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 33 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.
- “…Baby One More Time” Britney Spears
- “You Get What You Give” The New Radicals
- “Millennium” Robbie Williams
- “Closing Time” Semisonic
- “Sweetest Thing” U2
- “My Favorite Mistake” Sheryl Crow
- “Praise You” Fatboy Slim
- “I Think I’m Paranoid” Garbage
- “Never There” Cake
- “Because Of You” 98 Degrees
- “Goodbye” Spice Girls
- “Take Me There” Blackstreet, Mya & Ma$e
- “When A Woman’s Fed Up” R. Kelly
- “Father Of Mine” Everclear
- “What I Got” Sublime
- “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” Backstreet Boys
- “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” Jay-Z
- “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” Baz Luhrmann
When I interviewed Brittany Murphy during the junket for Girl, Interrupted back in the prehistoric days of The A.V. Club, I remember thinking very vividly, with all the world-weariness a 23-year-old can muster, “Wow, what a sweet, guileless, sincere young woman. This industry is going to destroy her.”
I think we as a society had the same response the first time we saw the music video for Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” The question wasn’t whether the doe-eyed 16-year-old pop tart gyrating in a sports bra and Catholic-schoolgirl outfit would enter the proverbial nightmare descent into booze and pills™, but when. Similarly, we didn’t wonder whether the pressures of fame would drive her a little batty, we just asked exactly how fucking nuts she’d eventually become. Would she go Anna Nicole Smith crazy? Sean Young crazy? Or would she become the new gold standard for celebrity lunacy?
When “…Baby One More Time” made her a household name, Spears was simultaneously a naïve young woman and a battle-hardened show-business veteran, the kind of relentlessly driven child star whose parents probably scheduled her first voice and dance lessons while she was still in the womb. She was a short-term member of a Lou Pearlman-concocted group called Innosense; a product of The All New Mickey Mouse Club, a wildly successful experiment in breeding genetically manufactured pop icons; and a contestant on Star Search.
She was also, it should be noted, fucked: hopelessly, hopelessly fucked. When you’re introduced to the public as a devoutly Christian, wholesome, all-American, chaste, insatiable teen whore who will satisfy any listener’s most depraved fantasies when not contemplating God’s unimaginable glory, a normal, sane, functional adolescence and young adulthood is out of the question.
Spears’ childhood was sacrificed on the altar of pop stardom; she became a star, a sex symbol, a controversy magnet, an icon, and a walking punchline, but she would never be a kid again. “…Baby One More Time” sent Spears on a rocket ride to hell, but it’s a stunningly savvy piece of pop iconography, as shrewd as it is shameless.
The video embodies the same combination of fresh-scrubbed all-American innocence and highway-hooker raunch that makes Spears such a troubling, fascinating figure. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a light, unobjectionable video about an athletic high-school student daydreaming about having fun with her friends, or an obscene slab of softcore kiddie porn that fetishizes precocious female sexuality in disturbing ways.
Spears stares at us with doe eyes and pouty lips, her Catholic-school-girl outfit strategically altered for maximum slutitude as she leads an anonymous army of dancers through hallway Stripperoebics. The song offers a despairing portrait of romantic angst, regret, obsession, and suicidal despair but the video is all about taking off your clothes and dancing with your pals.
In “…Baby One More Time,” Spears is either pleading plaintively for the return of a lover she thoughtlessly spurned, or begging for one last mercy fuck for old time’s sake. And that’s not even getting into the S&M aspects of the title, or the troubling undertones of putting Spears in pigtails and a Catholic schoolgirl outfit. If the lyrics are open to interpretation, Spears’ vocals clear up any lingering confusion about whether it’s about desperately wanting to get fucked by someone you’ve rejected. Spears coos, pants, and purrs the song’s come-ons in a crazed libidinal frenzy. She embodies the aphorism I just made up that if you can’t sing well, sing sexy.
In both song and video form, “…Baby One More Time” is deeply problematic. It made me feel dirty the first time I saw it. Since I enjoy speaking for everyone in the world, I will come right out and say that we are all complicit in the degradation, objectification, and crazyfication of Mrs. Spears. She wouldn’t be peddling her tawdry teen sexuality so brazenly if the world weren’t so eager to buy it. We created a monster, then recoiled at what she’d become.
So I watched “…Baby One More Time” initially with both high-minded disdain and no small amount of titillation. The video was sleazy, calculating, relentlessly sexual, disingenuous, and kind of hot. Then again, when I saw the video for the first time in 1998, I was barely out of my teens, so I was at least a relatively young dirty old man.
Listening to “…Baby One More Time” as the first track on the second installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music!, I had an entirely different experience. I’m now old enough to be the father of a 16-year-old, so voyeuristic delight was replaced by paternal concern. I looked at Spears’ big, unsuspecting eyes and saw somebody’s daughter as well as a sweet, sweet piece of underage ass.
