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 37 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.
- “London Bridge,” Fergie
- “Promiscuous,” Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland
- “Buttons,” The Pussycat Dolls featuring Snoop Dogg
- “SexyBack,” Justin Timberlake featuring Timbaland
- “Ain’t No Other Man,” Christina Aguilera
- “Déjà vu,” Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z
- “Do It To It,” Cherish featuring Sean Paul of YoungBloodZ
- “Bossy,” Kelis featuring Too $hort
- “Pullin’ Me Back,” Chingy featuring Tyrese
- “S.E.X.,” Lyfe Jennings featuring LaLa Brown
- “Sexy Love,” Ne-Yo
- “Unfaithful,” Rihanna
- “Too Little Too Late,” Jojo
- “I Can’t Hate You Anymore,” Nick Lachey
- “These Walls,” Teddy Geiger
- “A Public Affair,” Jessica Simpson
- “Here It Goes Again,” OK Go
- “Lips Of An Angel,” Hinder
- “Far Away,” Nickelback
- “Summertime,” Kenny Chesney
The summer of 2006 will forever be remembered as a time when Justin Timberlake resurrected the concept of “sexy,” which had been in cold storage since Marilyn Monroe died. During the 44-year interval between Monroe’s death and Timberlake bringing sexy back, women wore burkas or sweatsuits while men rocked muumuus. Playboy shifted its focus from sexy naked ladies to lawn care tips. The Hays Code was brought back with such a vengeance that showing a character merely thinking about sex was banned.
Oh sure, folks still had intercourse but it was a dreary, joyless affair conducted solely in the missionary position with eyes closed. Then Justin Timberlake had a flash of inspiration: What if he brought sexy back? Wasn’t the world a happier, more joyful place when it embraced sex? Where the hell did sexy go anyway?
As a musician, Timberlake was in a privileged position to bring sexy back. His pro-sexy campaign worked like gangbusters. Seemingly overnight, sex was everywhere. It was used to sell consumer goods in teasing print ads and heavy-breathing commercials. Cinemax stopped airing nothing but nature documentaries and began running what it called “erotic thrillers.” Playboy shifted its focus back to sexy pictures of naked, suspiciously unblemished ladies.
Timberlake’s campaign was most successful in the previously asexual realm of pop music. The 23rd edition of NOW That’s What I Call Music! alone contains the songs “SexyBack,” “Sexy Love,” and “S.E.X.” And those aren’t even its most sexual songs! No, that dubious distinction belongs to The Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons” and “London Bridge,” though “London Bridge” is so confused, it’s hard to tell what it’s about.
The incredible chutzpah of “SexyBack” only begins with its title; it takes crazy audacity for a baby-faced white singer who has made his living out of black music to vamp his way through S&M-laced come-ons like, “Dirty babe/You see the shackles/Baby I’m your slave/I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave.”
“SexyBack” finds Timberlake playing a debauched dance-floor Caligula to sidekick/producer Timbaland’s robo-wingman. Throughout the song, Timberlake leeringly comes on to some unnamed temptress while Timbaland and his beloved voice distorter bark orders to both Timberlake and Timberlake’s object of desire. I like to think of Timbaland as, say, Mike Ditka and Timberlake as Jim McMahon, only instead of telling McMahon to throw a Hail Mary or do the old Statue of Liberty play, Timbaland instructs Timberlake, “Take ’em to the bridge!” and “Take ’em to the chorus!” while angrily demanded to see the woman “twerk them hips” and “go ahead, be gone with it,” along with other urgently issued directives.
The Artist Once Again Known as Prince took the title and concept of “SexyBack” as a threat and a challenge; at an Entertainment Tonight after-party for the Emmys, he reportedly yelled to the assembled crowd, “For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!” That is, of course, incredibly embarrassing; who in their right mind wants to be caught publicly attending a party thrown by Entertainment Tonight? Especially if you’re Prince?
