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.
- “Lose Control,” Missy Elliott featuring Ciara and Fatman Scoop
- “Don’t Phunk With My Heart,” Black Eyed Peas
- “Don’t Cha,” Pussycat Dolls featuring Busta Rhymes
- “Pon De Replay,” Rihanna
- “Pimpin’ All Over The World,” Ludacris featuring Bobby Valentino
- “Like You,” Bow Wow featuring Ciara
- “I Think They Like Me (Remix)” Dem Franchise Boyz featuring Jermaine Dupri, Da Brat, and Bow Wow
- “Cater 2 U,” Destiny’s Child
- “Must Be Nice,” Lyfe Jennings
- “These Words (I Love You, I Love You),” Natasha Bedingfield
- “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” Kelly Clarkson
- “Listen To Your Heart,” D.H.T. featuring Edmee
- “Just Want You To Know,” Backstreet Boys
- “Just The Girl,” The Click Five
- “Do You Want To,” Franz Ferdinand
- “Beverly Hills,” Weezer
- “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” Fall Out Boy
- “You & Me,” Lifehouse
- “Fix You,” Coldplay
- “You’ll Think Of Me,” Keith Urban
It’s hard to say anything critical about Young@Heart, a documentary about an unconventional elderly choir, without coming across as worse than Hitler. What’s not to love about a nice documentary about a nice young man who gets nice old people to perform nice songs in front of receptive audiences? Yet the film makes the mistake of intermittently treating old people the way soda commercials do: as if they’re adorable, vaguely child-like scamps who are never more delightful or mischievous than when they’re doing something old people are historically not known to do, like singing contemporary rock songs in a choir.
But while I’m mixed on Young@Heart as a whole, it also contains one of the most powerful cinematic moments of the past decade. I’m not too proud to admit that I wept like a colicky infant during the film’s transcendent climax. But first, a little context: Fred Knittle, a returning choir member, was scheduled to perform Coldplay’s “Fix You” as a duet with another returning choir member, Bob Salvini, as one of the central attractions of a big recital. The performance was going to be emotional regardless of the circumstances, but when Salvini died prior to the show, the song took on a special significance. Knittle wasn’t just singing for himself; he was singing for a friend whose death would have served as a sobering reminder of his own impending mortality even if Knittle didn’t need an oxygen tank in order to breathe.
A heavy, sedentary white-haired man in shapeless slacks, Knittle does not cut an imposing figure. But the moment he begins singing Chris Martin’s nakedly sincere lyrics, he conveys a shattering dignity. Knittle brings every last bit of sadness, resilience, grief, and resolve to the song. It’s the performance of a lifetime, delivered by a man at the end of his journey and a group of fellow survivors in the winter of their lives.
Martin and Coldplay’s version can’t help but register as anticlimactic by comparison. Martin wrote the words to “Fix You,” but it now belongs to Young@Heart and Knittle in particular. That’s how it should be.
Once upon a time, however, Martin wrote “Fix You” for Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s apparent if you listen to the little-known original lyrics for the song, which were radically altered so they would appeal to a wider audience, yet contain telltale references like “You’re so condescending and superior with that stupid Goop shit / You’re not the fucking Queen of England, so don’t act like it / I can’t believe Apple was the stupid name we gave our kid / but since you’re so insufferable I guess it’s up to me to fix you.” Yes, the original lyrics to “Fix You” were a lot meaner and angrier than the ones the group ended up using.
Let us now travel from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous, i.e. every other song on NOW 20.
Weezer’s self-titled debut was like Thriller: Every track sounded like a hit. Weezer was the product of a geek dreaming about being a pop star in his garage. Scrawny-looking former Harvard student Rivers Cuomo made for an unlikely pop star. Celebrity seemed to scare him, as it did many rock stars of his generation. Pinkerton, Weezer’s cultishly adored second album, consequently went the In Utero route of trying to scare away an army of new fans attracted to the group’s catchy songs, super-slick production, and popular videos with a tricky, difficult follow-up that plunged nakedly into its creator’s obsessions and insecurities. Cuomo was a sensitive guy with a gift for writing monster riffs and bludgeoning anthems; the Van Halen-style Weezer logo embodied Cuomo’s peculiar combination of cerebral geekiness and cock-rock posturing.
In the years since Pinkerton, however, Cuomo has learned to stop worrying and love the machine. He’s now the leader of a shameless mainstream band that used to be kind of cool, in a geeky sort of way. On “Beverly Hills,” Weezer’s contribution to NOW 20, Cuomo inhabits a lazy rock ’n’ roll archetype: the sad-sack dreamer gazing with open-mouthed envy at the glamorous lives of the beautiful people he sees on television. “Beverly Hills” is essentially “Money For Nothing” with a lobotomy, a fist-pumping anthem with a sing-along chorus so huge, it makes people forget how agonizingly stupid lyrics like “Where I come from isn’t all that great / my automobile is a piece of crap” are. Cuomo even indulges in a Peter Frampton-style talkbox guitar solo. How very corporate rock! “Beverly Hills” seems designed to soundtrack the few establishing shots of Southern California landmarks in television and film that aren’t already set to Phantom Planet’s “California.”
In an all-too-telling sign of the times, the music video for “Beverly Hills”—which was shot at the Playboy Mansion and features cameos by Hef and the Girls Next Door—is now preceded on YouTube by an ad for an awesome exclusive concert Weezer just played for the good folks over at Axe Body Wash. Such is the raditude the band now projects.
