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 33 American NOW! collections compiles a cross-section of recent hits from across the musical spectrum. Each entry in this column examines what the NOW! series says about the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.
- “All Star,” Smash Mouth
- “American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz
- “What’s My Age Again?” Blink-182
- “Bailamos,” Enrique Iglesias
- “Sometimes,” Britney Spears
- “All I Have To Give,” Backstreet Boys
- “Tell Me It’s Real,” K-Ci & JoJo
- “The Rockafeller Skank,” Fatboy Slim
- “Nookie,” Limp Bizkit
- “Special,” Garbage
- “If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time,” R. Kelly
- “Get Gone,” Ideal
- “Chanté’s Got A Man,” Chanté Moore
- “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me),” Blessid Union Of Souls
- “Why I’m Here,” Oleander
- “Happily Ever After,” Case
- “The Hardest Thing,” 98 Degrees
- “Out Of My Head,” Fastball
Being an inveterate pessimist, I once envisioned a future even more horrifying than 1984’s famous conception of tomorrow as “a boot stamping on a human face forever”: a world where Limp Bizkit put out endless hits, flooding the airwaves with its juvenile aggregation of the worst in metal and hip-hop. This prospect terrified me. But I felt like Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst had tapped into something deep, true, and utterly douchetastic within the male psyche.
During Limp Bizkit’s late-’90s heyday, it looked like the group had cracked the code. Durst’s predilection for goatees, shorts, T-shirts, and backward baseball caps (a.k.a. the official uniform of choads everywhere) gave Limp Bizkit an instantly iconic look. Durst’s lack of talent made him relatable. He was the baseball-cap-wearing asshole cheating off you in geometry while simultaneously trying to stare down your shirt—but he’d been reinvented as an all-powerful rock star. An army of pimply teenagers terrified of girls lived vicariously through Durst as he performed in sold-out arenas, mixed with the beautiful people, and leveraged his band’s popularity into a senior vice presidency at Warner Bros. More importantly, he was able to use his fame to have sex with some of the world’s most accomplished blowjob artists. Here’s Karrine Steffans’ account of meeting Durst from Confessions Of A Video Vixen:
We casually introduced ourselves and he blurted, “Don’t you know who I am?”
I responded “Um… no, should I?” I already loved his cockiness.
“I’m Fred Durst… from Limp Bizkit! I’m the senior vice president of this company! Who are you going up there to see?”
I was caught for a moment in the sea that was his eyes. Crystal blue, piercing through me and making me want him. I could smell the power oozing from his pores, and I was so turned on, I knew I’d need a shower after this encounter.
Later, Steffans has an opportunity to witness Durst’s unique eating habits:
Fred ordered five different entrées, just for himself. I was confused but I didn’t want to seem young and inexperienced, so I just watched his movements… He was grand, taking tiny forkfuls from each dish and repeating that move a few times. Then, just that fast, he was done, leaving the majority of the food behind. I was in awe. I had never really wasted food before, and right then I knew that one day I would be able to eat whatever I wanted, however much I wanted, and summon someone to take the plates away… With all of his tattoos, body piercing, and worn way of dress, Fred had an air of prestige to me. I silently hoped for him to want me.
Without Limp Bizkit, Durst was just a jerk in a stupid hat. But superstardom gave him an “air of prestige.” This leads, inevitably, to a blowjob:
I grabbed on to his flesh and heaved myself across his lap, straddling this wild man. Before I could begin to own this intensity, I was on my knees. I looked at his pierced penis with a sick admiration. He was what I wanted, and to actually hold him in my hand at that time felt like a privilege… “Make me cum and I’ll marry you” were the only words I remember Fred saying to me.
I was so caught up that for a hot minute I might even have believed him. But before I knew it, my power trip was over. Few words were spoken and I was basically dismissed… I left Fred’s office feeling dejected, and even more than that, naive and silly.
This world of pointlessly wasteful meals, executive suites, and blowjobs from groupies was foreign and seductive to most of Limp Bizkit’s fans. But they could certainly identify with the incoherent rage expressed in “Nookie,” one of 18 zeitgeist-capturing tracks found on the third installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music!
Even by Limp Bizkit standards, the lyrics to “Nookie” are mind-numbingly awful, but they present the Fred Durst mythology in miniature. They open with an expression of one-size-fits-all adolescent angst: “I came into this world as a reject.” Then Durst creates a tragicomic portrait of himself as a cuckolded chump whose “girlie ran away with my pay” after fucking his friends and making him the laughing stock of the neighborhood. But Durst ends up getting the last laugh; in the chorus, he goes from emasculated schmuck to righteous avenger, screaming “I did it all for the nookie, the nookie / So you can take that cookie and stick it up your—yeah.”
I suspect that the chorus of “Nookie” became such a smash in part because it meant a brief respite from the obnoxiously howled verses. I’d forgotten that “Nookie” even had verses. My mind had thoughtfully reduced it to three and a half minutes of Fred Durst screaming the chorus while grabbing his crotch. But Durst isn’t just, as he describes himself, “a sucker with a lump in my throat.” On the chorus, he turns into a frat-boy version of Shiva The Destroyer as he lashes out at that girlie.
Yet for all its unbelievable awfulness, “Nookie” remains a sleek, effective piece of pop machinery, a cathartic blast of naked aggression where the tension and mealy-mouthed self-deprecation of the verses gets released by the pile-driver force of the monster hook. It was the perfect vehicle for 14-year-old boys to vent their frustration with the deceitful ways of womankind. Not surprisingly, it became a huge hit.
I expected a never-ending deluge of crappy “Nookie” sound-alikes to follow, but Durst really wanted to direct. So following 2003’s Results May Vary, Limp Bizkit stopped releasing full-length studio albums so Durst could direct movies like the ferociously mediocre 2009 Ice Cube family feature The Longshots. The group is apparently hard at work on a comeback album, though its commercial chances may be hindered by the fact that without his signature baseball cap, Durst looks like your uncle’s business partner.
Smash Mouth was another group I expected to pump out hits indefinitely. Making hit songs seemed to come effortlessly to the band, largely because its members never seemed to try very hard. Or at all. They stumbled on a winning formula early and stuck with it: infectious secondhand melodies, giant choruses, a campy retro vibe, a little bubblegum third-wave ska, turntablism for beginners from their moonlighting songwriter-guitarist as his alter ego DJ (I Just Learned How To) Scratch, and blandly positive, party-hearty lyrics that sounded like first drafts the band was too lazy to revise.
In the mid- to late ’90s, Smash Mouth scored an impressive string of hits while swaggering through campy, candy-colored, oversaturated videos directed by McG. They were the musical equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt paired with Bermuda shorts, a sentient tiki bar in rock-band form.
They were charter members of the late-’90s good-time brigade, a group of wacky funsters intent on partying their way into a groovy new millennium. In sharp contrast to the authenticity-obsessed grunge rockers of the early part of the decade, they were shameless about pitching their music to the biggest possible audience, especially if it meant exploiting ancillary revenue sources. Here’s how I imagine a typical conversation between Smash Mouth’s primary creative forces went back in the group’s heyday:
Fat Guy Who Sings: What are you working on?
Guitarist Who Writes The Songs: It’s very promising. It’s got a Jock Jams opening, then segues into something that’d be perfect for a montage sequence in a teen sex comedy, then into a chorus that screams “Snickers commercial.”
Fat Guy Who Sings: That sounds great. But how would it sound over the end credits of a DreamWorks cartoon about a talking dog with telekinetic powers?
Guitarist Who Writes The Songs: Great. Hey, I’ve been working on the lyrics for the last 20 seconds or so, and I’m almost finished. What do you think about “Having fun / Get it done / Get happy, baby / We’re gonna party tonight!”
Fat Guy Who Sings: Sounds like a keeper!
The band’s popularity was nevertheless fleeting. The musical climate darkened, and 2003’s Get The Picture? sold a pathetic 33,000 copies. Oh well, lead singer Steve Harwell can nevertheless look forward to decades of performing “All Star” and “Walking On The Sun” at state fairs throughout our great land.
NOW! favorite Britney Spears makes her second appearance in the series with “Sometimes,” a slick ballad about protecting her imaginary virginity. Spears lays down the law here, letting men know that she isn’t the kind of girl who engages in heavy petting, necking, or French kissing without receiving at least a marriage proposal beforehand.
