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.
1. “Don’t Stop The Music,” Rihanna
2. “Just Fine,” Mary J. Blige
3. “Feedback,” Janet Jackson
4. “Piece Of Me,” Britney Spears
5. “Clumsy,” Fergie
6. “Tattoo,” Jordin Sparks
7. “Love Like This,” Natasha Bedingfield featuring Sean Kingston
8. “Kiss Kiss,” Chris Brown featuring T-Pain
9. “Flashing Lights,” Kanye West featuring Dwele
10. “Take You There,” Sean Kingston
11. “Suffocate,” J. Holiday
12. “No One,” Alicia Keys
13. “Love Song,” Sara Bareilles
14. “Apologize,” Timbaland featuring OneRepublic
15. “Hero/Heroine,” Boys Like Girls
16. “Crushcrushcrush,” Paramore
17. “Paralyzer,” Finger Eleven
18. “Into The Night,” Santana featuring Chad Kroeger
19. “Teardrops On My Guitar,” Taylor Swift
20.“Everybody,” Keith Urban
I originally conceived my column Nashville Or Bust as a ramble that would begin with me prostrating myself before the gods of country’s illustrious past before chronicling the genre’s uneasy transition through countrypolitan and the Nashville sound into the urban cowboy phase before confronting the unimaginable horror of contemporary mainstream country. I would begin in the paradise of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills before noshing on the apple of wisdom/overused metaphors and ending up cast out into the wilderness alongside Toby Keith, Shania Twain, and other much-maligned personages from our corrupt contemporary country world.
It didn’t quite work out that way. I got sidetracked by countless minor distractions and weird cult figures and ended up touching upon the world of mainstream current country only tangentially. Besides, by that point I’d fallen in love with country and would rather devote space to praising overlooked greats than snarking it up about the glamour girls and pretty boys that dominate the genre commercially.
I wish, for example, that I’d gotten around to covering Taylor Swift, who is fascinating in her monstrous banality. Even after the whole business with Kanye West went down, I never really thought about Taylor Swift, because in this crazy modern age, who has the time? I’d written her off as a cute little girl who wrote agonizingly maudlin ballads that tapped into the low-level romantic angst of teenage girls everywhere. After listening to “Teardrops On My Guitar,” her contribution to the 27th installment of Now That’s What I Call Music, however, it became clear that Swift isn’t just a cute little girl; she’s The Cute Little Girl. She epitomizes a beloved cultural archetype. She’s everyone’s puppyish sister, a wispy little princess-next-door whose mild embarrassment at the hands of a drunken black man with a history of Tourette’s-like outbursts at public affairs unleashed the public’s protective/ambiguously racist side (the two tend to go hand in hand).
When Kanye leaped onstage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to agitate on behalf of a plucky up-and-coming artist named Beyoncé Knowles in a deliciously irrelevant, tardy gesture, he unwittingly catapulted himself and Swift straight into the middle of our society’s raging cultural divide. Kanye is the ultimate post-racial pop star for the Obama era, but Swift is so blindingly, comically, ridiculously over-the-top white that anyone who isn’t John Tesh is bound to look exotic by comparison. Kanye was, as always, out of bounds and talking out of his ass, but there was a method to his madness. Obviously it’d be preferable if pop-culture bullies didn’t go around traumatizing teenage girls, and obviously awards mean nothing, but Kanye was at least on the side of art when he argued semi-coherently that a daring video represents a greater artistic triumph than another slice of soggy televisual white bread from Swift.
Maybe it wasn’t fair that Swift beat Beyoncé, but waiting for the world to be fair is a recipe for madness. In the end, Kanye’s minute and a half of public humiliation will lead to years and years of goodwill for Swift. Kanye, if you’re ever tempted to stop by the A.V. Club offices and want to interrupt an Inventory taping by, say, leaping into the frame and saying, “Yo, Nabin, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish but the Red Skelton cameo from Ocean’s Eleven was one of the greatest performances by an actor playing themselves of all time! I don’t know how you could say Malkovich was better in Being John Malkovich” go right ahead.
