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.
- “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs,” Fall Out Boy
- “Girlfriend,” Avril Lavigne
- “The Sweet Escape,” Gwen Stefani featuring Akon
- “U + Ur Hand,” Pink
- “Glamorous,” Fergie featuring Ludacris
- “Beautiful Liar,” Beyoncé and Shakira
- “Summer Love,” Justin Timberlake
- “Because Of You,” Ne-Yo
- “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” T-Pain featuring Yung Joc
- “Get It Shawty,” Lloyd
- “Pop, Lock & Drop It,” Huey
- “Like This,” Mims
- “I Tried,” Bone Thugs N Harmony featuring Akon
- “Outta My System,” Bow Wow featuring T-Pain & Johnta Austin
- “Never Again,” Kelly Clarkson
- “The Great Escape,” Boys Like Girls
- “I Told You So,” Keith Urban
- “Before He Cheats” Carrie Underwood
- “Wait For You,” Elliott Yamin
- “Home,” Daughtry
Pop culture has long had an emotionally abusive relationship with teenage girls and young women. Television, movies, commercials, pop songs, books and MTV reality shows about self-styled “guidos” and “guidettes” inundate impressionable young minds with the message that unless girls conform to impossible beauty standards they have no worth as human beings and might as well not exist. When it comes to young women, our society prizes physical appearances and shiny, shiny surfaces above all else. In that context, it’s easy to see why silly pop songs like Pink’s “U + Ur Hand” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” can feel disproportionately empowering, even subversive. Hell, they even feel a little dangerous in a safe, commercial, non-dangerous sort of way.
Pop music captures an ongoing cultural conversation between men and women, a never-ending battle of the sexes. That’s especially true of the 25th edition of NOW! The compilation contains no fewer than three songs from male artists whose explicit message is “I have lots of money and will buy you alcohol, so you should have sex with me and then do a silly dance.” On a 20-track compilation that means 15 percent of the songs are devoted to that charming line of discourse.
Ah, but which of these three Princes among men should we yield to? Whose pimp game is the strongest? Who has the most convincing argument as to why we should have sex with him? Let’s take a look at our competitors, then we’ll let the divas have their say.
Bachelor No. 1: T-Pain
Song: “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
Silly Dances Advocated: Snapping Fingers, Two Stepping, Walking It Out
Pitch: Mr. Pain isn’t afraid to stick with the classics. He opens with, “What’s your name” before inundating us with a flurry of boasts, promises and proposals. He introduces himself (“I’m T-Pain”) before confusingly insisting “You know me” as well as his affiliation with such labels as Konvict Music and Nappy Boy. Then he gets bold, proposing that we head on over to his crib where he can show us how he lives so we can “get drunk and forget what we did.” Is there anything more romantic than asking someone to get blackout drunk with him? Is there a more flattering message than “I want you to be so impaired that you will literally no memory of having had sex with me”?
T-Pain starts off bold, then grows in chutzpah until he’s flat-out insisting, “I’ma buy you a drank / I’ma take you home with me.” T-Pain’s rationale for going home with him is characteristically blunt: “I got money in the bank,” he crows. Ah, but what exactly are we to do with Mr. Pain once we get back home with him? T-Pain helpfully suggests that we will soon be in the bed like, “Ooh, ooh oh, ooh ooh.” Some artists might stop at asking listeners to come home with them, or, alternately, let listeners fill in the blanks after proposing that we get drunk, head home, and end up in bed together. Not T-Pain. He helpfully points out that in bed we won’t be playing canasta or discussing the explosive rhetoric and frightening rise of the Tea Party; we’ll be in the bed making crazy sex noises. This, presumably, is because we’ll be having crazy sex with T-Pain. In his bed. While drunk to the point of senselessness. Granted, T-Pain doesn’t flat-out say we’ll be having sex but that’s clearly the implication. That leaves it up to the good fellas over at Lonely Island and T-Pain’s mentor—and Konvict Muzik boss—Akon to make the inference explicit, God bless them.
Bachelor #2: Mims
Song: “Like This”
Silly Dance Advocated: Doing It Like This
Pitch: Like T-Pain, Mims is in lust with a stripper and isn’t shy about rattling off his credits in a shameless attempt to get inside her G-string. He’s arguably even more shameless in his sales pitch than T-Pain. The top-hat enthusiast merely mentions his fortune and label affiliations; Mims hauls out concrete numbers. When the stripper in his sights whispers in her ear she enjoys Mims’ hit song “This Is Why I’m Hot,” he helpfully points out that it’s available on ringtone, was a top-10 download, and hit No. 1 on the ringtones chart. In the extended remix version, I understand he makes an impromptu PowerPoint presentation outlining the song’s performance in major markets across the country and internationally before crunching the numbers and offering an up-to-the-minute account of his total holdings, liquid or otherwise. Also, alcohol is involved.
Bachelor #3: Huey
Song: “Pop, Lock & Drop It”
Silly Dance Advocated: The Pop, Lock, & Drop It
Pitch: Huey states explicitly that he and his colleagues are not about “tricking,” or dispensing cash freely to desirable young women in hopes of attaining sexual favors, but, in the grand tradition of sleazy hip-hop come-ons, insists he’ll make a rare exception in deference to your remarkable beauty. Huey’s seduction game is heavy on belligerence. He tells his target she’s cute, then admonishes her not to let it go to her head. After all, as Huey charmingly notes, what this “cutie” won’t do to him, another, less discriminating woman will. Huey nurses a pessimistic take on human nature; he insists “You probably roll with me ’cause it’s money in my pockets” That seems like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; considering how loathsome and brazenly insulting he is during the rest of the song, why on earth would anyone get with a creep like Huey if not for purely mercenary reasons? Like attracts like. It’s a testament to how disturbing Mims and Huey’s come-ons come off that T-Pain’s offer to have sex while blackout drunk almost seems swooningly romantic by comparison.
