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 will examine what the series says about the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.
- “Vertigo,” U2
- “What You Waiting For?,” Gwen Stefani
- “Rumors,” Lindsay Lohan
- “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell
- “Soldier,” Destiny’s Child featuring T.I. and Lil Wayne
- “Only U,” Ashanti
- “Balla Baby,” Chingy
- “Used to Love U,” John Legend
- “Over and Over,” Nelly featuring Tim McGraw
- “Obsession (No Es Amor)” Frankie J. featuring Baby Bash
- “O,” Omarion
- “Collide,” Howie Day
- “Disappear,” Hoobastank
- “Vitamin R (Leading Us Along),” Chevelle
- “Home,” Three Days Grace
- “Lady,” Lenny Kravitz
- “I Just Wanna Live,” Good Charlotte
- “Jessie’s Girl,” Frickin’ A
- “Tangled Up in Me,” Skye Sweetnam
- “You’re My Better Half,” Keith Urban
When I looked at my iPod and saw something called “Vertigo” by U2 listed as the first track on the 18th volume of Now That’s What I Call Music! I was confused. I like to consider myself a very casual U2 fan, in the sense that I like the band’s good songs, dislike its bad songs, and feel indifferent about everything in between. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember U2 putting out a song called “Vertigo.”
I figured maybe it was the theme song U2 did for that shitty Joel Schumacher Batman movie. But that song must have come out a decade before NOW! 18 was released. I was confused. Flummoxed. Bewildered without being bewitched or bothered. Then I played the song and experienced an “oh shit” moment of, “I know this song! It’s the fucking iTunes song.” U2 may be one of the most powerful, beloved, respected, popular, and mocked bands in the world, but the minute it gave its new single over to the evil geniuses who run Apple and also the world, “Vertigo” stopped belonging to U2 and became the exclusive creative property of Apple. That’s the power of television. “Vertigo” could have remained U2’s song if the band had licensed it to a small independent film, but the song’s ubiquity in commercials ensured that it would forever be associated with nifty portable MP3 players at least for the next decade or so.
There was a time when a band like U2 risked a vicious backlash for getting into bed with an all-powerful international corporation. That time was the early to mid-1990s. By the time “Vertigo” became the sound of iTunes and the good folks over at Apple introduced the official U2 brand iPod, however, no one looked askance at Bono for selling his musical soul to the highest bidder. By that point, it was all about survival, man. The industry was in a freefall from which it still hasn’t recovered. People weren’t buying records anymore. The line between “veteran rock superstars” and “extinct dinosaurs” was becoming paper-thin. It wasn’t about holding onto orthodox notions of integrity. It was all about getting your music out there by any means possible. Somewhere in this paradigm, licensing a song for advertising stopped being seen as a sell-out move and became an acceptable form of self-promotion, whether the artist in question was iconic like U2 or a shameless up-and-comer like Black Eyed Peas, who similarly enjoyed what can only be described as the “iTunes bump” when “Hey Mama” was used to pimp Apple’s wares.
I’d come to think of “Vertigo” less as the infectious, busy new single from rock icons than as an Apple jingle. It’s U2’s most commercial song in every conceivable sense. Six years later, I still can’t separate the song from its original cultural context. Such is the danger of mixing art and commerce. Even after the checks are cashed and the album promoted, the infernal stink of dirty commerce persists.
Middle-aged pop stars are like vampires. They need to feed upon the blood of fresh new stars and hot new fads to stay young. David Bowie and Madonna are masters of this form of pop-parasitism. Bowie fucked and/or co-opted all conceivable threats to his popularity, from Iggy Pop to Lou Reed to Al B. Sure, while Madonna has left the dried-up husks of Sandra Bernhard, Vanilla Ice, Big Daddy Kane, and countless others in the wake of her decades-long efforts to evade the looming specter of irrelevance. Thirty-five is ancient by rock-star standards, so it’s understandable that Gwen Stefani would feel a little anxious about launching her career as a solo artist at that age. So in an attempt to keep up with the times she decided to recruit a quartet of attractive young women collectively known as the Harajuku Girls to serve as back-up dancers/mascots/entourage. Because nothing says “hip and happening” quite like co-opting something funky and youthful and vaguely exotic from another culture. It’s an old story, really: An American superstar spots a trend from halfway around the world, says to his or her handlers “I want that,” and appropriates it in desperate hope of staying on top.
In this instance, Stefani grooved to the funky fashion of Japan’s Harajuku district and decided to make a pre-fabricated dance troupe that she hand-picked and dubbed the Harajuku Girls the visual focus of her first solo album. Stefani was criticized for promoting Asian minstrelsy by people like Margaret Cho, who is in a privileged position to criticize others, having never used regressive stereotypes about Asian-Americans herself. And while Cho may have overreacted, it is disconcerting that Stefani made her dancers battle Godzilla while riding Hello Kitty robots at the end of each of her concerts. That shit is just plain disrespectful.
