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.
- “Hollaback Girl,” Gwen Stefani
- “Switch,” Will Smith
- “1 Thing,” Amerie
- “Oh,” Ciara featuring Ludacris
- “Slow Down,” Bobby Valentino
- “Mockingbird,” Eminem
- “Girlfight,” Brooke Valentine featuring Lil Jon and Big Boi
- “Girl,” Destiny’s Child
- “La Tortura,” Shakira
- “Baby, I’m Back,” Baby Bash featuring Akon
- “How To Deal,” Frankie J
- “Ordinary People,” John Legend
- “Breathe (2 AM),” Anna Nalick
- “Incomplete,” Backstreet Boys
- “Making Memories Of Us,” Keith Urban
- “Let Me Go,” 3 Doors Down
- “Be My Escape,” Relient K
- “Mr. Brightside,” The Killers
- “Speed Of Sound,” Coldplay
- “Feel Good Inc.,” Gorillaz
During my second year writing for The A.V. Club, editor Stephen Thompson asked me if I’d heard of this Eminem fellow everyone was talking about. I hadn’t, but like the rest of the world, I was intrigued by the prospect of a bottle-blonde white rapper waxing satirical about pop stars in a cartoonish nasal whine, secure in the knowledge that his close relationship with Dr. Dre gave him instant hip-hop credibility, as did his track record as a fierce, almost unbeatable battle-rapper.
Eminem turned his whiteness into a career-long running joke. He went even further: He exploited just about every aspect of his life for comic and iconic purposes. He embraced a form of redneck minstrelsy and transformed his hate-hate relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kim and his mother Debbie into ghoulish gags. It was a savvy preemptive gesture. What could critics say about Eminem that he hadn’t already said himself? Detractors pulled out the inevitable Elvis and Vanilla Ice cracks, but Eminem had already beaten them to it.
Eminem has been such a huge cultural force for so long that anyone with even a minor engagement with pop culture has a relationship with him, so I’d like to talk about mine. I fell in love with The Slim Shady LP the first time I listened to it. I related to it on a profound level. Eminem seemed to be speaking for an entire generation of latchkey kids raised on junk food, trash culture, and Yo! MTV Raps. The Slim Shady LP was funny, alive, and filled with genius singles like “Guilty Conscience,” but it also had a deceptive emotional depth. Songs like “Rock Bottom” powerfully articulated the everyday angst of wage slaves stumbling aimlessly through life.
Eminem was the voice of the underdog, but then he became the most successful rapper in the world. His success transcended hip-hop. Everyone had an opinion about him. The more successful he became, the less joy he seemed to derive from performing. A pervasive joylessness came to define Eminem’s music. He had always trafficked in multiple personas and split personalities, but around the time of The Eminem Show’s 2002 release, he slipped into full-on bipolar mode. He seemed to have only two tones: He was either the saddest man in the world, mumbling his blues over anemic drumbeats and depressing synthesizers, or he was an overgrown 8-year-old trafficking in scatological humor and stupid, easy pop-culture punchlines. He was all fart jokes or aching, infinite sadness. There seemed to be precious little in between.
It turns out there was a damn good reason Eminem sounded so dispirited, depressed, and empty: He was. As he retreated further and further from a world that worshiped and feared him, he became the Charles Foster Kane of pop music, a defeated titan nursing old grievances from a giant, empty palace of a home that had devolved into a ghoulish realm of unfulfilled potential. It wasn’t just that Eminem was out of his mind on drugs all the time; he was out of his mind on painkillers and sleeping pills, drugs that do nothing but numb pain.
Eminem was heading for a grim professional and personal reckoning from which he’s only recently recovered. “Mockingbird,” his contribution to the 19th installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music! finds him firmly in “sifting glumly through the wreckage of my life” mode as he addresses his daughter Hailie and apologizes for the chaos of their home lives and her parents’ inability to stay together. It’s a sorrowful dirge about Eminem’s failure to prevent his daughter from experiencing the formative trauma he felt as a child, let down by the people who were supposed to care for him. It’s refreshingly candid, but musically, it’s not much of a song. Eminem’s delivery can barely even be called rapping; he sounds more like a guy talk-rapping a diary entry or an unmailed letter to his daughter while his friend plays “Hush Little Baby” limply in the background. It’s admirably artless, but hot damn, am I eager to never listen to it again.