Timberlake fired back at Prince with some subliminal shots on Timbaland’s “Give It To Me,” taunting Prince for his supposed irrelevance. Timberlake attacking Prince is akin to musical patricide; like every other soulman and R&B singer of his generation, Timberlake owes a debt to Prince he could never possibly hope to repay. Yet Timberlake persisted in being a snippy little bitch all the same. If I were Timberlake and Prince spat in my mother’s face, my response would be all, “Sign O’ The Times was great! Big fan, big fan!”
Timberlake used “Give It To Me” to go at one of his principal influences; Timbaland used it to kick collaborator-turned-rival-turned-enemy Scott Storch while he was down (facedown in a giant pile of cocaine, that is). Nelly Furtado, in sharp comparison, took the high road. Instead of dissing a competitor, Furtado nobly bragged about how amazing her ass and abs looked in the video for “Promiscuous.”
It would be hard to imagine those sentiments being expressed by Furtado around the time of her 2000 debut Whoa, Nelly, but Furtado’s image underwent a drastic transformation between then and the release of 2006’s Loose. After Furtado’s sophomore album Folklore flopped, she abandoned her persona as a tasteful, artsy, multicultural bohemian and embraced what I refer to as the “hoification” process.
When I wrote about Glitter for My Year Of Flops, I described the phenomenon thusly:
Hoification occurs when an actress or singer stops being judged on her body of work and begins getting judged by the work she’s had done to her body. It’s a surprisingly ubiquitous pop-culture phenomenon in which an actress or singer decides that they want to be recognized not just as a singer or songwriter but also as a sweet, sweet piece of ass.
“Promiscuous” boldly reintroduces Furtado not as a smart, moody singer-songwriter but as a sassy pop-tart trading come-ons with producer Timbaland. Furtado described the writing of “Promiscuous” as an extended flirtation between her and co-writer Timothy “Attitude” Clayton; the banter is at once frisky, fun, and irritatingly stupid. That’s true of the song as well. “Promiscuous” is both an irresistible dance track and a bratty, juvenile headache. Thankfully, in pop music, stupidity and awesomeness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Oftentimes they’re one and the same.
Furtado’s post-makeover breakout hit strikes the perfect balance between dumb and awesome. Fergie’s “London Bridge,” on the other hand, falls decidedly on the “dumb” side of the equation. The stupidest, most insulting and nonsensical pop song since, well, Fergie and Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” “London Bridge” is a terrible knock-off of “Hollaback Girl” built around flatulent, apathetic horn stabs and what appears to be the product of a child banging on a drumset for the first time.
I’ve included the YouTube video with the lyrics so that you can experience firsthand the song’s genius. Like “Hollaback Girl,” “Promiscuous,” and “Buttons,” “London Bridge” is half-sung, half-rapped in a bratty, self-satisfied nasal purr meant to approximate flirting. It’s obnoxious by design, a laundry list of grating boasts of varying degrees of coherence and meaning.
Early in the song, for example, Fergie sings, “I’m Fergie Ferg and me love you long time.” It’s a reference, of course, to 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” but it originated as an incidental bit of dialogue in the second half of Full Metal Jacket. So Fergie is essentially co-opting 2 Live Crew co-opting dialogue spoken by an actress playing an underage Vietnamese prostitute. I can’t imagine that’s a mental association anyone would deliberately invite, but on “My Humps,” Fergie boasts of her curves in a way that calls to mind hunchbacks, camels, and horrible diseases, so who on earth knows what’s going on in that horrible, horrible woman’s meth-addled mind? Sure enough, just a few lines later, Fergie crows, “I’m such a lady but I’m dancing like a ho,” so maybe she really does want people to think she’s an underage Vietnamese prostitute. Leave it to Fergie to make even the risible likes of “Hollaback Girl” sound like a lost Native Tongues masterpiece by comparison.