It was one thing to watch “…Baby One More Time” as a 22-year old and sense that the world would not be kind to Spears. It was another to gaze back at it through the prism of 12 years of breakdowns and reinventions, divorces and reconciliations, K-Feds and head-shaving and kids and paparazzi, umbrellas used as weapons, and other assorted craziness. The seeds of Spears’ personal and professional ruin were there from the outset. They just needed time and space to grow into the glorious trainwreck of today.
Spears is the ultimate NOW That’s What I Call Music! artist: shiny, prefabricated, pure commercial product, and a purveyor of the synthetic, one-size-fits-all bubblegum R&B that the series’ compilers love, or at least feel commercially obligated to promote. Spears has been on NOW compilations a staggering 14 times, which is 13 times more than The New Radicals, the owner of the treasured No. 2 slot on the second volume of the series.
Yet The New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander is a quintessential NOW That’s What I Call Music! artist in his own right: a music-business lifer who stumbled onto a song that resonated with the public, then rode the wave for a brief, shining moment before slinking back into anonymity. The New Radicals were also a studio conceit: Writer/producer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Alexander and former child star Danielle Brisebois were the band’s only two members; otherwise, Alexander used session musicians to realize his vision of angry, politically engaged piano pop in the mellow ’70s Todd Rundgren/Joe Jackson vein.
Like “…Baby One More Time,” The New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” captures something ineffable about the heightened emotions and pummeling intensity of adolescence. Where Spears’ breakout hit conveys how a stormy relationship can feel like a matter of life-and-death importance for a 16-year-old, “You Get What You Give” luxuriates in the romance of teen rebellion, of being 14 and choked with rage at the corruption of adults, of being a youth in revolt against a revolting world.
When I was 14, I was angry at everyone, especially rich people. “You Get What You Give” builds on this free-floating anger by dragging a randomly chosen assortment of celebrities into Alexander’s rant against the powers that be. In the song’s most famous lines, he sings “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson / Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson / You’re all fakes, run to your mansions / Come around, we’ll kick your ass in!”
What makes the whole screed so adorable is the incredibly wimpy way Alexander screams “We’ll kick your ass in.” I just want to give him a big hug and say, “You’re not kicking anyone’s ass, my follicle-challenged friend. Now take off that silly hat and we’ll go out for ice cream.” “You Get What You Give” made Alexander an unlikely pop star, but he decided he didn’t like pop stardom. He wore his silly hat in concert to hide his lack of enthusiasm for performing. Then he broke up the band, leaving behind a lot of what-ifs and one great fucking single.
As the tough guy in popular British boy band Take That, Robbie Williams was once part of the same teen-pop machinery that propelled Spears to international fame. But by the time he recorded “Millennium,” the third track on NOW, he’d reinvented himself as an ironic pop star, a tongue-in-cheek international playboy who recorded duets with Neil Tennant and gave his albums nudge-nudge names like The Ego Has Landed and Reality Killed The Video Star.
If “You Get What You Give” is about the romance of youth, “Millennium” addresses the total fucking awesomeness of being rich, young, and famous at the turn of the century. Built around an appropriately cinematic sample from John Barry’s You Only Live Twice score, it finds Williams in continental bon vivant mode as he croons lyrics that are either clever in a stupid way, or stupid in a clever fashion, like the chorus’ commandment, “Get up and see the sarcasm in my eyes.”
Like Alexander, Williams chooses to play the tough guy in hilariously unconvincing fashion. Just as Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson don’t have to worry about Alexander coming around and kicking their ass in, I don’t think anyone was too intimidated when Williams taunted “Come and have a go if you think you are hard enough” in a faltering, girlish falsetto. Incidentally, the brothers Hanson later worked with Alexander; apparently he came over to their house intent on kicking their ass in, but they hit it off and decided to do some songwriting together.
Like The New Radicals, Semisonic will forever be tarnished with the one-hit-wonder tag. That’s a shame, because it was a fantastic power-pop group, a trio of eggheads with a gift for monster hooks, passionate vocals, and sincerity that never lapsed into sentimentality. Their 1996 album debut Great Divide is a minor power-pop masterpiece, but the trio’s follow-up birthed “Closing Time,” the group’s unlikely contribution to the NOW pantheon.
At a time when much of what passed for alternative music was steeped in rage, angst, and sneering irony, Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson was refreshingly willing to be romantic and sincere. He wrote great love songs like “Secret Smile” and “Singing In My Sleep,” and songs that weren’t what they appeared to be, like “Closing Time.”
On the surface, the song finds the romance in barflies scrambling for a closing-time hookup, but according to So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star, the likeable memoir of Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter, it was written about the birth of Wilson’s first child. The song’s key line is purloined from the Roman philosopher Seneca, who originally wrote, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” It’s a line with multiple meanings; there’s the end of life in the womb and the beginning of life outside, but also a father and mother forsaking the pleasures of youth for the responsibilities of parenthood.
