Volume 29 (November 2008)

  1. “So What,” Pink 
  2. “Hot N Cold,” Katy Perry
  3. “When I Grow Up,” Pussycat Dolls
  4. “Disturbia,” Rihanna
  5. “Closer,” Ne-Yo
  6. “Forever,” Chris Brown
  7. “Dangerous,” Karidnal Offishall featuring Akon
  8. “Whatever You Like,” T.I.
  9. “Got Money,” Lil Wayne featuring T-Pain
  10. “Swing,” Savage featuring Soulja Boy Tell ’Em
  11. “Put On,” Young Jeezy featuring Kanye West
  12. “The Business,” Yung Berg featuring Casha
  13. “One Step At a Time,” Jordin Sparks
  14. “Better In Time,” Leona Lewis
  15. “Thunder,” Boys Like Girls
  16. “Addicted,” Saving Abel
  17. What About Now,” Daughtry
  18. “Come On Get Higher,” Matt Nathanson
  19. “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” Darius Rucker
  20. “I Still Miss You,” Keith Anderson

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.

The concept of a “guilty pleasure” is rooted in our nation’s eternal push-pull between prurience and Puritanism. What’s pleasure without guilt? I’m not sure, but guilt without pleasure is commonly known as “Judaism.” The concept of a “guilty pleasure” flatters us because it implies that we have such rarified, refined taste that we have to turn off our big, beautiful brains to enjoy Jersey Shore and Crank 2 and Drive Angry 3-D. If given our druthers, we’d happily while away the hours at a local arthouse theater catching Ozu retrospectives, but hot damn if our debauched culture doesn’t keep throwing shiny little baubles of entertainment our way. “We’re better than that,” we tell ourselves, even if the enjoyment we experience from irresistible trash tells us otherwise. 

That’s how I used to feel about Katy Perry. I deluded myself into imagining that I was somehow above her. Oh sure, I liked all her hits and enjoyed gazing lovingly at her magnificent cleavage, but I was fundamentally anti-Perry. I was so anti-Perry that I lost a lot of respect for Russell Brand when he got engaged to her. I don’t know Perry, but she’s so ubiquitous that I feel like I do. I’ve consequently cobbled together my conception of her through soundbites, advertisements, music videos, Proactiv commercials, talk show appearances, performances, and music videos. That’s how we process celebrities: We develop snap judgments based on the skimpiest of evidence; if someone seems like a prick to David Letterman, then it’s filed away in our minds that the celebrity in question is an asshole in lieu of evidence to the contrary. It’s not fair, but it is how our minds tend to operate. 

So when I decided that I did not care for Perry, I was responding to her public persona rather than her true self. From a marketing standpoint, Perry’s “Zooey Deschanel as slutty ’80s drag queen” persona is brilliant, but it’s not designed to win much in the way of critical respect. So what if everything about Perry’s persona reeks of cynical calculation, from the lipstick lesbianism and Jill Sobule swagger-jacking of “I Kissed A Girl” to song titles like “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls”? Who ever said pop stars had to be authentic or sincere? I prefer my pop stars pre-fabricated and achingly insincere.  

I used to think I hated Katy Perry until I was forced to admit to myself that I love her songs. That’s all that really matters. Perry fulfills all the requirements of a pop star. She’s hot in a trashy, cleavage-centric way. She performs catchy songs and sleeps with movie stars. She’s so hot she gives Muppets erections, a pop star requirement I wasn’t even aware existed until she fulfilled it. And she does a lot of silent movie star-style mugging with her big doe eyes. I won’t make any claims for her as a serious artist, but she makes damn catchy pop songs. For a good three weeks, I would listen to “California Gurls” every time I needed a quick pick-me-up, which was fairly often. I could claim I only enjoy the song ironically, but that’s just not the case. I genuinely love that song, however ephemeral or silly it might be. 

“Hot N Cold” is quintessential Katy Perry, a three-minute-long cotton-candy rush that pairs her heavily Auto-Tuned vocals with waves of cheesy ’80s synths and a monster chorus. In true Perry fashion, it’s naughty in a nice way, a PG-rated version of ’80s sleaze about a man incapable of commitment and a woman tired of putting up with his Hamlet-style indecisiveness. It’s a passive-aggressive kiss-off to a passive-aggressive relationship that can’t last but maddeningly won’t end either. It’s not art, but it is entertainment. Oh Katy, you’re no good for me, but I love you all the same. 

A few years back at Sundance, I was traipsing through the Def Jam House Of Hype (traipsing is like walking, only fancier) when I ran into someone who volunteered much too freely that he was Perry’s best friend. He said the new ballad she was about to release (which pops up on the next installment of NOW!) was about to change the way everyone saw her and announce her arrival as a serious artist. It didn’t, but it didn’t have to. The world needs pop stars as much, if not more, than it needs serious artists, and right now Perry fills that role smashingly. 

Speaking of pre-fabricated and insincere, the Pussycat Dolls and Pink both turn up with pop songs about being pop stars, though both fall squarely on the “obnoxious” side of the half-adorable, half-obnoxious divide. “So What” is Pink’s take on Beyoncé’s pet theme, “Fuck you, I’m awesome.” In this case, the tool being derided is Pink’s ex-husband, though the couple reconciled not long after “So What” rocketed up the charts. “So What” is all sneering attitude and pseudo-rebellious posturing, but as a defiant anthem for the dumped, it has a certain blunt power. 