“I can’t wait to go back and do Japan / Get me lots of brand new fans / Osaka, Tokyo / You Harajuku Girls / Damn, you’ve got some wicked style” croons Stefani on the Linda Perry co-written “What You Waiting For,” her contribution to NOW! 18. But the song is ultimately less about Stefani’s controversial fetish for Asian culture than her soul-shaking anxiety about leaving the comforting fold of No Doubt and striking out on her own as a solo artist. Stefani, whose stylized, new wave-derived delivery now looks like the missing link between the electro-pop princesses who came before her and the Lady Gagas and Nicki Minajs who followed, alternates between singing as herself and channeling the cynicism of record label executives understandably worried that Stefani’s 15 minutes will come and go if she doesn’t act immediately.
There’s a subtle but distinct feminist edge to Stefani’s irreverent look at the difficulties of being a woman in her 30s in a pop world that’s forever 21 (not unlike that popular clothing chain, the Gap.) Stefani conveys the institutional sexism of the entire music industry when she sings, “Your moment will run out ’cause of your sex chromosome” and gives voice to the doubting voices inside her head with a chorus that taunts, in part, “Take a chance you stupid ho.” Stefani is all too cognizant of her bifurcated identity as an “artist” and as a disposable commodity.
Stefani helped cope with her anxieties about her solo career and our youth-obsessed culture by writing a song that irreverently and candidly addresses her anxieties about her solo career and our youth-obsessed culture. And it’s catchy as hell. That’s why I’m beginning to think I may have underestimated Stefani.
Back in 2004, however, we all overestimated a charming young actress/singer/songwriter named Lindsay Lohan. At the time, Lohan seemed primed for superstardom in multiple fields, but the ensuing six years have rendered “Rumors,” Lohan’s contribution to NOW! 18, deliciously, creepily, queasily ironic. As Britney Spears did with “Lucky,” Lohan seems to be anticipating her own tabloid future, Cassandra-like, when she sings of being dogged constantly by paparazzi and hounded by a rapacious press.
Lohan was the subject of intense media scrutiny when “Rumors” was released, but it was rooted in her identity as a popular movie star and recording artist. She was an actress and singer who was also a tabloid fixture. These days, however, she’s a tabloid fixture who sometimes snaps out of her Klonopin haze long enough to appear in increasingly marginal movies.
Here, Lohan already seemed filled with rage about the media’s treatment of her. I can only imagine the kind of anger she’s experiencing toward the tabloid-media industrial complex at this point. “I’ve gotta say respectfully / I would love it if you would take the cameras off of me” Lohan pleads forcefully to no avail. The “Rumors” video captures Lohan at the height of her nubile, crimson-haired beauty. As a cleavage-delivery system, the video is a triumph; as dance music, the song is passable at best.
Like Clipse’s “Grindin’” and “Mr. Me Too,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” strips the Neptunes sound down to its bare essence: percussive tongue clucks, rubber-band bass, percolating hi-hats, and cheesy slabs of ’80s-style synthesizers. The song represents Pharrell and the other guy’s version of what longtime Ying Yang Twins producer Mr. Collipark calls “intimate club music”: dance music that whispers instead of shouts.
Pharrell’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg is perfect, a minimalist masterpiece of boyish old-school bravado so charmed even Pharrell’s verse is halfway decent—and that man is a terrible rapper. It’s been a long, long time since Snoop put out a satisfying album, but “Drop It Like It’s Hot” illustrates that he never lost his gift for knocking out killer singles.
“I see some soldiers in here / They want to take care of me” sings Destiny’s Child in the bridge for “Soldier.” This is Beyoncé we’re talking about, though, so it’s cute and quaint that the soldiers in question want to take care of her, but it sure isn’t necessary. Beyoncé doesn’t need anyone to take care of her. She doesn’t need a soldier; she is a soldier. I suspect that if we simply sent Beyoncé to Iraq—not as part of the USO, but with a fuck-ton of machine guns and bazooka launchers—she could have won the war in hours and looked amazing doing so.
Alas, we sent the armed forces to do a diva’s job, so Beyoncé was left to do her part for our men and women abroad in a more indirect fashion. “Soldier” teasingly toys with the ambiguous nature of its title: It doesn’t seem coincidental that “Soldier” hit the charts at a time when the Iraq War was at its height (which is to say years after W. prematurely declared that our mission was accomplished), but the song is really more of a tribute to street soldiers. Here, Beyoncé, Michelle Williams, and Kelly Rowland swoon over the irresistible swagger of sexy thugs. It’s a song rife with lusty double entendres, like when Beyoncé saucily pines for a man who knows “how to carry big things if you know what I mean.” Here’s a hint: The phrase “if you know what I mean” almost invariably refers to a penis or sex.
