In early 2010, A.V. Club head 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.
1. “Fergalicious,” Fergie featuring Will.I.Am
2. “Break It Off,” Rihanna featuring Sean Paul
3. “Say It Right,” Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland
4. “Irreplaceable,” Beyoncé
5. “My Love,” Justin Timberlake featuring T.I.
6. “I Wanna Love You,” Akon featuring Snoop Dogg
7. “Shortie Like Mine,” Bow Wow featuring Chris Brown and Johnta Austin
8. “You,” Lloyd featuring Lil Wayne
9. “Promise,” Ciara
10. “Ice Box,” Omarion
11. “Say Goodbye,” Chris Brown
12. “Put Your Records On,” Corinne Bailey Rae
13. “Smile,” Lily Allen
14. “Suddenly I See,” KT Tunstall
15. “Here (In Your Arms),” Hellogoodbye
16. “Face Down,” The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
17. “How to Save a Life,” The Fray
18. “If Everyone Cared,” Nickelback
19. “It’s Not Over,” Daughtry
20. “It Ends Tonight,” The All-American Rejects
“Irreplaceable,” Beyoncé’s contribution to the 24th installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music! and the definitive example of her “Fuck you, I’m awesome!” aesthetic, represents a savvy act of misdirection: The title and acoustic arrangement both seem to promise a dewy ballad about someone irreplaceable.
Ah, but only one person is irreplaceable in Beyoncé’s Beyoncé-centric universe: herself. So if you think she’s going to spend “Irreplaceable” professing undying devotion to someone she’s can’t live without, you must not know about B, you must not know about B. For if Beyoncé’s work here has illustrated anything, it’s that she could have another you in a minute. According to the song, she already does and he will, in fact, be over in a minute. “Irreplaceable” is consequently a poisonous kiss-off with the slinky, ingratiating softness of a moony ballad.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Beyoncé pulling off a song like this. On “Irreplaceable” and elsewhere, Beyoncé sometimes suggests a musical dominatrix. She’s here to let us know what sniveling, worthless, sub-human pieces of shit we are and how we should consider ourselves lucky just to tongue-kiss her thigh-high boots, expecting us to pay handsomely for the privilege and enjoy ourselves in the process. And we do.
The misdirection begins with the very first words: “To the left, to the left.” But Beyoncé isn’t introducing some new dance; she wants you to know that she’s considerately packed your bags and you can find them on the left. Once Beyoncé starts talking shit she doesn’t stop, crossing her arms in the classic defensive position and calling you on your crap. In B’s universe, she’s the one with all the power: financial, creative, inter-personal. And she isn’t afraid to twist the knife, like when she scathingly quips, “You keep talking that mess, that’s fine / but can you walk and talk at the same time?” Beyoncé isn’t even going to let you stand there and explain yourself. Nope, you need to leave and you need to leave now.
“Irreplaceable” would be subversive no matter what, but it gains additional power from Beyoncé’s relationship with Jay-Z. It’s one thing for an unknown R&B singer to release a single letting a cheating boyfriend know he can be replaced in a heartbeat while no one could ever take her place; it’s another for the same single to come from the partner of one of the most powerful, popular, and richest men in pop music. Granted, “Irreplaceable” probably wasn’t written about Jay-Z, but the possibility that it might be gives it a weird kick. There’s only woman in the world who could tell Jay-Z he’s replaceable., and that’s our B.
Like “Irreplaceable,” Lily Allen’s “Smile” Trojan-horses vicious, nastily personal sentiments inside a pretty, breezy, deceptively unthreatening package. When I first heard Allen perform it on Saturday Night Live it struck me as the perfect summer single, a bubblegum-reggae feel-good anthem about joy. Then I listened to the lyrics and realized Allen is less a garden-variety pop tart than a cookie full of arsenic. The sunny title belies Smile’s vitriolic content, for it’s not love, friendship, rainbows, or puppies that make Allen smile: It’s the thought of a cheating ex suffering disproportionately for his transgressions that makes her grin from ear to ear. It’s the delicious schadenfreude of a hated ex receiving his comeuppance.
“Smile” hit American shores riding a crest of hype surrounding Allen. Allen was a feature writer’s dream: She was born famous and rich, the daughter of Keith Allen, an actor, comedian, television presenter, and all-around man about town who has had six children by four different woman. She’s cute in an unthreatening sort of way. She wrote and recorded caustic little ditties chronicling the mindless decadence of her and her friends, a generation rich enough to afford the cheap thrills favored by the very wealthy.
On Alright, Still Allen sings with jaded nonchalance and sarcastic wit about the foibles and follies of the over-educated and over-rich whose mad hunt for pleasure at any cost never leads to any real happiness. They’re the kind of early twentysomethings who can’t even comprehend what it must feel like to be 30 or older (yuck!) yet are just self-aware enough to feel a twinge of remorse for the dead-end emptiness of their lives.
Allen sings, in other words, like a smart, precocious, and clever young woman too impressed by the naughtiness of her music, a woman who hasn’t yet come to the realization that the beginning of wisdom comes with knowing that you don’t really know anything at all. Beyoncé earned her divadom through talent, hard work, and the kind of ambition only Alexander The Great shared; Allen was born into it.
The estimable Amelie Gillette once wrote that “My Love,” Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, and T.I.’s contribution to NOW 24, sounds “like the inner workings of a computer.” I would extend that observation to the entirety of Timabland’s oeuvre. It’s not enough for him to merely sound like the pro holding it down at the soundboard; he apparently wants listeners to think of him as the pro holding it down inside the soundboard.
