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 36 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.
1. "S.O.S.," Rihanna
2. "Temperature," Sean Paul
3. "Ridin’," Chamillionaire featuring Krayzie Bone
4. "Check On It," Beyoncé featuring Slim Thug
5. "Yo (Excuse Me Miss)," Chris Brown
6. "Miss New Booty," Bubba Sparxxx featuring Ying Yang Twins
7. "I’m ’N Luv (Wit A Stripper)," T-Pain featuring Mike Jones
8. "Poppin’ My Collar," Three 6 Mafia
9. "When You’re Mad," Ne-Yo
10. "What’s Left of Me," Nick Lachey
11. "Bad Day," Daniel Powter
12. "Over My Head (Cable Car)" The Fray
13. "For You I Will (Confidence)" Teddy Geiger
14. "Walk Away," Kelly Clarkson
15. "Black Horse And The Cherry Tree," KT Tunstall
16. "Girl Next Door," Saving Jane
17. "Let U Go," Ashley Parker Angel
18. "Move Along," The All-American Rejects
19. "Savin’ Me," Nickelback
20. "Tonight I Wanna Cry," Keith Urban
In late 2007, I caught a preview screening of This Christmas, the kind of aggressively unobjectionable trifle you forget about before the end credits begin. I remember nothing about the film aside from a scene that comes straight out of The Big Book Of Melodramatic Clichés. In it, a green young singer shuffles nervously onto the stage during open-mic night and awkwardly announces that he’s never sung in public before, en route to performing “Try A Little Tenderness.” At first, his singing is tentative and shaky, but he soon finds his footing and unleashes a gorgeous, Michael Jackson-like falsetto. My God, the kid really can sing! He stumbles onto the stage a rank amateur, and leaves it a star! Of course, the key to pulling off a scene like that is giving the key role to an actor who’s already a pop star.
In this case, the singer was a baby-faced young charmer named Chris Brown. Brown was already an ascendant superstar at that point, but This Christmas was my introduction to him. I was won over. I predicted big things for the scrawny young man with the big voice. As I am not a 12-year-old girl, I did not think too much about Brown in the ensuing years. I downloaded a single of his called “Down,” but more for the Kanye West guest verse than Brown’s vocals. Then I, like the rest of the world, was shocked and horrified by reports that Brown had viciously beaten his pop-star girlfriend Rihanna on their way to an awards show.
When Brown’s abuse of Rihanna became news, his public image immediately went from baby-faced charmer to vicious girlfriend-beater. He swapped out the white hat his handlers had painstakingly chosen for him in favor of a black one, and traded in hero status for loathsome villainy. Whatever modest affection I may have had for Brown after This Christmas turned into hatred when pictures of a badly beaten Rihanna popped up online. Brown’s crimes made his earlier image look like a vicious lie and Brown and his handlers look like hypocrites. Brown didn’t help his case by appearing on Larry King Live looking like an over-the-top caricature of a remorseful celebrity sinner in a dorky bowtie and Cosby sweater, or by releasing an album (Graffiti) that made the grievous tactical error of trying to make audiences feel sorry for him.
A soul singer’s trade is the business of seduction, but Brown will never be able to deliver another gooey love song without reminding listeners of his brush with the law and anger-management issues. When I watched the abysmal heist film/glorified cognac ad Takers (such an appropriate name for a Chris Brown film), my hatred of Brown flared up anew every time I saw him onscreen. I was not alone. The same public that embraced R. Kelly through scandal after scandal turned on the pop star. Graffiti flopped. We have a tendency to treat celebrities like pampered children who can get away with just about anything as long as they look appropriately remorseful and solemn while apologizing. But there are lines that cannot be crossed and crimes that cannot be forgiven. Domestic abuse is such a crime, especially when coupled with a complete lack of remorse.
So while I yield to few in my love of R. Kelly, I will never feel anything but contempt for Brown. This was the filter through which I listened to “Yo (Excuse Me),” a falsetto slow-jam come-on to a mysterious temptress. In another context, the song might seem inoffensive or even tender, but now it’s hard to hear it as anything other than a lie.
Brown’s abuse surprised the public in part because it clashed so dramatically with his public image. Rihanna was supposed to be the tough, aggressive partner; Brown was supposed to be the soft, gentle one. But it’s now clear that Brown bore only the fuzziest resemblance to the wholesome image his label was selling. The controversy harmed Brown irreparably while catapulting Rihanna to unprecedented levels of fame. Rihanna wasn’t just an unspeakably hot R&B pop tart anymore. She was a survivor. She refused to play the martyr role. She was not going to be anyone’s victim.
That seems entirely in keeping with her retro-futuristic persona as a sort of sexed-up android. Rihanna’s shiny, shiny electro-pop owes a great deal to the stylized sexuality and theatricality of new wave, so it’s altogether fitting that “S.O.S.,” Rihanna’s lead-off contribution to NOW 22, is built around a sample of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” In a neat bit of cross-cultural exchange, a song originally recorded in 1964 by a black soul singer named Gloria Jones and covered in 1982 by a British synth-pop duo fronted by gay crooner Marc Almond was sampled in a hit song by a black woman from Barbados who traffics in provocative, gender-bending sexuality.
Though it only begins to suggest the pop-culture dynamo Rihanna would eventually become, “S.O.S.” boils her aesthetic down to a simple, effective formula: new wave plus laser gun sound effects plus playful, teasing sexuality equals a strangely enduring hit machine. At 22, Rihanna’s time has barely begun. God willing, Brown’s 15 minutes of fame are just about up.
But enough talk of violence, disgrace, bloodshed, and public shaming. Pop music is supposed to be fun! And it would be difficult to imagine a more preposterous or fun superstar than T-Pain. T-Pain began his career as a rapper, until he came to a horrifying realization: He couldn’t rap. So he decided to become a singer. Alas, his voice left much to be desired until he discovered—perhaps while listening to Cher’s “Believe” on repeat on his car stereo—a miraculous contraption called “Auto-Tune,” which transformed him from a man who couldn’t sing into a robot-man who could sing adequately thanks to a weird voice distorter/pitch corrector that’s weird, futuristic, and also cheesy as hell.
Oh sure, folks like Akon and Cher had used Auto-Tune before, and Roger Troutman had built his career around Auto-Tune’s funky, Afro-sporting granddaddy the vocoder, but T-Pain made Auto-Tune the core of his ridiculous career. T-Pain has a lot working against him: He’s from the hip-hop/R&B backwater of Tallahassee, Florida; he can’t sing or rap adequately without technological assistance; he favors weird top hats for some reason; and he looks like a Muppet version of The Predator.
Yet in this best of all possible worlds, T-Pain’s modest talents, cartoonish persona, and reliance upon instantly dated gimmicks hasn’t kept him from becoming one of the biggest and most influential superstars of the last five years. T-Pain’s love affair with Auto-Tune even infected infinitely more talented artists like Lil Wayne and Kanye West, who elevated Auto-Tune to the level of art on 808s & Heartbreak. The Auto-Tune fad should have died a few years ago. Shit, Jay-Z tried to kill it himself with the self-aggrandizing and pointless single “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune),” but hot damn if T-Pain and the Auto-Tune craze he rolled in on doesn’t keep marching merrily along.
Beside his penchant for haberdasheries and love of technology, T-Pain’s plastic R&B is distinguished by its intertwined obsessions with drunkenness and sex. “I’m ’N Luv (Wit A Stripper),” T-Pain’s contribution to Now 22, finds him in a familiar position: ogling a sweet young thing while imbibing strong drinks (or drank, as it were). Yet despite the lascivious content, the song comes off incongruously sweet, even tender. In a hip-hop and R&B realm where confessing romantic feelings toward women is considered a weakness, T-Pain is not too proud to keep shoving $100 bills into the G-string of the object of his affection in hopes that she will reciprocate his undying love.
T-Pain sings of watching the strip-club Venus slide up and down the pole with the same tenderness less explicit soulmen might bring to chronicling the hypnotic way the sunlight hits their beloved’s hair on a bright summer day. T-Pain is a pervert and a boozer, but he’s a pervert and a boozer with heart.