The only hint of levity comes at the very end, when Eminem briefly rouses himself from his suicidal stupor to quip lamely, “And if that mockingbird don’t sing and that ring don’t shine / I’mma break that birdie’s neck / I’ll go back to the jeweler who sold it to ya and make him eat every carat / Don’t fuck with dad.” I like to think of it as a guest appearance by the unfunny 8-year-old side of Eminem on a song by the world’s-saddest-man part of his persona. Eminem has subsequently kicked drugs and is now, in Behind The Music parlance, high on life. I haven’t listened to his latest album, but God knows, “Mockingbird” leaves nowhere to go but up, emotionally at least.
“Will Smith don’t have to cuss to sell records, but I do / So fuck him, and fuck you too” raps Eminem on “The Real Slim Shady.” Even without that overt dis, Will Smith and Eminem would still occupy antithetical places in pop culture. Eminem bleeds onto every song, holding nothing back. Will Smith holds everything back. Eminem is Mr. Fuck The World. Will Smith is Mr. Nice Guy. I like Will Smith a lot. He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper was the first tape I ever bought, and I think he’s a terrific actor with surprising range who has chosen some offbeat, challenging roles. Shit, I’d probably vote for him for president, especially if DJ Jazzy Jeff ran as his vice president.
But there’s something creepily unknowable about Smith. Smith is already associated with Scientology in much of the public imagination, thanks to his friendship with Tom Cruise and philanthropic contributions to Scientology organizations. Reports have surfaced that Smith is perpetually on the verge of joining the Scientologist fold, and while I have no idea whether these rumors are true, Smith and high-profile Scientologists like Cruise share a level of polish that borders on inhuman.
Everything about Smith is too perfect: the blinding smile, the infectious laugh, the lanky, impeccably sculpted physique, the gorgeous wife, the seemingly trouble-free marriage, the precociously talented children who seem to be the product of a genetic breeding project to create the ultimate child stars. As with Eddie Murphy or Tom Cruise, we don’t really know Will Smith at all. What makes him tick? What kind of demons does he wrestle with? What is he passionate about? What are his insecurities? I have no idea. Smith is so polished and on-message that he registers as faintly robotic. On talk shows, he seems like a sentient press release hitting all the talking points with plenty of toothy charm and laid-back charisma.
That airless, borderline creepy lack of personality can also be found in “Switch,” Smith’s instantly forgettable contribution to NOW! 19. It’s a peppy dance song with mildly flirtatious but super-family-friendly lyrics from Smith. It’s busy, it’s happy, and I forgot about it within seconds of hearing it for the first time. It’s a trifle from an enigmatic superstar who does nothing to contradict the notion that he’s a savvy businessman and CEO who releases albums because if only for nostalgia’s sake, music should continue to be a core component of the Will Smith© brand, even though Smith clearly has nothing to say and no urgent need to say it.
Hey, you know who else is too perfect? John Legend. He seems to belong to a more evolved species than the rest of us humans. So part of the silky allure of “Ordinary People” lies in having this Nietzschean übermensch pretend to be one of us common folk. It’s a lovely ballad originally created by John Legend and Will.I.Am to be a Black Eyed Peas song, of all things. Christ, can you even imagine Hologram Guy, The Former Meth Addict, The Other Guy, and the Other Other Guy destroying such a beautiful, elegantly simple track? Thank God Legend commandeered the song and transformed it into a lovely ballad about overcoming the everyday travails of being in a relationship.
NOW! 19 is chockablock with people who are better than you and me, namely Beyoncé, who appears alongside her Destiny’s Child colleagues for “Girl.” In previous entries, I’ve identified “Fuck you, I’m awesome” as the core message of most Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child singles. “Girl” offers a variation on this trusty theme: “Fuck that guy, you’re awesome!” In this song, Beyoncé and her colleagues offers wise counsel to a friend who holds onto a bad, dysfunctional, possibly abusive relationship out of fear and desperation. Over a slow, tender 9th Wonder groove, Beyoncé and company deliver a gentle lesson in self-esteem and self-protection that applies equally to the subject of the song and to the many Beyoncé fans who’ve undoubtedly gone through similar situations.