Swift wasn’t just a country singer; she was our little princess and the big bad rapper guy just had to ruin her precious moment of triumph. It obviously must have sucked in the moment, but getting interrupted by Kanye at some stupid awards show (though I realize the phrase “stupid awards show” is redundant) is the best thing that could have happened to Swift’s career. It made a multi-platinum superstar look like a plucky underdog and expanded Swift’s exposure far beyond the world of NOW! and country radio. It earned Swift a permanent place in pop culture.
Swift is an unlikely underdog in her music as well. Though my knowledge of her oeuvre is limited to the running commentary of our own Amelie Gillette and “Teardrops On My Guitar,” it appears that in all of her songs, she’s pining after some impossibly perfect dream boy who looks right through her because he’s in love with the head cheerleader. That’s certainly the case in “Teardrops On My Guitar,” a maudlin ballad whose title says it all. There’s the John Hughes-ready teenybopper tragedy of a cute girl warping the wood on her instrument with her copious tears of heartbreak, but also the pluck of the girl in question even playing the guitar in the first place.
You’ve got to give Swift this much: At least she writes her own damn songs. True, those songs often feel like they were taken wholesale from the diary of a drippy teenage girl, but at least the nauseatingly sentimental lyrics and trite sentiments on display emerged from Swift’s psyche and are not the product of some grizzled 57-year-old Nashville warrior trying to put himself inside the mind of a 17-year-old girl. That accounts for an awful lot: “Teardrops On My Guitar” is terrible, but it’s also terribly sincere. Swift genuinely seems to mean the banalities she’s singing, and in pop music that’s an essential gift and one that’s hard to fake.
If I’d continued Nashville or Bust for another two years I probably would have gotten around to covering Keith Urban, Mr. Nicole Kidman and an exemplar of slick mediocrity whose inoffensive song stylings have made him a NOW! fixture. On NOW! 27, the ironically named Urban—it would be hard to imagine a less urban artist—contributes “Everybody,” a song that’s little more than a string of inspirational aphorisms wedded to a bland acoustic-guitar-and-strings-dominated arrangement, in which Urban admonishes us to let our voice be heard and not to give up on account of our proximity to a brand new day. It’s a Successories poster in song form, and a good example of the stifling slickness that suffocates so much modern country.
Mary J. Blige spent the first few years of her recording career immersed in all manner of personal and professional drama, and the ensuing years letting us all know that she’s made it through the pain and the hard times and is now doing just fine. That is, shockingly, the message of her contribution to this compilation, “Just Fine.” If “Everybody” suggests Successories in song form, “Just Fine” feels more like an aggregation of self-help bromides. It’s easy to imagine self-esteem-impaired folks taping up lyrics like the following to their walls and mirrors as daily affirmations:
- I like what I see when I walk past a mirror.
- I’ve got my head on straight and my vibe right.
- Get the best out of life!
- Treat yourself to something new.
- I [am not] going to let nothing stand in my way.
- I appreciate life. I’m so glad that it’s mine.
- I’ma still wear a smile if it’s raining.
Nothing too compelling or revolutionary, but Blige can pull off this kind of you-go-girl, empowering feel-good anthem like no one else. “Just Fine” is no “A Family Affair,” but it’s pleasant enough and we’re all just glad Blige continues to be on an even keel. We worry about her, you know.
From there we descend into the Valley Of The Ultra-Divas, a realm inhabited by such icons of fierce femininity as Rihanna, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, and Janet Jackson. Rihanna does that futuristic sex-robot thing she does so well on “Please Don’t Stop The Music,” an electro-dance number that begins at a simmer and ratchets up the heat and sexuality until it’s boiling hot. The ghost of Michael Jackson haunts much of the pop music world, but rarely as directly as it does on “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” The background is littered with ghostly echoes of Jackson’s falsetto screams that build in intensity until they explode into a full-on recitation of the nonsense phrases from “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” No matter where you go or what you do, you simply cannot escape the looming specter of Michael Jackson.