An unexpected pleasure of writing this column involves discovering hilariously, deliberately over-literal descriptions of songs on Wikipedia. The entry for The Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons,” for example, contains this gem:
Like “Don’t Cha” and “Beep,” the song has a strong sexual undertone; a lady teases her intended male subject to help her take her clothes off (hence the main chorus line “I’m telling you to loosen up my buttons”). However, she accuses him of being intimidated, leading her to believe he’s “all talk and no show.” She claims that she’s “heard what he’s sayin’ what he was going to do to her, but she’s seen nothing.” There is a presence of sexual frustration because the male involved refuses to unbutton the female’s clothes, despite his verbal teasing. She seems frustrated because she is aware she’s attractive but for some reason her men have not wanted to undergo sexual intercourse with her. The sexual frustration is embodied from her male partners’ inability to have sex with her, and most probably causes the female’s ever so slightly weakened—yet still large—ego. However, where most listeners would assume that the protagonist has finally lost interest, the song ends with the impression that she’s still teasing the man to unbutton her clothes.
“Buttons” maps out such a singularly confusing scenario that I imagine the conversation between lead Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger (at the risk of being controversial, she’s my favorite) and the dude she’s taunting must have gone, apologies to Bob Newhart, something like this:
Male Suitor: Oh man, the things I am going to do to you: They’re going to be pretty great, I can assure you.
Pussycat: Really? Cause I ain’t seen nothing yet.
Male Suitor: Well, you will.
Pussycat: Say, would you be a dear and help me take off these clothes, specifically by helping me with these tricky buttons so that my magnificent, not at all fake bosoms can be released from their cloth prison?
Male Suitor: Later. Say, I’m a “big boy” in the sense that I have something inside my pants that’s like a baby’s arm, the neck on a giraffe, or a large human penis.
Pussycat: I can’t agree. Cause the love you said you had ain’t been put on me. I wonder if I’m too much for you. I also wonder if my kiss don’t make you just wonder, what I got next for you, what you want to do?
Male Suitor: At the risk of repeating myself, the things I am going to do to you: They’re going to be pretty great, I can assure you. Also, I’m a “big boy” in the sense that I have something inside my pants that’s like a baby’s arm, the neck on a giraffe, or a large human penis. You’ll just have to take my word for it for the time being, but man, oh man, will sex with me ever be great.
(Pussycat Doll sighs exasperatedly, walks away)
I could see where this would be a little frustrating, though it does seem odd that Scherzinger compliments her unnamed male suitor for saying “all the right things” when the song’s narrative clearly makes him out to be something of a schmuck. Still, “Buttons” is a terrific guilty pleasure all the same: Polow Da Don (who also produced “London Bridge”) does a terrific Scott Storch impression on the boards and the teasing, playful vocals are as fun as they are ridiculous. If nothing else, the music video led to the spilling of more seed than an explosion at a Monsanto warehouse.
Despite their titles, “Sexy Love” is only moderately sexy, while “S.E.X.” is, if anything, anti-sexy. “Sexy Love” is a sleek little Michael Jackson-style Ne-Yo soul number (dig that “Human Nature” piano), while “S.E.X.” is an ominous message song about a teenaged girl who discovers that her power lies in her sexuality, but there’s a limit to that power and a dark side as well. The 23rd edition of NOW is full of uncomplicated celebrations of sex and sexuality, but “S.E.X.” serves as a stark reminder that sex is often a messy and complicated, especially when you’re a kid discovering your sexuality.
Here’s a fun, little known fact: OK Go doesn’t just make music videos: It also records what I guess are known as “songs” that people “listen to” instead of watching. NOW 23, for example, contains “Here It Goes Again,” a lively, fun new-wave number known to most of the public as the song that made the “treadmill video” possible. Hey, you know what’s awesome? The treadmill video. God bless these creative young men.
NOW contains a whole bunch of other songs, including Christina Aguilera’s DJ Premier-produced hit “Ain’t No Other Man,” JoJo’s “Too Little Too Late,” which is the kind of weary lament only a 15-year-old could pull off, and Hinder’s unspeakably awful “Lips Of An Angel.” But I’m going to close with the disc’s nicest surprise: Jessica Simpson’s “A Public Affair.” It’s a blatant knock-off of the bubbly, disco-infused synth-pop of early Madonna, but it’s also strangely winning, an exercise in giddy pop escapism delivered with a light touch. In 2006, the year sex broke, the breezy girls-night-out anthem served as a pleasant reminder that there are still pop stars who don’t need to trade on their ripe sexuality to sell records.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in pop music in December, 2006