Timbaland made retro-futurism a key part of his aesthetic years before T-Pain and Akon became superstars pretending to be drunken, horny robots. He’s all about synthesizers and voice distorters; on “My Love,” Timberlake unleashes an otherworldly falsetto over waves of chilly synthesizers and multi-tracked harmonizing. It’s a song that should lose its novelty and freshness quickly, but it’s grown on me with time.
“My Love” represents, above all else, a victory of singing and production over lyrics. Reduced to mere words, “My Love” is a ballad of almost staggering banality. There are fresher come-ons in the average Smooove B column. Actually, I’m not entirely sure Smoove didn’t ghost-write lyrics like, “If I told you were beautiful, would you date me on the regular?” and “I can see us holding hands / Walking on the beach, our toes in the sand / I can see us on the countryside / sitting on the grass layin’ side by side.” If he were to throw in an “Also, there will be gravy,” I’d know for sure Smoove was responsible.
It’s as if Timberlake thought up the most painfully trite lyrics he could imagine, then called it a day. Yet “My Love” is a terrific song all the same because this kind of production-driven R&B has never been dependent on great—or even good—lyrics. On “My Love,” the lyrics are adequate; it’s Timberlake’s tender falsetto and incongruous vulnerability and Timbaland’s production that sell the song. Besides, “My Love” is secretly an unbeatable engagement song; maybe Timberlake penned lyrics like “This ring here represents my heart” in hopes that he could score a Tiffany’s commercial if times got tough.
There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re stuck inside the soundboard at a studio other than produce chilly electro jams for a who’s-who of pop and R&B royalty, so Timbaland has accordingly has been very busy. In addition to “My Love,” he also produced Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” and Omarion’s “Ice Box.”
Then again, Timbaland may not, in fact, be stuck inside a soundboard; now that I think about it, he is clearly stuck inside the game that serves as Tron: Legacy’s setting. And who was the ne’er-do-well who cruelly trapped Timbaland inside a game of his own devising? That’s right, pop music’s preeminent evil genius: Hologram Will.I.Am.
Hologram Will.I.Am clearly cloned himself sometime around the last presidential election, then traveled back in time so he could trap the top producers of the day inside an elaborate video game so they could do his bidding and ghost-produce for him on the down low. Think about it. It just makes sense.
Timbaland and everyone else’s tormentor makes his presence felt as the guest vocalist of Fergie on “Fergalicious,” a song that dares to ask the question, “Is it possible for a song to suck harder than ‘My Humps’?” with an unmistakable, “Oh, fuck yes.” Where “My Humps” was content to rip off Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” “Fergalicious” goes a little more obscure by haplessly stealing from J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” for another asinine celebration of Fergie’s ripe sexuality. On “My Humps” Fergie promised to love you long time. On “Fergalicious,” however, she feels the need to assert her untainted virtue in no uncertain terms. “I ain’t easy,” Fergie angrily insists, before forcefully proclaiming, “I ain’t sleazy” and ultimately, “I’m not promiscuous.” Methinks the Dutchess doth protest too much.
“Fergalicious” is a pop song that lasts several lifetimes. It’s audio torture, arguably Fergie’s greatest crime against music and a song that leaves nowhere to go but up.
This column has given me many gifts, including a renewed appreciation for secretary rock done right. Having lustily sampled all the pop world has to offer, I now have a greater respect for the songcraft that goes behind Corrine Bailey Rae’s Norah Jones homage “Put Your Records On” and KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, robo-man Akon returns alongside Snoop Dogg (who would go Auto-Tune crazy himself on “Sensual Seduction”) on a song originally titled, “I Wanna Fuck You.” That’s the not-so-secret message of most love songs, especially of the hip-hop variety, but for some reason that’s not a song title that resonates with radio programmers. So Akon and Snoop Dogg were forced to compromise their creative vision and artistic integrity by changing the song’s title to “I Wanna Love You.” The song belongs to a curious subgenre specific to Akon and T-Pain: love songs to strippers. Akon uses his honeyed words and gift for rhetoric to try to convince a particularly beguiling stripper to come home with him, when I nurse a sneaking suspicion that all it takes is a few hundred bucks to get inside the average stripper’s G-string. Akon acknowledges as much when he sings, “I’m going to get you out of this club if it means spending a couple dubs.” Oh Akon, as long as you and T-Pain are working your robo-magic, chivalry will never be dead.
Like most volumes, the 24th entry in NOW That’s What I Call Music! ends with a gauntlet of terrible contemporary rock songs. Unlike most volumes, it ends with a pleasant surprise: The All-American Rejects’ “It Ends Tonight.” The song is an overwrought exercise in humorless melodrama, complete with lyrics like “Your subtleties / They strangle me,” and that’s the first fucking line. Yet despite the excess and dour tone, it nevertheless captures, clearly and powerfully, the sense of exhaustion, world-weariness, and finality that comes with a conclusive break-up. In its artlessness it ends up being strangely honest. For all its bleary excess, it feels like an oasis of unexpected truth in a sea of pop bullshit.
Next up on THEN! Avril Lavigne has some ideas about your romantic future, Fall Out Boy blows up, Carrie Underwood has points to consider before pondering infidelity, and Pink hopes you have fun jerking off tonight, loser
Outside The Bubble: What else was happening in pop music in Spring, 2007
- Bobby “Boris” Pickett dies; “Monster Mash” played mournfully at his funeral.
- Kanye West protégé/signee Consequence releases Don’t Quit Your Day Job, invites pithy put-downs from critics.
- Korn finally fulfills the wishes of an enraged nation by finally releasing an MTV Unplugged session.
- Iggy Pop and some of the Stooges reunite for the Steve Albini-helmed comeback album The Weirdness.
- Insane Clown Posse unleashes The Tempest.