In concert, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been known to parody “I’m ’N Luv (Wit A Stripper)” as the Gilligan’s Island-themed “I’m In Luv Wit Da Skipper,” but the venerable pop-culture icon is of course better known for “White & Nerdy,” his smash hit parody of Chamillionaire and Layzie Krayzie Bone’s “Ridin’.” “White & Nerdy” represents one of the few times in Yankovic’s career where his parody is more popular and better known then the song that inspired it, and for good reason. (Full disclosure: I’m working on a book project with “Weird Al,” my childhood hero, but would have nothing but nice things to write about him even if I weren’t.)
Yankovic is extremely underrated as a rapper: He’s adept at recreating the flows of the rappers he spoofs. That’s no small accomplishment when it comes to spoofing someone like Chamillionaire, who spits his rhymes in the rapid-fire, machine-gun singsong style popularized by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. On “White & Nerdy,” Yankovic delivers a torrent of smart, dead-on geek references while remaining crystal-clear and delivering his punchlines with crack timing. It’s a high-wire act Yankovic pulls off beautifully in a song that would go on to become the most popular single of his three-decade-long career.
“Ridin’” isn’t half-bad either. It’s either a protest song about racial profiling cunningly disguised as yet another anti-cop manifesto or an anti-cop manifesto cunningly disguised as a protest song about racial profiling. In it, Chamillionaire taunts police officers who think they can pull him over for DWB—Driving While Black—and catch him “riding dirty” (with drugs, a gun, or outstanding warrants). For Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone, there’s an element of gamesmanship to their eternal battle with the forces of corrupt authority: They delight in taunting cops with the prospect of an imminent arrest, even when they’re riding clean.
“Weird Al” Yankovic also wanted to parody “Bad Day,” Daniel Powter’s contribution to NOW 22, only to have Powter turn him down then change his mind after, in Yankovic’s words, “the train had left the station.” Man, fuck that Daniel Powter guy. He sucks.
Teddy Geiger named his debut album Underage Thinking. Man, fuck that Teddy Geiger guy. He sucks.
Nickelback returns with “Savin’ Me.” Man, fuck those guys. They suck.
One of the many ephemeral pleasures of NOW lies in finding songs you dig from artists you’d otherwise completely dismiss. That’s true of Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away,” a surprisingly funky, feisty little kiss-off driven by an insistent and catchy kick-drum. I don’t care for the earnest balladeer side of Clarkson, but I would so buy a two-song best-of consisting of “Walk Away” and “Since U Been Gone.”
I would similarly never buy a KT Tunstall album, but “Black Horse & The Cherry Tree” is a pretty accomplished slice of secretary rock. She’s like a Melissa Etheridge for a whole new generation!
Bubba Sparxxx released an important and quietly revolutionary album in Deliverance, a remarkable fusion of futuristic Timbaland funk and bluegrass. Of course, it bombed. Sparxxx parted ways with Timbaland and scored a hit with “Ms. New Booty,” a strip-club-friendly Mr. Collipark production that’s as infectious as it is ridiculous. That’s also true of Three 6 Mafia’s “Poppin’ My Collar,” a song so heavily edited due to its profane content that it sounds like the producer is sampling John Cage’s “4’33”” every five seconds or so.
Thanks to Mr. Brown’s violent rages, the 22nd installment of the most important pop compilation series ever has a vaguely tragic air, but we can never forget that pop music is supposed to be fun and silly and ridiculous, even before our preeminent pop-music parodist alchemizes the pabulum into gently satirical comic gold.
Up Next on THEN: Nelly Furtado wants you to check out her ass and her abs in the video for “Promiscuous Girl,” Fergie’s London Bridges are falling down, Justin Timberlake brings sexy back, and The Pussycat Dolls want you to loosen up their buttons, baby.
Outside the Bubble: What else was going on in pop music in Summer, 2006:
- Thom Yorke goes solo with The Eraser.
- Peaches names an album Impeach My Bush because well, she kind of had to.
- Rick Rubin’s American releases Johnny Cash’s achingly sad, beautiful posthumous album American V: A Hundred Highways.
- DMX releases the desperately titled Year of The Dog… Again.
- Pharrell goes solo with In My Mind; world says, “Eh, don’t quit your day job.”