“Sometimes I run, sometimes I hide, sometimes I’m scared of you,” Spears sings in the chorus. “Sometimes” is the rare teen pop ballad whose hook could be addressed to either an overly persistent boyfriend, or to the family of cannibalistic mutants from The Hills Have Eyes.
Another member of the good-time brigade, Fatboy Slim, dragged the Big Beat style defiantly into the mainstream with 1998’s “The Rockafeller Skank,” a fizzy combination of hip-hop swagger (courtesy of the criminally slept-on Lord Finesse), surf guitar, and shifting rhythms that angrily commands listeners to dance. It’s a three-and-a-half-minute musical orgasm that inspired my favorite scene in my all-time favorite movie, She’s All That. For those of you who have not seen this masterpiece of the cinematic arts, it climaxes in a prom scene where DJ Usher commands his classmates to do an elaborately choreographed routine to “Rockafeller Skank” which he apparently taught them in one of the deleted scenes. At the risk of hyperbole, it’s the most awesome thing ever, and that includes Jesus’ resurrection and both Step Up and Step Up 2 The Streets. If pop historians of the future want to know what 1999 felt and sounded like at its most euphoric (oh, but we thought the Internet bubble would never end!) they need look no further.
When Green Day exploded in 1994, its members were widely dismissed as posers. But when Blink-182 hit a few years later, Green Day had ascended to the level of elder statesman. Then the members of Blink-182 were dismissed as pop-punk careerist posers, though they too have graduated to elder-statesmen status at this point. Time has a way of doing that.
Blink-182’s contribution to NOW! Volume 3, “What’s My Age Again?” is about the perils and perks of remaining a permanent pre-adolescent. When it was released in 1999, it made me feel ancient, because of the geriatric age of its immature protagonist: 23. I also happened to be 23 at the time. Aren’t you supposed to be brash and irresponsible at 23? Christ, George W. Bush was drunk until he was 40, and he was the most powerful man in the world for eight years. Underneath the frat-boy humor lies a melancholy streak; the song is really about the passage of time and the fact that boys eventually become men, no matter how much they fight it. (Accordingly, the group’s self-titled 2003 album was heralded for its maturity.)
There really is only one reason to mention Lenny Kravitz’s exquisitely redundant cover of “American Woman,” which appears on both NOW! 3 and the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack: Heather Graham’s magnificent cleavage in the video. Kravitz’s sole contribution to pop culture lies in putting out a song whose video concept is essentially “Heather Graham writhes around orgasmically while wearing a low-cut mesh shirt.” So, you know, it has that going for it.
This brings us to possibly the worst song ever written: Blessid Union Of Souls’ “She Likes Me For Me,” an upbeat ode to accepting yourself and others, delivered with a geeky whine and a surplus of groan-inducing pop-culture references that had already reached their expiration date by the time the song hit the airwaves. I covered this song in the first entry in the series, but there’s so much awfulness left to dig into, from the computer noises that accompany the lead singer’s confession that he doesn’t have too many DVDs (cutting-edge technology at the time), or the delicious awkwardness of lyrics like “She likes me for me / Not because I look like Tyson Beckford with the charm of Robert Redford oozing out my ears” and “She likes me for me / not because I hang with Leonardo [DiCaprio] or that guy who played in Fargo / I think his name was Steve [Buscemi].”
Where Limp Bizkit and Smash Mouth seemed destined for an extended assault on the charts, Blessid Union Of Souls broadcast its disposability from the mountaintops. Yet for a brief moment, it breathed the same rarified air as commercial heavyweights like Kravitz and Spears, a strange pre-millennial epoch NOW! 3 documents for posterity.
Up next on NOW That’s What I Call Music! 4: Millennium Approaches
The Latin Explosion explodes in our face, Train meets Virginia and rips off the Counting Crows, Mandy Moore does the pedo-pop thing, and Jennifer Lopez decides she wants to be a pop star.
Outside the bubble, here’s more that was going on in music, beyond NOW That’s What I Call Music! 3:
- Woodstock 1999 kicks so much ass, it makes the original Woodstock look like a flaming pile of horseshit by comparison; baby boomers finally shut the fuck up about how great the ’60 were
- Christina Aguilera releases a self-titled debut
- The Roots drop Things Fall Apart.