If “So What” functions as a defiant anthem for the dumped, “When I Grow Up” feels like a manifesto for the proudly pre-fabricated and calculating. “When I Grow Up” is an incredibly telling reflection on the current mania for fame and attention at any cost. “Now I’ve got a confession / When I was young I wanted attention / And I promised myself that I’d do anything / anything at all for them to notice me” lead singer Nicole Scherzinger coos suggestively, channeling the thoughts and sentiments of roughly two-thirds of the women and men found on NOW! and the pop charts in general. 

There’s something almost honorable about the song’s brutal candor. Leave it to other acts to obfuscate; The Pussycat Dolls come right out and say that their lifelong aspirations begin and end with being famous, being a star, being in movies, seeing the world, driving nice cars, and having groupies. That isn’t the secret subtext; it’s the fucking chorus. It’s the perfect song for an era where Twitter and Facebook make everyone a cultural commentator and the star of his or her own thrilling open-ended narrative. Musically, it’s not much, but it says an awful lot about the shameless, TMZ-reality-show-tabloid world we live in. (Appropriately enough, The Pussycat Dolls starred in a reality show of their own. Like Menudo and the film Logan’s Run, The Dolls kill off members once they reach their 30s, so they were on the hunt for a new recruit to replace a 29-year-old Doll staring down professional and personal obsolescence).

From the ridiculous to the sublime: most hip-hop songs burn through their guest appearances as quickly as possible, though some artists are savvy enough to make a guest appearance by an iconic rapper into a major event. Think Chuck D’s game-changing appearance on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, or the way Kanye West lets “Amazing’” linger in a state of limbo for just a second to build up anticipation for Young Jeezy’s guest verse. 

Jeezy returns the favor on “Put On,” his contribution to NOW! 29. Jeezy uses his first two verses to unpack more of his signature cocaine-slang-themed wordplay, but the song doesn’t really begin until a dramatic pause followed by the arrival of West. During his 808s & Heatrtbreak phase, West subversively used Auto-Tune to sound more, rather than less, human. West exploited the loneliness and ennui of electro-pop, its gift for making singers sound lost in a vast electronic purgatory. 

That’s especially true of West’s verse on “Put On,” which begins with braggadocio before moving on to matters of life and death. “I lost the only girl in the world who knew me best” West sings plaintively of losing his mother and, I would imagine, the only person in the world he might actually listen to. The line is vintage Kanye: moving, clumsy, and bracingly candid all at the same time. From there, West plunges further into after-midnight introspection as he reflects on the spiritual emptiness of fame, money, and the eternal struggle for transcendence in this corrupt, secular world. It’s an oasis of truth in the spiritual desert of Top 40 radio. 

Like “Put On,” “Whatever You Like” came out in the depths of the recession (“Put On” is actually a single from Young Jeezy’s album The Recession), so its glitzy talk of shopping sprees and glamorous vacations registered as unabashed escapism to most listeners. T.I. slips into sugar-daddy mode as he promises the world and more to the woman willing to wait out his habitual prison stints to be with him. It’s R&B ear candy from a rapper with the street credibility and rap sheet to get away with making a blatant pop song for the ladies. 

“Weird Al” Yankovic captured the national mood more acutely when he released a parody of the same name while T.I.’s single was still riding high on the charts. Yankovic begins by acknowledging that “our economy’s in the toilet” before promising such cut-rate luxuries as tater tots, Cold Duck on ice, and all-night coupon-clipping marathons. Yankovic’s take on the song isn’t just a parody; it’s a corrective. T.I. gives listeners a giddy fantasy where Yankovic conveys a satirical truth about the grim economic realities of the day. In that respect, it echoes Jay-Z and Kanye West’s antithetical versions of “’02 Bonnie And Clyde.” 

NOW That’s What I Call Music! is primarily a compilation of current hits, but it’s also a vehicle for pushing Sony artists, which helps explain why the same damn artists appear on it over and over again, even if their hit-making credentials are questionable at best. I’m not sure I ever had all that much to say about Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Yung Berg, Leona Lewis, Boys Like Girls, or Daughtry, all of whom pop up again here. Damn you, Sony! Why must you thrust these artists down our collective throat? Oh yeah, because you’re a multi-national corporation with a vested interest in breaking new artists and reviving older ones. 


Up Next on THEN! Lady Gaga arrives, John Legend and André 3000 give us the green light, and Taylor Swift is so fucking adorable you could just die (and might!) 

Outside the Bubble: What else was happening in pop in the winter of 2008

  • Guns N’ Roses (a.k.a. Axl Rose and some dudes) release the first single from Chinese Democracy
  • Levi Stubbs, lead singer of The Four Tops and the voice of Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey II, dies, becomes plant food. 
  • Q-Tip returns with the nice/wildly overrated comeback album The Renaissance.
  • Vanilla Ice poignantly/pathetically releases an album called Vanilla Ice Is Back!

More THEN That's What They Called Music!