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.
- “I Gotta Feeling,” Black Eyed Peas
- “LoveGame,” Lady Gaga
- “Down,” Jay Sean featuring Lil Wayne
- “Best I Ever Had,” Drake
- “Obsessed,” Mariah Carey
- “Whatcha Say,” Jason Derülo
- “Knock You Down,” Keri Hilson featuring Lil Wayne and Ne-Yo
- “Throw It In the Bag,” Fabolous featuring The-Dream
- “Hotel Room Service,” Pitbull
- “Say Hey (I Love You),” Michael Franti & Spearhead
- “She Wolf,” Shakira
- “Sexy Chick,” David Guetta featuring Akon
- “Battlefield,” Jordin Sparks
- “Already Gone,” Kelly Clarkson
- “No Surprise,” Daughtry
- “Love Drunk,” Boys Like Girls
- “Good Girls Go Bad,” Cobra Starship featuring Leighton Meester
- “Waking Up in Vegas,” Katy Perry
- “You Belong With Me,” Taylor Swift
- “Only You Can Love Me This Way,” Keith Urban
- “Had It All,” Katharine McPhee
Last summer my girlfriend and I became fascinated by a parody of Lady Gaga’s “LoveGame” made by a trio of Orthodox Jewish girls from Atlanta. The fascination was more sociological than musical in nature: She was intrigued by the incongruity of using a product of the shameful sexual world—a lascivious dance song by a pop-art provocateur—to convey a spiritual message, or at least a spoof of a spiritual message.
The video raised more questions than it answered. Who were these women? What was the nature of their satire? Were they spoofing Orthodox Judaism or Gaga? Was the video’s treatment of religion merely irreverent or legitimately offensive? We must have watched the video about 50 times without coming up with answers.
These girls were recreating pop culture in their own image. They were members of a generation where the lines separating performers and audiences have grown blurry and songs have become common cultural currency. Once upon a time we were content to passively consume. That’s no longer enough. We can’t merely enjoy “Thriller.” Now we must share our take on “Thriller” with the digital Tower Of Babel that is the Internet.
Years ago, George W. Bush spoke of the “ownership society.” He was talking about that halcyon day when everyone would own a house, not just people who could afford to do so. That didn’t work out too well, what with the housing crisis and implosion of the economy and all, but we do have an “ownership society” in the sense that the pop culture we love now belongs to us as much as the people who created it. In some instances, we’re more emotionally invested in that art than the people who created it. We’re like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode who can control the world with his mind. And if we think this Lady Gaga song is catchy and fun but should say more about the mating rituals of devout Jews, then we’re free to change it to suit our needs.
I listened to the parody version so many times it came to feel real. Gaga’s original version paradoxically began to feel ersatz. In my mind, “Love Game” became a song about preparing Shabbos dinner and observing rules of modesty as they relate to marriage. So when Gaga sings about wanting to take a ride on your disco stick, I have to fight the sense that she’s singing the wrong lyrics, and that the real ones are about Orthodox Judaism. The parody has eclipsed the original in my mind because so much care and thought has gone into every element of it, musically, visually, and thematically. The same, however, cannot be said of the “Christian” answer to “Fuck You”: “Bless You.” That’s just a fucking shit show right there.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to record a diss track directed at a feared battle rapper like Eminem. It takes an insane amount of chutzpah to record a diss track directed at Eminem if you’re not even a rapper and diss songs are supposed to be outside your purview. So “Obsessed,” Mariah Carey’s infamous Eminem diss song, gets a lot of points for audacity alone.
Here are the facts as they relate to the relationship between Eminem and Mariah Carey and the diss songs Eminem recorded, “The Warning” and “Bagpipes From Baghdad.” Eminem and Mariah Carey each exist. Neither party denies the other’s existence. That’s where the agreement ends. At some point in the past 15 years, Carey and Eminem either did or did not have sex exactly once. Eminem says sex occurred and was terrible, and that he came very quickly and that Carey did not treat him with an abundance of respect or consideration. Carey says she never had a romantic or sexual relationship with Eminem and that the entire sordid affair was a figment of his fevered imagination.
On “Obsessed” Mariah Carey plays the “I’m bigger than you” card to one of the 20 or so people in show business bigger than her. “You a mom and pop, I’m a corporation / I’m the press conference, you a conversation” Carey taunts, even though within the pop hierarchy, Carey and Eminem are both giant corporations. Think of them as Apple and Microsoft: They’re both huge, but Eminem is bigger. That doesn’t keep Carey from delivering withering insults with the breezy confidence that comes with being one of the biggest stars in the world.
