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.
- “Boom Boom Pow,” Black Eyed Peas
- “Right Round,” Flo Rida
- “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga
- “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho),” Pitbull
- “Blame It,” Jamie Foxx featuring T-Pain
- “Dead And Gone,” T.I. featuring Justin Timberlake
- “Day ’N’ Night,” Kid Cudi
- “Kiss Me Thru The Phone,” Soulja Boy Tell ’Em featuring Sammie
- “Halo,” Beyoncé
- “Mad,” Ne-Yo
- “Please Don’t Leave Me,” Pink
- “Love Sex Magic,” Ciara featuring Justin Timberlake
- “If U Seek Amy,” Britney Spears
- “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Kelly Clarkson
- “Don’t Trust Me,” 3OH!3
- “That’s Not My Name,” The Ting Tings
- “You Found Me,” The Fray
- “If Today Was Your Last Day,” Nickelback
- “I Run To You,” Lady Antebellum
- “Note To God,” Charice
Advertisers operate under an inherent disadvantage: People hate advertising. They hate the ad industry. They hate everything the ad industry stands for. Yet they end up purchasing the goods and services advertised all the same. The ad industry understands this. They know they have to resort to extraordinary measures to break through our innate resistance to being pitched. So they use and re-use a few mighty tools in their arsenal. The most formidable of all is obviously sex. Sex has been used to sell everything from double-headed dildos to triple-headed dildos. Then there’s humor, and a tool that might surprise you: irritation.
Think about the commercials that ricochet through pop culture and inspire catchphrases, video games, and T-shirts: your “Where’s the beef?” campaigns and your furious admonishments to “Avoid the Noid,” lest that damnable villain compromise the culinary quality of your Domino’s Pizza. What do most of these campaigns have in common? They’re really fucking annoying. They possess an abrasiveness that makes them hard to forget and downright impossible to ignore. To wax Malcolm Gladwellian a little here, these commercials possess a sort of negative stickiness. They cling and linger in our minds precisely because they’re irritating in a way that blasts through the dim white noise of pop culture and makes an indelible imprint on us, however migraine-inducing it might be.
At this point in the series I think we can all agree that the Black Eyed Peas are essentially a four-person advertising agency flimsily masquerading as a pop group. Think of them as the distinguished firm of Hologram Man, Meth Lady, The Other Guy, and The Other Other Guy, Inc. (Incidentally I’m planning on writing up the autobiography of The Other Other Guy, a.k.a. Taboo, for a spectacular Silly Show-Biz Book Club/THEN That’s What They Called Music crossover.)
Chairman and CEO Will.I.Am understands the secret power of irritation better than anyone this side of Ke$ha or Katy Perry. I suspect he just wanders around wherever the hell he lives (for some reason I see him living in a penthouse suite at the Trump Tower in Las Vegas and having a walk-in closet full of nothing but fur boots) with a Casio keyboard, randomly hitting various notes until whoever he’s with can’t take it anymore and finally blurts out, “Jesus fucking Christ! That is so fucking annoying! Can you cut that out? That has to be the most obnoxious noise I’ve ever heard.”
That’s when Will.I.Am knows he has a hit. After discerning the most irritating possible melody imaginable, Will.I.Am then moves on to the next step in the songwriting process. He heads down to the lyrics lab of Hologram Man, Meth Lady, The Other Guy, and The Other Other Guy, Inc., where scientists with clipboards monitor crazy homeless men around the clock and write down their most annoying patter. Once the most irritating possible melody is married to the most obnoxious conceivable lyric, the song is given to Fergie and the horrible-ification process is complete.
I need to think of The Black Eyed Peas as some sort of Warholian stunt exposing the emptiness and spiritual corruption of pop music, because otherwise their existence would prove almost unbearably depressing. You have to laugh at the Black Eyed Peas because they’re so eminently laughable, but also to keep from crying about their inexplicable popularity and longevity.
“Boom Boom Pow,” the advertising agency’s lead-off contribution to the 31st installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music!, isn’t a song. It’s an insult to our intelligence, to the art of pop music, and to the acts staring in disbelief as the Black Eyed Peas’ latest affront to all that is good in the world sails past their heartfelt ditties on the pop charts.
“Boom Boom Pow” barely even qualifies as music. The whole song seems to be an experiment to see how little effort the group could exert on a single track and still consider the result not just a “song,” but a “single.” The answer: not a whole lot. “Boom Boom Pow” has a dark, insinuating bassline that’s the only element keeping it from being the very sound of pop music finally flat-lining. The Black Eyed Peas came up in the battle-rap and breakdancing scenes of Southern California, which makes it all the more remarkable that the group hasn’t advanced beyond basic braggadocio, gibberish choruses, and random, calculating deployment of celebratory Yiddish phrases. That cry of “L’Chaim” from “I Gotta Feeling” undoubtedly made the quartet such a fixture at Bar Mitzvahs that its next album is probably going to be called Mazel Tov! A Black Eyed Peas Electro-Funk Simchah.
How much longer can the Black Eyed Peas’ stay at the top possibly last? Will Hologram Man still afflict us when we’re old and gray? Will we have to explain to our children that the Black Eyed Peas have always sucked, that their current awfulness is not deviant aberration but their essential state of being? I hope not. We are powerless before the Peas. They will have their way with us whether we like it or not. They are the embodiment of pop-music fascism. The group named its last album The E.N.D. just to fuck with us.
Once upon a time, songwriters felt the need to employ artful obfuscation to sublimate their carnal desires into socially acceptable forms. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” for example, was a polite way of saying, “I Wanna Fuck Your Face.” “Afternoon Delight” was code for “I wanna fuck you in the afternoon,” and “I wanna fuck you like an animal” was an elaborate allegory for colonialism. Those were simpler, more innocent times. Today, when Britney Spears wants to convey to the world the underlying message of all of her music, videos, photos, and her entire existence—that all of the girls and all of the boys want to fuck her—she relies on the flimsiest of double entendres, a double-entendre so labored it barely qualifies as a double entendre at all.
“Love me, hate me, say what you want about me / but all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy,” Spears moans in the chorus of “If U Seek Amy,” making the barely-hidden subtext of her oeuvre explicit. It’s a lyric that only makes sense if you read in between the lines and hear the songs chorus as “F-U-C-K me,” yet Spears still seems fiendishly pleased with the song’s ostensible cleverness. Here’s where Spears and her ilk get us: the wordplay in “If You Seek Amy” stands out because it’s so insultingly stupid and unbelievably convoluted. But it stands out all the same. Spears and her handlers know that. They bank on that, literally and metaphorically.
When it comes to sheer brazenness, “Blame It” does for drunken horndog come-ons what “If U Seek Amy” does for tortured wordplay. Like Spears, Jamie Foxx and his robo-buddy T-Pain have no use for subtext. Let others merely suggest that a woman is more likely to have casual sex with them if she’s inebriated: Foxx spells out everything for the subtlety-impaired over a track that sounds like an android at a sleazy club trying to secure a hook-up before last call.
Foxx began his career as an impressionist. That’s carried over to his music career, whether he’s channeling Ray Charles for the hook to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” or emulating the drunken strip-club aesthetic and robotic sound of T-Pain, whose appearance on the track can’t help but feel redundant. That’s true of most T-Pain appearances, really. T-Pain created a universe of robotic clones; now he’s called upon to give his official co-sign to his army of acolytes. At least he has a strong musical personality. If anything, he has far too strong a musical personality. The same can’t be said of Foxx.
Speaking of strip clubs, “Right Round” uses “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record),” the signature song of Dead Or Alive, one of the most flamboyantly gay acts of the ’80s, as the foundation for a tale of finance-fueled heterosexual seduction. In its winking take on oral sex, the song is only slightly more subtle than “If U Seek Amy,” and every bit as shameless and fun in an instantly disposable way.
As “Right Round” attests, the ’80s didn’t go anywhere. Electro-pop and new wave just morphed into the dance music of today. Lady Gaga is an unusually pure illustration of this dynamic. She didn’t even bother thinking up a new melody for “Born This Way.” She just borrowed the one from “Express Yourself” and added some newfangled lyrics. “Poker Face” is a tad bit more restrained in its borrowing from the ’80s, but it’s as leering in its double entendres as anything Spears ever recorded; it’s nothing but poker-as-sex-metaphors delivered in a lascivious rasp before the chorus breaks everything wide open. Gaga’s Madonna fixation leads her into unfortunate territory when she borrows the “snotty white girl rapping cause I’m not supposed to” cadence Madonna sometimes employs when she does that half-rap, half-sung (think the crazy stilted “rap” on “Vogue”) thing she doesn’t do well at all. She still does it better than Ke$ha, though.
Considering the massive success of Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, it’s not surprising that some artists are intentionally obnoxious. So if the insufferably named 3OH!3’s “Don’t Trust Me” sounds sneering, snotty, and rude, it’s by design. The chorus’ urgent plea, “Don’t trust a ho,” at first appears to be standard-issue asshole misogyny, but it’s a little trickier than that, since the ho in question is the singer. “Don’t Trust Me” is an equal-opportunity offender: both genders come off like douches, never more so then when the singer obnoxiously brays, “Shush girl/Shut your lips/Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips,” then repeats it over and over again to give everyone ample time to appreciate his wordplay. Yet because it’s so abrasive and obnoxious, “Don’t Trust Me” stuck with me when the Frays and Jack Johnsons of the world didn’t. It sinks its fangs in and refuses to let go.
Even more so than most entries, the 31st volume of NOW! That’s What I Call Music feels like the soundtrack to a debauched weeklong high-school party, all leering double entendres and heavy-breathing come-ons. But we’re a puritanical as well as a prurient society, so it wouldn’t be a NOW volume without a little poorly integrated saccharine sunshine to go along with all the weird vibes and free-floating sex.
“Halo” represents the complete inversion of Beyoncé’s fabled “Fuck you, I’m awesome” paradigm. This time it’s Beyoncé who’s prostrating herself before a man so spectacular he borders on superhuman. She’s replaced “Fuck you, I’m awesome” with the much less defendable, “Fuck me, you’re awesome.” For reasons I have demarcated in previous installments, I can’t get behind that line of discourse coming from Beyoncé.
The CD version of NOW 31 contains four exclusive downloadable bonus tracks, the most awesome of which is “Ghostride The Whip,” a dance number from the Christian family crunk group Family Force 5. (Incidentally, doesn’t the idea of a Christian crunk group called Family Force 5 sound like a Tim And Eric sketch?) Yes, a Christian family crunk group is getting crunk for Jesus. That is beyond awesome. Here’s my question: for the love of crunking Jesus, why isn’t the song called “Holy Ghost Ride the Whip”? Some Christian crunk acts have no fucking commitment whatsoever.
In a transparent attempts to wash away all of its sins with a little Sunday-morning redemption, this compilation of debauched hedonists concludes with a Filipina teenager named Charice overemoting her way through the maudlin, Godly melodrama of “Note To God,” a sleeping pill of a do-gooder ballad written by Diane Warren at her most cynically sentimental. Though I cannot take exception to the song’s strong pro-love, anti-hate philosophy, this treacle can’t help but feel a little ridiculous coming at the end of a disc devoted to ungodliness in all its forms.
Up Next on THEN! The Peas wish you “L’Chaim!,” Gaga wants to take a ride on your disco stick, Mariah Carey wants to know why you’re so obsessed with her, and Shakira takes her inner she-wolf out on the town.
Outside The Bubble: What else was happening in music circa Summer 2009