That goes double if you’re Janet Jackson. “Feedback” finds Janet in a difficult place professionally: She’d long ago traded in the quasi-militaristic rigor of the Rhythm Nation days for ripe, dance-floor-friendly sensuality, but it’s hard to grow older as a sex symbol in a pop field that deifies youth. Sex symbols make their living being impossible objects of desire, but after they top 40, they begin to seem less like sexual fantasies and more like somebody’s mom. Even more disconcertingly, “Feedback” finds Jackson trading in the organic sexuality of The Velvet Rope for trendy Auto-Tuned synthetic R&B. It’s still a solid dance track but it nevertheless reeks a little of desperation.
Like Jackson, Spears has lived pretty much her entire adult life in the blinding spotlight of the public eye. Preposterously named songwriting team Bloodshy & Avant were told that Britney Spears’ camp had an unofficial rule prohibiting references to Spears’ personal life in her music, but they cavalierly ignored this dictate and churned out “Piece Of Me.” It’d be tempting to call the song a howl of rage directed toward the rapacious packs of media jackals that follow her everywhere she goes, but it’s less apoplectic than disconcertingly resigned. Spears doesn’t even seem to have the energy or the resources to fight tabloid intrusions into her life; she’s too exhausted to do anything more than acknowledge that her life has devolved into a never-ending media circus. That sense of exhaustion and resignation ends up making the song far more powerful and effective than it would be if it were powered by rage.
When I think of the song’s title, I’m reminded of the famous Hustler cover of a naked woman’s body being run through a grinder (a phenomenally misguided attempt to convey to a skeptical world that a now-saved Larry Flynt would not be objectifying women anymore). In “Piece Of Me,” Spears’ image of herself as a whole being is compromised by a world interested only in her flesh, in reducing her to tits and ass and hair and teeth and ripe teenaged sexuality. That brutal physicality goes a long way toward elevating it above other price-of-fame songs.
At the risk of damning it with the very faintest of praise, “Clumsy” is one of my favorite Fergie songs, but that’s probably just because it samples Little Richard’s theme song for The Girl Can’t Help It. Anyone that might inspire people to check out Little Richard or the Eisenhower-era masterpieces of Frank Tashlin is doing God’s work, even if it’s Fergie.
In an ever-more digital world, Alicia Keys’ “No One” stands out as a glorious artifact from a lost era of organic soul and R&B. It’s a sweepingly romantic anthem as propulsive in its own way as “Empire State of Mind.” I’m a little mixed on Keys on the whole. I feel like she’s someone I should like a lot more than I do, but the breathless bigness and widescreen longing of “No One” really won me over.
I hadn’t realized that the toxic combination of Chad Kroeger and Santana contributed a joint track to NOW 27 because my iTunes considerately deleted the song from my iPod before I could listen to it. Good looking out, iTunes. I’ll be sure to repay the favor someday, perhaps by not linking to the video of that misbegotten track.
The story behind Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” is as good, if not better, than the song itself. Then again, the story behind “Love Song” sort of is the story of the song. Sara Bareilles’ record company reportedly asked her to contribute one last track to her album. They felt it needed a love song. She felt strongly otherwise. In passive-aggressive defiance, Bareilles wrote a song about why she didn’t feel the need to prostitute her muse to conform to the fickle commercial dictates of the record industry in a hit song that paradoxically conformed to the fickle commercial dictates of the recording industry while simultaneously lashing out against them. Got it? And it’s not a half-bad piece of righteously indignant secretary rock either. Feeding the music-industry beast while simultaneously lashing out against it: That’s a very NOW That’s What I Call Music! form of prankish pop pragmatism.
Up Next on THEN: Lil Wayne wants you to lick, lick, lick, lick, lick him like a lollipop, Fall Out Boy and John Mayer beat it, Ray J and his enormous penis hit the charts with “Sexy Can I,” and Natasha Bedingfield contributes the ominously named “Pocketful Of Sunshine.”
Outside the Bubble: What else was happening in music in Spring 2008
- Thriller is re-released for its 25th anniversary, holds up pretty well.
- Scott Weiland leaves Velvet Revolver to reunite with Stone Temple Pilots, world weeps in sadness.
- Del The Funky Homosapien releases incredibly disappointing comeback album on Definitive Jux.
- She And Him release the pretty, pointless Volume One.
- Flight Of The Conchords releases its self-titled debut.