I have now devoted 1,800 words to four songs, so it’s time for me to pick up the pace. Among other songs, “Closing Time” is followed by “My Favorite Mistake” and “Father Of Mine”: At the risk of damning each with faint praise, they’re my favorite Sheryl Crow and Everclear songs, respectively. “My Favorite Mistake” addresses the imminent demise of a failing relationship with sadness and resignation rather than rage. There’s a lot of misinformation about this song as well. At one point, Crow sings, “I woke up and called this morning,” a line that was misheard, by me at least, as “I woke up this God this morning.” That line led some to think the song was written about Crow’s relationship with Eric Clapton. Some very confused souls, on the other hand, misheard that line as “I woke up with Zod this morning” and thought the song was about Crow’s brief marriage to Terence Stamp. (She apparently has a thing for ’60s British pop icons.)
At the risk of generalizing, every Everclear song is exactly the same: a howled Nirvana knock-off with a giant chorus about how Art Alexakis’ dad didn’t love him, or how he’ll make a glorious life for you and everything will be wonderful, yeah. Uh huh. “Father Of Mine” is the purest/finest manifestation of this aesthetic, a damning condemnation of an absent father that builds in rage and intensity until the insufferable Everclear frontman delivers the knockout blow with the lines “Tell me how do you sleep / With the children you abandoned and the wife I saw you beat.” As someone irrevocably scarred by the desertion of an absent parent, I can relate all too well to the lines that follow: “I will never be safe, I will never be sane / I will always be weird inside, I will always be lame.”
From there, we embark on a magical musical journey through the requisite boy-band cheese (98 Degrees’ “Because Of You,” Backstreet Boys’ “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”), Fatboy Slim testifying (the rapturous “Praise You”), quirky attitude from Garbage (“I Think I’m Paranoid”), and Cake (“Never There”), as well as a cotton-candy pop song from the Rugrats: The Movie soundtrack that features Teddy Riley pretending to be a cartoon frog, and Ma$e doing an entire verse about the leads in the popular animated show. I no longer wonder why Ma$e abandoned hip-hop and sought God’s grace.
Sublime’s “What I Got” grooves in hippified fashion on a guitar riff so killer that when the surviving members of The Beatles heard it, they decided to travel back in time to the late ’60s so they could borrow it for “Lady Madonna.” Sublime’s breakout hit is a shaggy, ramshackle celebration of life’s simple pleasures, rendered all the more poignant because it hit airwaves after Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell died from a heroin overdose in 1996.
Hip-hop is shamefully underrepresented on the first two volumes of NOW That’s What I Call Music! It’s sadly telling that Jay-Z had to hook up with the cast of Annie in order to be pop and palatable enough for the bestselling compilation. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” made Jay-Z a pop star, but at a steep cost. Compared to the intricate, machine-gun flow he flexed on Reasonable Doubt, Hova sounds bored and basic here. He dumbed down for the mainstream, and has been reaping the benefits ever since.
This brings us to the compilation’s last and strangest track, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” a novelty song/guide to life with a curious history. The song began life, in the popular imagination at least, as a Kurt Vonnegut graduation speech. But in a funny twist, it wasn’t a graduation speech and wasn’t written or delivered by Vonnegut, though heaven knows the song’s coolness level would jump from nonexistent to super-duper if it was.
Instead, the song was produced by Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann, and the source material was a column by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich admonishing young people to let go of self-consciousness and shame, to delight in their bodies and their youth before the ravages of age destroy them both. When I first heard the song in 1998, I snorted derisively. (Then again, I snorted derisively at everything back then). It was pure cheese, middlebrow hokum for folks who like entertainment that appears to be thoughtful, philosophical, and borderline profound but doesn’t actually require them to think.
Yes, I was far too cool and cynical for such wholesome treacle as a 22-year-old, but as a 33-year-old, the song affected me more than I’d like to admit, perhaps because I’ve already squandered what little was left of my youth. Where I once saw only a long string of folksy, groan-inducing clichés and homespun wisdom, I now saw something close to truth in lines like “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.”
I had an emotional rather than an analytical response to the song. Now might be a good time to make a shameful confession: I am not cool. I have never been cool. I never will be cool. I tear up during movies and hip-hop and country songs and even novelty songs put together by sexually ambiguous Australian directors. I basically am a giant fucking pussy.
But I know of this one guy who is cool, or rather was cool. Super-cool. Robert Mitchum-level cool. Here’s what he had to say about it, “What [Schmich] wrote was funny, wise, and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.” And that man? Was Roy Cohn. No, actually, it was Kurt Vonnegut. So there. At least I am not alone in my questionable taste.
Up next, on NOW That’s What I Call Music Volume 3: The worst song in the world, Blink 182 gets bratty, Fred Durst does it all for the nookie, Smash Mouth thinks you’re an all-star, and boy bands boy bands!
What was happening outside the NOW That’s What I Call Music bubble in 1999:
Q-Tip goes solo with Amplified:
Eminem releases The Slim Shady LP:
Dr. Dre finally puts out 2001:
Santana (of Santana DVX fame) teams with Rob Thomas for a music revolution:
Aimee Mann revitalizes her career with Magnolia soundtrack, gets nominated for an Oscar: