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 38 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.
- “Bleeding Love,” Leona Lewis
- “Break The Ice,” Britney Spears
- “Killa,” Cherish featuring Yung Joc
- “Lollipop,” Lil Wayne featuring Static Major
- “Sexy Can I,” Ray J featuring Yung Berg
- “With You,” Chris Brown
- “Te Quiero,” Flex featuring Belinda
- “Pocketful Of Sunshine,” Natasha Bedingfield
- “No Air,” Jordin Sparks & Chris Brown
- “Realize,” Colbie Caillat
- “Stop And Stare,” OneRepublic
- “Say,” John Mayer
- “All Around Me,” Flyleaf
- “Shake It,” Metro Station
- “Beat It,” Fall Out Boy featuring John Mayer
- “Whatever It Takes,” Lifehouse
- “Feels Like Tonight,” Daughtry
- “In Love With A Girl,” Gavin DeGraw
- “You’re Gonna Miss This,” Trace Adkins
- “Our Song,” Taylor Swift
John Mayer used to think he had an image problem well before he actually did. It wasn’t enough for the singer-songwriter to be rich, handsome, tall, delicate-featured, obscenely wealthy, world famous, and a man who knew many of the most beautiful women in the world in a biblical fashion. That might be enough for you or me. But it just wasn’t enough for Mayer.
Mayer was obscenely popular, but he was not cool. In fact, he was egregiously non-cool, or rather his music was. Mayer made painfully earnest secretary rock even as he doggedly pursued an image as a hip and happening single artist on the move. There was a surreal disconnect between Mayer’s music and his self-image: It turns out you can’t be Dave Chappelle and Dave Matthews at the same time and you can’t be a scathing satirist/icon of cool when you make the musical equivalent of a Yankee Candle outlet down at the mall.
Take, for example, “Say,” one of two Mayer contributions to the 28th installment of NOW! That’s What I Call Music (the other being a guitar solo on Fall Out Boy’s cover of “Beat It”). It’s a representative Mayer sub-mediocrity, a snooze-inducing acoustic number trembling with insincerity as it delivers a blandly upbeat message to “Say what you need to say” no matter how dispirited or broken you might feel. Sappy strings, wimpy acoustic guitar, and a drummer operating at quarter-speed combine to make “Say” an utterly forgettable entry in Mayer’s equally undistinguished discography. Ironically, Mayer admonishes us all to say what we need to say when he really should have told himself to shut the fuck up. Mayer makes music to be played at Starbucks, but that’s certainly not how he saw himself then, or sees himself now.
Mayer apparently fancied himself a hipster. So he began cultivating relationships with people who could give him what he desperately lacked: credibility, hipness, authenticity, and something resembling an edge. People who would make the world forget “Your Body Is A Wonderland.” And he did what white people have historically done when they want to feel less terrible about the ineffable whiteness of their being: He publicly associated himself with as many cool black people as he could.
Mayer developed a bifurcated reputation as a musical sleeping pill for the bland and as a man who was far hipper and more interesting than his music would suggest. He appeared on Chappelle’s Show alongside ?uestlove. He appeared on Kanye West and Common albums. But this still wasn’t enough for Mayer. Mayer didn’t just want everyone to know that he hung out with cool, funny guys; he wanted to be recognized as a funnyman himself. This, friends, was not a good idea. Mayer might have been funny for a musician, but that’s a little like being studly for a Dungeons And Dragons champion: The bar’s set awfully low.
Stand-up comedy is an art form for underdogs, outcasts, and kids who use humor to survive the harrowing gauntlet of adolescence and protect themselves from getting beaten up after school every day. It is not a medium designed for moonlighting rich, famous rock stars who wish to share their delightfully skewed take on modern life. Yet Mayer made a giant target of himself anyway by coming to comedy clubs and performing brief sets. Comedians are competitive, resentful, and jealous under the best of circumstances. So you can only imagine how they must have felt to be told by comedy club managers that they should cut their sets short so that a man who could buy and sell them many times over took a brief break from fucking the Jennifer Anistons and Jessica Simpsons of the world to try his hand at stand-up comedy.
Mayer’s intertwined need to be seen as both a friend of black bohemia and a hilarious, outrageous stand-up comedian doomed him when he sat down for his notorious 2010 Playboy interview, which instantly sent his reputation spiraling from “wimpy artist/interesting guy” to “towering, ambiguously racist, unambiguously sexist douche.” Mayer was in fucking Playboy, man, just like Norman Mailer or Miles Davis or any of the other edgy, hyper-masculine icons of his youth. Finally, he had an opportunity to be himself, to conclusively wash the antiseptic smell of dentist waiting rooms and musty elevators off his bland persona and reveal himself as a straight-shooting, funny, outrageous truth-teller, Lenny Bruce with a guitar.
It was in this spirit that Mayer answered a question about whether his hip-hop cred had made him more popular with black women with his line about being the unfortunate possessor of a Benetton heart and a David Duke dick. This wasn’t Mayer the man who made secretaries swoon; this was Mayer the stand-up comic delivering a canned one-liner. It was a joke, but Mayer got the ratio of funny to offensive all wrong; it was all offense, no humor. Also, who makes David Duke references in this day and age? Does he have a plethora of Alf-themed wisecracks at his disposal at all times as well?
Mayer’s dreams of reinventing himself in the image of his cool countercultural heroes died a messy death early in his Playboy interview. Now Mayer will not be judged on the basis of the people he hangs out with, his stand-up comedy, his Twitter wisecracks, or the hip musicians, writers, and comedians he enjoys. No, Mayer is doomed to be judged on the basis of his music. It would be difficult to imagine a harsher or more just punishment.
Mayer isn’t the only wolf in sensitive dreamboat clothing here. The soon-to-be infamous Chris Brown pops up twice, once as a solo artist with “With You,” an acoustic-based ballad so wimpy and generic Mayer could have written it, and once as a duet partner with Jordin Sparks on “No Air.” Like Mayer, Brown is no Miles Davis-like tormented genius. We’re willing to tolerate, excuse, and even venerate the bad behavior of geniuses, but we’re thankfully less accepting of the tawdry transgressions of the mediocre and lucky, like Mayer and Brown, especially when their carefully crafted public images clash so violently with what we’ve learned about each. Like Mayer, there was a profound disconnect between the clean-cut image Brown’s label promoted and his real self, only this time it was even more profound.
By the time the 28th volume of NOW! hit stores, the slippery line separating hip-hop and R&B had all but disappeared. It all bled together into what John Hiatt calls one big musical centrifuge. It became hard to tell the rappers from the R&B singers: “Lollipop” is credited to Lil Wayne and Static Major, but since they’re both singing, it can be hard to tell them apart. There once was a time when a gangsta rapper with street credibility wouldn’t dream of recording an R&B song for women, let alone singing it.
In this brave new world, however, no one looked askance at Lil Wayne getting his Auto-Tune on, speak-singing a sleazy, intimate club song for women about how much he loves eating pussy. No one even gave him shit for borrowing “lovely lady lumps” from Black Eyed Peas. By then it was accepted that rap was pop. “Lollipop” is a supremely weird pop song: It has a slurred, dirty, slightly off quality rooted in Wayne’s famed dependencies on pot and prescription cough medicine. If Wayne can get away with bragging about kissing mentor/label head Baby—a much older man Wayne lovingly calls “Daddy”—on the lips as a “mafia kiss,” then he can probably get away with just about anything.
“Sexy Can I” and “Killa” are superior products of this hip-hop/R&B/pop mutation. They’re clear pop products pairing mediocre rappers with youthful monikers (Yung Berg and Yung Joc) with equally indistinguishable R&B acts (Ray J of Kim Kardashian sex-tape fame and girl group Cherish), but that doesn’t take anything away from the slick infectiousness of either song. On “Killa,” the ladies of Cherish pine for a sexy thug who might be a lady killer, an out-and-out murderer, or both over sexy, insistent synthesizers, while “Sexy Can I” is an airy guilty pleasure centering on that epicenter of contemporary R&B romance: the strip club. Imagine how much better Marvin Gaye’s music would have been if he’d included more references to “sliding down that pole” the way Ray J. does.
On “Break The Ice” Britney Spears coos, pants, and whispers come-ons over a beat that never stops moving and pulsating, a beat that seems to be alive and evolving every minute or so. “Break The Ice” is pure sonic sex; Spears may be a studio concoction, but as long as she’s releasing singles this infectious, I’m not about to complain.
On “Break The Ice,” the simmering beat matches the lascivious lyrics, whereas Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” offers a strange juxtaposition of incredibly morbid lyrics comparing romantic heartbreak to an internal medical collapse with antiseptic production that turns a song that should, as its title suggests, bleed and brood and sulk into something incongruously shiny and plastic. “Bleeding Love” is borderline goth in its lyrics, but pure R&B in its delivery.
In its own way, “Shake It” is sonic sex as well. Like the best new wave, it conveys the nervous energy, pummeling intensity, and all-consuming horniness of adolescence sonically and lyrically. The synthesizers are pure 1981, as is lead singer Mason Musso’s sexy-geek delivery. Even the band’s name—Metro Station—hearkens back to the giddy days of the Motels and Violent Femmes.
Pop music is about sex. NOW 28 reeks of the strip club, yet it ends with a return to dewy, wide-eyed, All-American innocence from Taylor Swift, America’s sweetheart and everyone’s beloved little sister. “Our Song” is pure spun sugar about the giddy rush of young love. In it, Swift is riding in a car with a boyfriend when she casually remarks that they don’t have a song of their own. The boyfriend replies that of course they have a song of their own: “Our song is the slamming screen door / Sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window / When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow / ’Cause it’s late and your mama don’t know”
Their song, in other words, is less three minutes of pop perfection than the sweet little moments of connection that add up to something big and dramatic. It’s pure corn, a Norman Rockwell-like vision of a vanished America where young lovers cuddled by the swimming hole instead of engaging in mutual long-distance masturbation via Skype. It’s corny and shameless, and I was entirely won over by it: the energy, the guileless enthusiasm, the daft innocence and irrepressible lust for life. It’s a song by someone who has not yet had her spirit broken by a cruel and uncaring world.
Who doesn’t love Taylor Swift? I’ll tell you who: that fucking John Mayer douche. They did a duet together and then Mayer apparently played havoc with Swift’s fragile psyche, leading her to write a song “Dear John” about him. She apparently thought about calling it, “John Mayer, You Are Such A Towering Fucking Douche, I Hate You” but that would be a little bit too on the nose. Man, fuck that John Mayer for breaking our Taylor’s heart. In that respect, he’s nearly as bad as that awful “Kanye” fellow from the last column.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in music in summer 2008
- Little Brother hooks up with DJ Drama for the awesome mix CD … And Justus For All.
- Girl Talk makes Feed The Animals available for free download.
- RZA releases another album as Bobby Digital for some reason.
- G-Unit flops big-time with Terminate On Sight.
- Miley Cyrus achieves superstar status with Breakout.