The Eminem of “Obsessed” is less a star than a stalker, a deluded depressive fixating on a diva forever out of his reach instead of confronting his own drug problems. I’m tempted to write that Carey’s line about how “it must be the weed, it must be the E” that inspired her stalker’s delusions goes too far in light of Eminem’s very public battle with drugs and alcohol; but this is Eminem we’re talking about. It’s possible that he has, at some point in his career, said something in arguably even worse taste, possibly about a woman, gay people, or Ja Rule. If someone was a woman, gay, and Ja Rule, and got on Eminem’s bad side, God help them.
“Obsessed” is appealing for the same reason we stopped everything to watch an impromptu fistfight in second grade: Skirmishes are fun as long as we’re not the ones getting hurt. There’s also an element of schadenfreude in wanting to see Eminem hoisted on his own petard, in seeing the king of diss songs disparaged in a track, and by a girl no less. So if “Obsessed” is snotty and immature and cheap, that’s much of its trashy, ephemeral appeal.
Carey doesn’t dazzle with her verbal acuity: Riffing on the title of Jermaine Dupri’s record label by accusing her stalker of being, “so so lame” is not the height of wit. Also, it is lame. Extremely so. But “Obsessed” isn’t about words; it’s about attitude and pipes, and Carey has an awful lot of both. If she didn’t, would she have made a video where she dons the world’s least convincing male drag to play her own stalker? No, she would not.
Carey can get away with releasing a song as snotty and juvenile as “Obsessed” because she’s reached the rarefied realm where she can get away with just about anything short of murdering a small child, then broadcasting the crime online. She has reached the pinnacle of diva status. In video-game terms, she’s defeated all her foes; there are no big bosses or levels left to conquer.
Shakira occupies a rung just below Carey on the diva hierarchy, but she too has reached the stage where she can get away with anything. No conceit is too ridiculous for Shakira to pull off, even using lycanthropy as a metaphor for female sexuality. Think of “She Wolf” as a pop version of The Company Of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s adapted-from-Angela Carter feminist deconstruction of the fairy tale genre.
The weirdness of “She Wolf” extends far beyond its title and juxtaposition of leering, panting sexuality and gothic horror. Perhaps because English is not Shakira’s mother tongue, her songs are filled with strange turns of phrase that sometimes sound like they’ve been mistranslated from another language. On “She Wolf,” for example, Shakira coos, “Not getting enough retribution or decent incentives to keep me at it / I’m starting to feel just a little abused, like a coffee machine in an office.”
Marinate on those lines for a moment. It’s impressive and perverse that a sexy dance song uses fancy college words like “retribution” and “incentives” in the same line. But I’m more impressed and confused and, to be honest, a little aroused by Shakira’s coffee machine metaphor, both because it makes a weird sort of sense and because after delivering the line, Shakira lets out a soft moan that suggests that she might enjoy receiving the low-level abuse the average office coffee machine endures. Shakira can make anything sexy: over-use of coffee machines, the word “incentive,” werewolves, whatever.
On the aggressively half-assed but extremely enjoyable podcast Who Charted? With Howard Kremer, a guest recently described “I Gotta Feeling” as representing the kind of song that objectively might suck but that could rock your world in the right context. Say you’re out with a bunch of people you don’t really know and you’re all really, really drunk and it’s really loud and that fucking song keeps playing everywhere you go so you start really cranking it, at first ironically but as the night persists that ironic appreciation—the glib, detached, “Ugh, can you believe how fucking dumb this is?”—gives way to something more, if not authentic, then at least sincere. In the right light, the dumb optimism of the chorus can feel less like lazy pandering than rocket fuel for good times.
In that context, “I Gotta Feeling” can feel like the most fun song ever. And if your dad is Steven Spielberg and he got the Black Eyed Peas to perform at your Bar Mitzvah (he even got them to throw in some Yiddish!), then I could see where that would be kind of exciting. Otherwise, “I Gotta Feeling” is, like all things Pea, commerce masquerading as entertainment.
Incidentally, I bought a copy of Taboo’s (a.k.a. The Other Other Guy) memoir at Borders for $2 to write about for Silly Show-Biz Book Club. I haven’t dipped too deep into it yet, but I am amused and amazed by Taboo’s conception of Hologram Man as a musical pied piper whose genius ideas spur him and The Other Guy and Meth Lady to unprecedented heights of creativity. He really does seem to view Will.I.Am as a guru, almost like a cult leader. Why shouldn’t he? Will.I.Am snatched The Other Other Guy from richly deserved anonymity and made him a pop star. He owes him the world.
I first became cognizant of the existence of Cobra Starship when its opportunistic novelty single “Snakes On A Plane (Bring It)” became a very minor hit. I assumed, like all reasonable people, that Cobra Starship was a joke band created to promote a joke movie. Nothing about the Cobra Starship equation screams longevity. Not the opportunistic novelty single tied to a fad movie. Not the stupid fucking name. Not the unconscionable hair. Not the Poochie-style attitude. Cobra Starship was such a preposterous concoction that the moment Snakes On A Plane left theaters, the band should have disappeared in a poof of glitter and been catapulted into some strange Euro-trash limbo alongside Aqua and Rednex and every other unfortunate aggregation of fashion victims who strutted and fretted their hour upon the world stage and then were heard from no more. I know Cobra Starship isn’t European by nationality; it’s Euro-trash in every other conceivable sense, though.
So you can imagine how shocked I was to discover that not only did Cobra Starship inexplicably continue to exist post “Snakes An A Plane (Bring It),” it also continued to release music. Professionally! Via a label and everything! That was disseminated far and wide and compiled alongside other professionally recorded songs on NOW 32!
Thankfully, “Good Girls Go Bad” is everything a follow-up to “Snakes An A Plane (Bring It)” should be, which is to say, not much of anything at all. It’s sonic cotton candy, all empty glitz and sex and naughty bad-girl/bad-boy posturing. It was produced by Kara DioGuardi, the Pras of popular reality-competition judges (or, alternately, the Brian Dunkleman of American Idol judges). It prominently features the guest vocals of a starlet whose romantic canoodlings regularly fill the pages of newspaper tabloids. And, as if all that weren’t enough to make it the single most ephemeral bit of fluff in the history of the universe, it also sounds like it should be playing during a “making faces in the mirror while trying on outfits for a sexy night out in the big city” montage in a romantic comedy also entitled Good Girls Go Bad. We could even get the girl from Gossip Girl to play the lead! She could even sing the theme song! Ah, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, aren’t we?
During my recent trip to Nashville for Nashville Or Bust, I could not escape the image of Taylor Swift. The Chinese did not create as many images of Mao as the fine folks of Nashville have created of their benevolent leader. Taylor is the mother goddess. The entire city is under her sway. Why shouldn’t it be? For better or worse, Taylor Swift is the face and image of country music in 2011. The blindingly shiny, CoverGirl-approved, model-perfect face. “You Belong With Me,” Swift’s contribution to the 32nd volume of NOW That’s What I Call Music! illustrates why she’s conquered the universe and made all of country her bitch.
Lyrically, the song is as primal as anything Hank Williams ever recorded. That simplicity is key: emotions everyone can relate to in language everyone uses. Only instead of chronicling the pain, hardship, and despair of life, Swift spins gossamer romantic fantasies about cute girls pining for cute boys who don’t notice them because they’re maddeningly fixated on cute girls of lesser moral character. Girl meets boy. Boy loves wrong girl. Girl pines for boy. It’s elementary, but Swift has the dewy, all-American charm to pull it off.
It may not be art, but Taylor Swift is brilliant business and Nashville is, above all else, a company town. It’s a hub of business. That business just happens to be a great American art form but it’s also got to find a way to pay the bills and keep the lights on and Taylor Swift’s all-inclusive, violently unthreatening, wildly unobjectionable music-for-all is destined to keep doing that for decades to come. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Swift single-handedly plays a big role in keeping the country industry thriving the same way Garth Brooks did at his commercial peak. If the divas and opportunists of NOW have taught us anything, it’s that in a brutal business like this, you do what you can to survive. By that criterion and by the standards of pop supervillains like The Hologram Man, a little saccharine sweetening represents an eminently forgivable transgression, especially from such a charming young woman.
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in pop culture in the winter of 2009
- Vic Chesnutt dies.
- Juvenile has the brash self-assurance to name an album Cocky & Confident, does so.
- Billy Corgan releases Teargarden By Kaleidyscope because that’s the sort of thing that Billy Corgan does.
- MXPX releases an album called Punk Rawk Christmas, of course.
- B.G. releases the album Too Hood 2 Be Hollywood to convey the important message that he is, in fact, too “hood” to be Hollywood.