What these three caballeros really seem to want are prostitutes: women who will get drunk and have sex with them in exchange for money and proximity to fame and glamour. Ah, but the men of hip-hop and R&B are too innately arrogant to go in for prostitution; the very idea that they should have to pay for sex is an unforgivable insult to their overly developed sense of pride.
I wrote earlier that pop music captures an ongoing cultural conversation about sex. I like to think of Pink’s “U + Ur Hand” as a direct response to T-Pain, Mims, and Huey’s barroom/nightclub boorishness and wholly unmerited sense of sexual entitlement. In it, Pink hits the club with her girlfriends, only to be hit on and manhandled by some Huey-like asshole who seems to think buying cute girls a round of shots entitles him to a handjob in the parking lot at least.
Pink isn’t having it. In response to the barroom Casanova’s advances she howls semi-righteously, “Keep your drink just give the money / It’s just you and your hand tonight.” “I’m not here for your entertainment!” Pink howls pointedly to the Hueys and Mims and T-Pains of the world. Of course, in the real world Pink doesn’t need your drink or your money; she could probably buy and sell everyone at the bar. But pop singers, especially divas, don’t just sing for themselves and the few people in the world who breathe their rarified air. For young women inundated with pop culture’s constant, destructive messages, Pink’s Beyonce-by-way-of-Joan Jett theme of “Fuck you and your drink, I’m all the company I need tonight” must sound cathartic.
In a perfect world, a song like Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. But contemporary country is still sleepy and conservative enough that a song about a woman taking a baseball bat to her cheating boyfriend’s beloved car while he chats up some barroom skank still comes off gutsy. Of course, country is full of songs about cheating, but in the 1960s of Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and Tammy Wynette, women generally took aim at other women for stealing their men rather than holding men accountable for their actions. So it’s a mark of mild progress at least that Underwood, a prefabricated pop-star if ever there were one, directs most of her vitriol at the asshole cheating on her rather than the bimbo he’s cheating with.
Like Pink, Avril Lavigne has gotten way too much praise for deviating ever so slightly from the teen-pop factory that gave the world Britney Spears and an army of imitators. Lavigne’s pseudo-rebellion is a matter of attitude and image more than substance or subversiveness. In a world of girly girls, she’s a tomboy rocking wife beaters and trousers instead of push-up bras and miniskirts. But by the time “Girlfriend” rolled around and Lavigne started bragging about being “the motherfucking princess” in a nyah-nyah-nyah sneer while playing dress-up opposite cute boys, she’d clearly left the stoners and skater boys behind and was sitting at the popular table with the cheerleaders, metaphorically speaking. It would only get worse: On “Hot,” Lavigne was reduced to trying to out-Britney Britney. And failing.
Underwood isn’t the only American Idol alum channeling her inner Medusa. On the acid-tongued kiss-off “Never Again,” Kelly Clarkson makes her bad intentions known from the opening couplets, “I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green / I hope when you’re in bed with her you think of me / I would never wish bad things but I don’t wish you well” over nervous guitar strumming and dark drums. I’d never thought much of Clarkson before this series, but I’ve developed quite a liking to her more rock-oriented songs. “Never Again” is ingratiatingly nasty and nervy, a rocker with guts. Apparently there is more to her than the explosive sexual chemistry she shared with Justin Guarini in From Justin To Kelly.
Now 25 gets less interesting the further it strays from the battle of the sexes template, but it’s not without its minor pleasures, like Ne-Yo’s silky R&B number “Because Of You” (which pales in comparison to the remix featuring Kanye West) and Lloyd’s pretty “Get It Shawty” (though the original pales in comparison to the remix featuring Li’l Wayne).
Since this column is all about women with the nerve to say, “Fuck you, I’m awesome” to the scummy men of the world, and the men who make that line of discourse necessary, let’s end things with Mrs. “Fuck You, I’m Awesome” herself: Beyoncé, who collaborates with the equally ferocious Shakira on “Beautiful Liar.” The song finds two of the hottest women of the past millennia sleeping with the same honesty-averse looker. But rather than engage in a musical catfight, the divas decide to put the blame where it belongs: on the no-good piece of shit who somehow isn’t satisfied with Beyoncé or Shakira alone. These wise elders understand intuitively that the only solution to the plague of male assholery is a big old helping of female solidarity. Amen, sisters. “Beautiful Liar” is a song with a strong, empowering message of sisterhood and you can masturbate to it! A win-win situation if ever there were one.
Up next on THEN!: Kanye West will not be told nothing, Sean Kingston is driven to suicidal depths by feminine attractiveness, the Plain White T's are all, “Hey there, Delilah!” and Nickelback lurches blearily further into the farthest reaches of self-parody with that horrible fucking “Rock Star” song.
Outside The Now Bubble: What else was happening in pop music circa Summer 2007
- Max Roach dies. Friends bang out crazy be-bop rhythm on his casket to honor his passing.
- Boots Randolph dies. Casket somehow gets lost in crazy sped-up mix-up set to “Yakkety Sax.”
- Beastie Boys yield to overwhelming public demand and release another instrumental album, The Mix-Up.
- Twiztid releases Independents Day.
- Prince puts out Planet Earth.