-Dream, though. Man, fuck that guy.
Oh boy, more mildly infectious stupidity from the Black Eyed Peas. I would write more, but I fear the wrath of Hologram Will.I.Am. Since his star-making appearance on CNN’s election-night coverage, he’s been known to pop up mysteriously in random places and beat the living fuck out of anyone who bad-mouths his band. There’s no way I want to get on that spectral image’s bad side. People give Hologram Will.I.Am a lot of shit, deservedly so, but he’s produced or co-written some really great songs for Hologram John Legend, Hologram Nas, and Hologram Chrisette Michele.
Some pop songs double as personal ads. On the inane Beenie Man track “Dude,” for example, guest vocalist Ms. Thing wants the following things from a prospective partner:
- She’d like a dude with the wickedest slam.
- She’d also like a gent who will tie her to the fan.
- She’d like a thug who can handle his biz like a man.
- She would like a dude who will do her in the van.
A tall order, to be sure, but heaven knows there are gents out there who meet this description.
On “Freek-A-Leek,” meanwhile, Petey Pablo is seeking the following qualities in a woman.
- He would prefer for her measurements to be “24, 34, 46, good and thick, and once you get it, she’ll work wit it.”
- Pretty face, cute lips, an earring in the tongue to aid in fellatio.
- She ideally will have made a name for herself, also does her shit well and keeps her business to herself.
- He’d like a woman available for late-night booty calls.
- Mr. Pablo isn’t averse to sense derangement; his ideal inamorata sniffs “a little coke,” takes “a little X,” smokes “a little weed,” drinks “a little bit,” and can be freaked wit.
- He wants an open-minded partner who is not terrified by outsized genitalia.
- He’d like a woman who enjoys cunnilingus, but only if performed by another woman, on account of there is no amount of liquor that will make him want to do that.
On the basis of these songs, I think we should all conspire to hook up Ms. Thing and Petey Pablo. Though their stated preferences don’t overlap completely, I think they’d be fairly compatible. Ah, but I haven’t gotten to the best part of the song yet: At the very end of the album version, Pablo says, “Now I got to give a shout-out to Seagram’s Gin, ’cause I drink it, and they paying me for it.” Such exquisite transparency! If only all hip-hop product placements were so deliciously candid. In homage, I would like to give a shout-out to Grey Goose, ’cause I drink it, and I’m hoping if I mention it enough times in this series, they’ll pay me for it. Hey, a guy can dream, eh?
The female form has proven a fruitful source of inspiration for Juvenile, who I hear is just crazy about Grey Goose, as are all popular rappers. He famously asked a nation to “Back That Azz Up”; on “Slow Motion,” his contribution to the 16th volume of NOW!, he asks us to move in slow motion for him, and also apparently guest rapper Soulja Slim, a semi-obscure figure nationally, but a huge icon regionally. A while back, I read a book where Nik Cohn, the man who wrote the fictionalized article that inspired Saturday Night Fever, moved to New Orleans and managed an aspiring rapper. It wasn’t a particularly engaging tome, but I did learn an awful lot about New Orleans’ love for Soulja Slim, who is apparently a bit of a 2Pac figure south of the Mason-Dixon line, right down to his mysterious shooting and death in 2003.
Listen to this single from JoJo. Really listen to it. Then think about the fact that JoJo was 13 years old when she recorded it. Creepy, eh?
Some artists shouldn’t be allowed to record a second song after scoring one big hit. Chingy is such an artist. His career should have ended with “Right Thurr,” yet he inexplicably chose to put out “Holidae In” and this travesty:
NOW! 16 grows increasingly uninteresting as it progresses. We’re subjected to a pointless Berlin cover from Jessica Simpson, more dinosaur-rock posturing from Lenny Kravitz, and the infernal bleating of Switchfoot before the compilation picks up with the album-closing “Redneck Woman.”
“Redneck Woman” is a guilty pleasure of a hillbilly anthem, but it really excels as pop mythology. On “Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson, with some help from producer/mentor John Rich of Big & Rich, announces herself as every country fan’s dream: a beer-swilling hellcat who loves Lynyrd Skynyrd, Walmart, and Charlie Daniels. She’s a proud populist, part white-trash sexpot and part “You Might Be A Redneck” joke. As a song, “Redneck Woman” is fun. As a calling card/three-minute advertisement for Wilson—who I hear can’t get enough delicious Grey Goose vodka—it’s fucking genius.
Outside the bubble: What else was going on in music in mid-2004:
- Regina Spektor releases Soviet Kitsch
- Björk puts out the almost all-a cappella album Medúlla
- Insane Clown Posse releases the final Joker’s Card in the form of Hell’s Pit
- Arcade Fire debuts with Funeral
- Rock Against Bush Volume 2 alerts a shocked public to the existence of musicians who don’t particularly care for the actions of George W. Bush and his administration.