These good girls are eminently ready, willing, and able to go bad at the behest of the right hood lothario. The song consummates the bond between the pop sugar of Destiny’s Child and gangsta rap grit by having rising stars T.I. and Lil Wayne represent for street soldiers. Wayne’s verse on “Soldier” marks the first time I found myself thinking, “Holy shit, this guy can really rap.” Much of the appeal of Wayne’s verse lies in his methodical, molasses-slow, too-cool-for-school delivery, but his lyrics betray a warped genius as well. I particularly like the part where he genially but insistently raps, “It’s Weezy F. Baby / Please say the ‘baby’” as if genuinely peeved that there are ignorant souls who maddeningly neglect to include “baby” in his nickname out of ignorance or malice.
In the grand tradition of Now That’s What I Call Music!, the compilation’s second half is dominated by hunger-dunger-dang rock so agonizingly awful I can barely listen to it, let alone write about it. I will, however, single out Chevelle’s “Vitamin R (Leading Us Along)” for being egregiously awful. The Vitamin R of the title is Ritalin, though the singer’s delivery is so insufferably dramatic and his lyrics so overwrought and painful that I had no idea what on earth Chevelle was singing about.
Lenny Kravitz’s “Lady,” meanwhile, has lyrics that deserve to be singled out for their incredible stupidity. Kravitz may in fact be the worst lyricist in the history of rock ’n’ roll. His mindlessly swaggering songs are nursery-rhyme simple and staggeringly inane. His songs all sound like hits: catchy, flashy, and bathed in retro cool. But Kravitz’s lyrics make you wonder if his songs even constitute music at all, rather than mindless gibberish set to purloined power chords.
Is there anything more tired than tongue-in-cheek covers of cheesy ’80s rockers? No, no there is not, as evidenced by Frickin’ A’s obnoxious cover of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” The song is mostly a fairly straight cover of Springfield’s hit, except for the part where the boneheaded lead singer substitutes “I’ve been cool / I’m a pimp with the lines” for the original’s tragically non-pimptastic “I’ve been cool with the lines.” It is, I imagine, an attempt to update the song for contemporary audiences who despise songs without references to pimps or pimping, but it reeks of instantly dated desperation. I expect so much more from a band called Frickin’ A.
“You wanna know, more, more, more about me?” inquires Canuck Skye Sweetnam at the beginning of “Tangled Up In Me,” to which the only sane response is, “Fuck no! Why on earth would I want to know more about a 16-year-old Canadian unless I was Humbert Humbert or a 16-year-old boy myself?” Then again, Sweetnam is skinny and attractive, so chances are there are plenty of folks out there who find her just as fascinating as she finds herself. I suspect, however, that all pop music—or at least the kind that involves fresh-faced 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds—is pitched largely, if not exclusively, to pedophiles and teenagers.
Sweetnam and her co-writers nevertheless imagine that everyone wants to know more about Sweetnam, so she sets about establishing her incorrigible kookiness with an “Ain’t I a stinker?” shit-eating grin. What kind of a gal is Sweetnam? Let’s list her salient qualities in order:
- She’s the nut kicking the Coke machine.
- She’s the kook honking at you because she left late again!
- She shows she wants you by the way she pushes you away!
- She doesn’t want to be judged tomorrow for the way she’s acting today.
- To understand her complicated psychology you need to know reverse psychology (or, I imagine, by listening to a song in which she lists her salient qualities).
- She’s the reason you can’t sleep (aside from all that speed you’ve been shooting).
- With this oddball, you never get just what you see.
- Everything she does is so she can get tangled up—in you!
Sweetnam is, in other words, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl doomed to wander the land cheering up gloomy depressives with her life-affirming shenanigans. She’s a woman convinced of her own irresistibility. She’s the kind of narcissist who takes a victory lap before the race has even begun. In that respect, “Tangled Up in Me” is a love song; a self-love song, a valentine addressed to Skye from Skye. Then again, an unshakeable belief that you are the center of the universe is endemic to both 16-year-olds and prefabricated pop stars. Hopefully Sweetnam has grown up since then, but heaven knows pop culture and Now That’s What I Call Music! certainly haven’t. It’s Neverland with a drum machine, the fountain of youth, and a slick, Linda Perry-crafted hook.
Up next on THEN: Will Smith returns minus DJ Jazzy Jeff, John Legend is just ordinary people, Eminem debuts, that dude from the Killers is Mr. Brightside, and the Gorillaz and De La Soul are Feel Good Inc. More importantly: Girlfight!
Outside the Bubble: What else was going on musically in the spring of 2005
- M.I.A. releases her debut Arular, makes everyone seem less cool by comparison.
- Psychopathic Records artist/Insane Clown Posse protégé Anybody Killa releases EP Road Fools.
- Beck puts out Guero.
- The Bravery debuts.
- Joe Perry goes solo; the world yawns.
- Ben Folds writes some Songs For Silverman.
- Common just wants to Be.