Female bonding is all well and good, but Brooke Valentine’s maiden contribution to the bestselling compilation series offers something infinitely more fun: Girlfight! Holy shit, do I love the song “Girlfight.” I will forever be grateful to NOW! 19 for bringing it to my attention and enriching my life immeasurably. I’ve never been one of those guys who goes nuts over the prospect of women scrapping. When I walked past the hot-oil-wrestling tent at the Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering Of The Juggalos, I experienced nothing but sadness and pity for scrappers who were facing off not merely in an inflatable pool of hot oil, but in a bottomless pit of sadness. Yet from its opening notes, I fucking loved “Girlfight,” a peerless guilty pleasure rooted in a simple but perfect Lil Jon crunk beat and the screaming enthusiast’s trademark howls. With the possible exception of the equally awesome “Yeah,” no song has made better use of Jon’s hype-man-on-speed shtick.
While “Girlfight” is a profoundly silly celebration of woman-on-woman violence, someone forgot to tell Valentine, who delivers her hyper-aggressive lyrics with a seriousness and sense of urgency more befitting a message song about ending famine in Africa. “Girlfight” is pure pop perfection, a new kind of fight song topped off by a brief but hilarious guest rap from Big Boi, who tries to prevent the titular altercation before finally conceding that the only thing better than a girlfight is a killer pop song about one. “Girlfight” may have been too awesome. It’s Valentine’s only hit; the fact that she felt the need to title her latest mix-tape No More Girlfights suggests she isn’t close to escaping its outsized shadow.
You know what isn’t awesome? Really terrible transitions. Also, the Gwen Stefani song “Hollaback Girl.” It’s built from the same ruthlessly minimalist, percussion-dominated Neptunes template as previous winners, like Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and Clipse’s “Grindin’” and “Mr. Me Too.” But this time, the magic isn’t happening. Instead of being blessed with the elegant simplicity of a “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” it’s cursed with a patty-cake beat that’s the musical equivalent of sticking out your tongue and chanting “Nyah, nyah, nyah.” There’s joyously simple, and then there’s too simple. “Hollaback Girl” is way too simple. It’s an obnoxious blast of bratty early-adolescence attitude (or brattitude, as the folks behind Bratz: The Movie might put it) even before Stefani insists that the beat is so “bananas” (it isn’t) that she feels the need to spell out the word “banana” several times. All in all, not the most mature artistic statement from a world-famous 35-year-old mother and wife.
Now usually subjects listeners to a horrifying gauntlet of shitty modern rock of the hunger-dunger-dang variety at the end of each volume. NOW! 19 takes a sharply different tack, saving some of its best songs for the end. Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” occupies the uptown-hipster slot with an infectious blast of nervous, sexy new-wave energy, while Coldplay delivers another stadium-sized U2-style anthem perfect for trailers and upscale commercials with “Speed Of Sound.”
NOW! is the eternal province of the young people. Damon Albarn, who has the world-weary voice of a century-old mystic under the best of circumstances, had to turn into a cartoon character and shed his government name and Blur superstardom to land a smash hit here with his cartoon group Gorillaz. For reinforcements, Albarn linked forces with other battle-scarred survivor/Gen-X icons, the gents in De La Soul, who deliver spirited guest-raps over an elastic, buoyant bassline. The song’s disparate elements—rubber-band bass, energetic raps, post-apocalyptically despondent vocals from Albarn—work in perfect unison instead of clashing. It shouldn’t work at all, yet it succeeds spectacularly.
Astonishingly, “Feel Good Inc.” represents the only American Top 40 hit of Albarn’s career, with Blur or Gorillaz. That crafty old bastard figured out a way to stay on top of a young man’s game, even if it meant shedding his middle-age identity and acquiring a whole new persona and name.
Up next on THEN! The Pussycat Dolls think you wish your girlfriend was hot like them, Ludacris goes pimping all over the world, Weezer waxes rhapsodic about Beverly Hills, and Fall Out Boy makes its debut.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in the music world in summer 2005:
- Michael Jackson found not guilty of child molestation
- Alanis Morissette releases Jagged Little Pill Acoustic for some reason
- Billy Corgan releases his solo debut, TheFutureEmbrace, proving that his genius for obnoxiously pretentious titles remains unparalleled
- Sufjan Stevens releases a concept album about the best state ever: Illinois
- Tommy Lee puts out the hilariously titled solo album Tommyland: The Ride.