Speaking of sellouts, a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome seems to have set in for me as far as the Black Eyed Peas are concerned. Intellectually, I realize that Hologram Man, Ex-Meth Lady, The Other Guy, and the Other Other Guy are history’s greatest monsters. Yet they make some infectious pop music, as long as you don’t expect their lyrics (and songs and music videos and live performances and existences) to mean anything, or to not be egregiously, unconscionably stupid.
Dance music is dance music. Its success is rarely determined by the lyrics’ sophistication or wit. It’s all about getting asses on the floor and working dancers into a libidinal fever, and few acts have proven as successful at that as the Pussycat Dolls. Supposedly, Black Eyed Peas initially approached Pussycat Dolls frontwoman Nicole Scherzinger when they were looking to make the jump from quasi-Native Tongues bohemian types to the Will.I.Am Music Factory, but Scherzinger was still under contract as part of Eden’s Crush, a reality-show-created girl group, so Fergie, another girl-group survivor, took her place.
The Pussycat Dolls were formed in 1995 as a semi-ironic burlesque outfit that brought the ancient art of cockteasing through dance and movement to contemporary audiences. But by the time creator/choreographer Robin Antin signed a deal for the Pussycat Dolls to become major-label recording artists, any traces of irony had been discarded. Interscope head/music-industry kingpin Jimmy Iovine had a beautiful, not even remotely quixotic dream of making money off a prefabricated group of ridiculously attractive women dancing suggestively and performing racy songs written and produced by seasoned veterans. The idea was simple and potent: making money from sex.
In an interview with MTV, Scherzinger disingenuously claims that the “Don’t Cha” music video is “all about being who you are, having fun, and being confident.” It’s not. The video, the song, and everything about Pussycat Dolls are about sex, which is why it was deliciously pointless for the group to release ballads (“Hush Hush,” “Stickwitu”) as singles and music videos. Ballads? Fucking ballads? How on earth is anyone supposed to masturbate to a ballad? The ultimate—and only—goal of the Pussycat Dolls is to provide horny people with masturbatory fodder. Of course, the group has also put out some terrific pop singles like “Don’t Cha,” its contribution to NOW 20, and “Buttons,” but those songs exist solely to facilitate videos that help people engage in the sin of Onan.
“Don’t Cha” is particularly shameless in its prurient appeal. It’s the smirking musical boast of a sexpot taunting the men of the world because their girlfriends can’t possibly compare to the women of Pussycat Dolls, whose job is looking sexy. They’re probably right, but it’s a pretty obnoxious sentiment all the same.
In previous installments, I have singled out “Fuck you, I’m awesome” as the core message of most Beyoncé/Destiny’s Child singles. Well, “Cater 2 U” has made a liar out of me. On “Cater 2 U,” Beyoncé promises to do anything to make her man happy, even if it means surrendering her own needs and wants. I can’t get behind that sentiment. For fuck’s sake, Beyoncé, make the man in question cater to you instead of the other way around. “My life would be purposeless without you”? Those are heretical words here at the First Church Of Beyoncé.
The rest of the NOW 20 lineup merits little more than a cursory glance. Ludacris can write and perform easy pop songs like “Pimpin’ All Over The World” in his sleep, and in this case, he very well might have. It’s not bad, but Luda is capable of so much more.
D.H.T. and Edmee offer a perversely faithful cover of the old Roxette chestnut “Listen To Your Heart.” Why? I have no idea. Covers tend to be pointless, but this is more pointless than most.
They might like you, Dem Franchise Boyz and friends, but I’m lukewarm at best.
Since “The Rain,” critics and audiences have come to expect greatness from every new Missy Elliott single and music video. She’s one of the acknowledged masters of both forms. So when she parted ways with longtime collaborator Timbaland for 2005’s The Cookbook, expectations were high for the first single. Alas, “Lose Control” is merely good, and when it comes to Missy Elliott singles, “merely good” is never good enough.
Fall Out Boy is the perfect pop group for the Age Of Narcissism. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, it’s just that so many of the group’s songs revolve around the perils and pleasures of being in a popular rock band like Fall Out Boy. It makes sense that Kanye West would single out Fall Out Boy as a favorite group, since both Fall Out Boy and West’s gazes tend to fall somewhere in the general range of their own navel. Nothing fascinates Wentz like his own story. That makes him an ideal songwriter for a world where Facebook and Twitter have turned us all into content providers and amateur cultural commenters, where the mundane details of our lives become a form of public entertainment.
Pete Wentz’s lyrics and song titles are cryptic, rooted in in-jokes and pop-culture references, and all at least 50 to 60 percent more clever then they really need to be. The band’s music is similarly distinguished by its blinding gloss; Fall Out Boy seems to think there’s no reason a pop-punk group can’t release albums with a sound as big and glossy as Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound. “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” the group’s contribution to the 20th volume of NOW, sounds huge; the production is super-slick, the guitars are as big as the hooks, and Patrick Stump sings his lungs out in a crooner style that owes more to Morrissey than Johnny Rotten. In Fall Out Boy’s world, the differences between pop and punk, between indie and the mainstream, don’t matter.
While Fall Out Boy’s rock sounds as slick and polished as a boy-band song, NOW 20’s sole contribution from an actual boy band, Backstreet Boys, has a big, crunchy, power-chord-fueled rock sound. Fall Out Boy invaded Backstreet Boys’ territory, so Backstreet Boys returned the favor.
So, was 2005’s pop music as represented by the 20th volume of NOW That’s What I Call Music! overwhelmingly ironic, quasi-ironic, or non-ironic? To paraphrase the TV show that provided Fall Out Boy’s name (and taught multiple generations about irony), dude, I don’t even know anymore.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening musically in winter 2005: