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.
- “Just Dance,” Lady Gaga
- “Womanizer,” Britney Spears
- “Keeps Getting Better,” Christina Aguilera
- “Let It Rock,” Kevin Rudolf featuring Lil Wayne
- “Heartless,” Kanye West
- “Miss Independent,” Ne-Yo
- “Green Light,” John Legend featuring André 3000
- “Rehab,” Rihanna
- “I Hate This Part,” Pussycat Dolls
- “Sober,” Pink
- “Crush,” David Archuleta
- “About You Now,” Miranda Cosgrove
- “Gives You Hell,” The All-American Rejects
- “Light On,” David Cook
- “18 Days,” Saving Grace
- “Gotta Be Somebody,” Nickelback
- “Thinking Of You,” Katy Perry
- “I’m Yours,” Jason Mraz
- “Love Story,” Taylor Swift
- “Sweet Thing,” Keith Urban
Though she’s no less a purveyor of pure pop and a NOW That’s What I Call Music! poster girl, Lady Gaga is the anti-Katy Perry. Everything about Perry is slickly packaged to arouse the prurient interest of heterosexual men; she presents herself as a scrumptious sexual cupcake to be mindlessly, greedily devoured. The faux-bicuriousity of “I Kissed A Girl” is especially calculating: Perry leaves little doubt that she’s all about turning on men rather than women when she coos of her impromptu make-out session with a girl, “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” The implication, of course, is that Perry’s foray into faux-lipstick lesbianism is an insignificant—if sexy—sideshow to the main event: pleasing her man. She’s playing into a near-universal male sexual fantasy with a wink and a lascivious smile.
Where Perry’s candy-colored sexuality says, “I exist for your pleasure,” Gaga’s alternately earthy and cerebral approach to sexuality seems designed to confuse and alienate as much as seduce. Gaga adopts the trappings of conventional female pop sexuality—sexy vocals, infectious club songs with winking double entendres and suggestive lyrics, skimpy, outrageous outfits, dyed hair and underwear as outerwear, and flashy, attention-grabbing videos—but her endgame has more in common with Andy Warhol than Katy Perry.
When “Just Dance,” Gaga’s debut single and the upbeat leadoff track for the 30th installment of NOW!, rocketed up the charts, few could have imagined that the seemingly disposable pop newcomer singing it would become an instant international pop-culture phenomenon and a controversy magnet. I remember when I got my promo copy of Gaga’s debut album I looked at it for a second, thought, “Huh, that’s kind of a silly name,” saw Flo Rida was a guest on it, and promptly tossed it aside. I never thought the woman with the stupid name and outré fashion sense would become such a towering pop-cultural instant icon.
“Just Dance” is almost aggressively non-offensive, a goofy, featherweight exercise in dance-floor escapism that finds Gaga simultaneously drunk, desperate, confused, and exhilarated. Some dude named Colby O’Donnis is featured, but Gaga is such a singular entity that they don’t seem to be inhabiting the same universe, let alone the same song. Yet Gaga’s Kanye-style celebrity-as-art-form aesthetic is often more daring than the shimmering pop confections she churns out. It’s almost adorable that 56 years after Elvis Presley’s scandalously sensual gyrations horrified and titillated the world, folks are still capable of being shocked by a pop star dressing and acting weird.
Gaga’s sexuality-as-Dadaist provocation goes much further than Madonna’s. For all of Madonna’s boundary-pushing, she nevertheless molded herself into images heterosexual men find irresistible. You like Marilyn Monroe, eh? Then you’ll love Madonna-as-Marilyn in the “Material Girl” video! Fellini-style sexy Italian sacrilege more your style? Then check out Madonna making out with a black saint in the “Like A Prayer” video. Into seeing little boys ogle scantily-clad women at peep shows? Then feast on the ultra-creepy “Open Your Heart.” But Madonna couldn’t make enough music videos to satisfy the sexual appetites of everyone, so she called up photographer Steven Meisel and they made a lovely coffee table book devoted to exploring every legal fetish in existence. That may have been the biggest mistake of Madonna’s career. Madonna’s Sex book almost instantly negated her sense of mystery through over-saturation. Where do you go after releasing a dirty book of yourself indulging every possible legal sexual fantasy?
There’s something intriguingly unknowable, however, about Gaga. She’s cultivated and maintained an aura of mystery in a violently invasive media world that promises no secrets and sordid revelations on the hour. Where Perry and Madonna use sexuality as a foolproof marketing hook, Gaga’s sometimes-aggressive, sometimes-esoteric sexuality feels more like some strange sort of post modern performance-art piece only she understands. Gaga is so complicated and textually rich—as they used to say back in college—that the University Of South Carolina actually teaches a class in "Lady Gaga and the sociology of fame."
The appeal of a hot girl singing about drunkenly making out with a friend is self-evident, but no one seems to know what exactly Gaga means (except perhaps for folks in that University Of South Carolina course). That’s terrifying to heterosexual men used to being catered to by pop culture and society as a whole. Gaga’s aggressive, I-don’t-need-anyone sexuality is more threatening than seductive to many men. I suspect the urban legend about Gaga having a penis has its roots in bewildered heterosexual men condescendingly reasoning that if someone is strong, independent, successful, weird, artsy, hard to understand, and willful, then she must have a penis. In an age when nothing’s shocking, Gaga still manages to shock. That’s an impressive achievement in itself.
When it was announced that Lady Gaga and Kanye West would be touring together as part of a “Fame Kills” extravaganza (the tour never happened, not surprisingly), 50 Cent dubbed it the “Gay tour” on Twitter. Hip-hop tends to lag about 20 years behind everyone else when it comes to gender and sexual politics, so 50 was merely vocalizing what a lot of macho rappers have been saying since Kanye West first exploded onto the national scene: If a man is into clothes, design, stagecraft, fashion, interior decorating, uses mix-tape interludes to herald fashion photographer David LaChapelle as the new Andy Warhol, and sings about his feelings and shit, then he must be gay.
Kanye West has done wonders broadening and expanding hip-hop’s rigid gender roles, but it remains a largely reactionary realm where artists like Cam’Ron, Beanie Sigel, and Jedi Mind Tricks frontman Vinnie Paz have rewarded West’s boldness with homophobic disses. Thankfully, Kanye is a lot bigger these days than the rappers petulantly hurling slurs in his direction, and his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak was a giant “fuck you” to anyone who would box him in.
808s & Heartbreak works so beautifully as both a concept album about loneliness and heartbreak and as a melancholy mood piece that it almost seems disrespectful to excerpt a single track from it like NOW 30 does with “Heartless.” Kanye’s dark-night-of-the-soul introspection and brutal honesty is still haunting and sad, but divorced from the album, it feels a little like an orphan. Given Heartbreak’s pervasive sense of rootlessness and longing, perhaps that’s fitting.
While Kanye was still dreaming about making it big, André 3000 was letting his freak flag fly and disregarding all the unwritten rules about how superstar rappers should rap, dress, and behave. By the time he released The Love Below in 2003—an album I deeply respect and listen to infrequently—he’d all but given up rap in favor of spacey, Prince-style funk and experimental weirdness. But he returned to hip-hop on John Legend’s super-slick hit “Green Light.”
André 3000 seemed to have fallen out of love with hip-hop when The Love Below was released, but he radiates a sense of joy in his delightful guest verse here. He even giggles playfully in a rare freestyle verse that actually sounds spontaneous. I like Legend a lot, but there’s a slightly jerky undertone to a lot of his lyrics I sometimes find hard to digest. On “Green Light,” for example, he responds to a query about his availability by answering, “Do I have a girlfriend? Well, technically no.” in a way that calls to mind President Clinton’s prevarication during the unpleasantness involving Monica Lewinsky. Mildly douchey or not, “Green Light” is all about seduction. By the time André 3000 implores Legend, “Sometimes you got to step out from behind the piano and let them know what’s going on. Even Stevie Wonder got down sometimes,” I was thoroughly won over.
Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” is a similarly smooth celebration of female independence and sisters doing it for themselves that should feel anachronistic in this day and age (imagine, a woman with a job! How very novel!), but is nevertheless welcome.
In a previous volume, I complained that the Pussycat Dolls not only recorded ballads, but had the audacity to release them as singles, much to the consternation of their onanism-obsessed fan base. So I feel like a hypocrite conceding that one of those selfsame ballads, “I Hate This Part” is a haunting and affecting break-up song that captures the sense of exhaustion and resignation that comes with finally putting a dying romantic relationship out its misery.
Like Pussycat Dolls, Pink specializes in upbeat party anthems and fuck-you blasts of snotty aggression, but she gets uncharacteristically serious and moody with “Sober,” a harrowing ballad about being sober and clear-eyed in a drunken and debauched world. It’s a profoundly sad song, a bluesy, downbeat exploration of feeling out of place and lost and evidence of substance lurking underneath Pink’s bratty exterior.
Over the course of this feature I’ve discovered a number of songs I like from artists whose albums I would never even think about purchasing. I can’t see myself ever buying a Kelly Clarkson album, but I’m glad NOW introduced me to “Walk Away.” And I’d never buy an All-American Rejects album but I genuinely like “Gives You Hell,” even if the band behind it seems obnoxious. “Gives You Hell” offers a sprightly pop-rock variation on 2Pac’s “Picture Me Rolling,” only instead of rubbing his success in the faces of haters, cops, and C. Delores Tucker, the frontman for All-American Rejects flaunts his devil-may-care rock ’n’ roll lifestyle to an ex still shackled to the 9 to 5 grind. “Gives You Hell” evolves into a proper revenge anthem during a boozy shout-along group chorus toward the very end. Sure, “Gives You Hell” is obnoxious, but I’ve come to the conclusion that obnoxiousness isn’t necessarily a weakness when it comes to pop music. I will explain further in the upcoming entry THEN 33: The Rise of Ke$ha.
To wash away the lingering taste of All-American Reject’s flagrant jackassery, let’s conclude with the sugary sunshine happiness of Taylor Swift, who digs deep into her big bag of obvious literary references for “Love Story.” Like the rest of Swift’s oeuvre, it’s defined by sweeping, unapologetic sincerity and naked sentimentality. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve come to embrace sincerity and the songs that speak to me no matter what part of this giant, fractured pop-culture sphere they come from. If gutsy pop-art provocateurs, despondent sex kittens, depressed rap geniuses, asshole rockers, and country’s Little Miss Sunshine can all share space on a single volume of NOW That’s What I Call Music!, then there ought to be room for each of them in this glittering pop world and our hearts.
Up Next on THEN! Britney Spears tries to get clever with “If U Seek Amy”, Kid Cudi debuts, and Ciara and Justin Timberlake share love, sex, magic.
Outside the Bubble: What else was happening in pop music in Spring 2009
- Michael Jackson announces his “This Is It” tour.
- Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed A Dream” conquers the world.
- Jadakiss scores an unexpected commercial comeback with The Last Kiss.
- Asher Roth releases much-buzzed about, sleepily received debut Asleep In the Bread Aisle.
- Bob Dylan and longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter collaborate on Together Through Life.
- Ben Folds releases a surprisingly palatable album of a capella covers of his songs.