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.
- “TiK ToK,” Ke$ha
- “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga
- “Hard,” Rihanna featuring Jeezy
- “In My Head,” Jason Derulo
- “I Wanna Rock,” Snoop Dogg
- “BedRock,” Young Money featuring Lloyd
- “Do You Remember,” Jay Sean featuring Sean Paul and Lil Jon
- “Replay,” Iyaz
- “Fireflies,” Owl City
- “Hey, Soul Sister,” Train
- “Life After You,” Daughtry
- “Live Like We’re Dying,” Kris Allen
- “Whataya Want From Me,” Adam Lambert
- “According To You,” Orianthi
- “Need You Now,” Lady Antebellum
- “Fearless,” Taylor Swift
- “Heart Of Gold,” Ashlyne Huff
- “Wheels,” Jamie Cullum
- “Fast Forward,” Jaicko
- “Shake That Bubble,” Young & Divine
- “Release Me,” Agnes
Well, friends, we have officially come full circle. In February of last year, a more innocent time, I embarked on a strange project. I was going to listen to every installment of NOW That’s What I Called Music! in chronological order and write about them in an attempt to trace the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.
Documenting inevitable rise of the Black Eyed Peas and Auto-Tune feels a little like watching Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2003: We see the horror coming in slow-motion, but there isn’t anything we can do to stop it. Like it or not, George W. Bush became president, and the Black Eyed Peas devolved from critical darlings to the enemies of art, truth, and beauty. It all seems strangely inevitable now.
We’ve watched artists and trends dominate an entire decade, game-changers so influential and important (culturally and commercially, if not musically) that they fracture time into discrete periods: pre and post. Remember the world pre-Black Eyed Peas? That was a glorious time. I also vaguely remember a world in which R&B singers weren’t allowed to use Auto-Tune as training wheels. (“Sure this robot helps me sing, but someday I’ll do it all by myself!”)
With each successive volume, it has felt as if pop had hit a new low, but it’s important to remember that pop music has historically been ridiculous, ephemeral, and disposable. That’s why it’s pop. Pat Boone is pop; The Velvet Underground is art. We forget the ephemeral. When was the last time you heard a Pat Boone song? Unless you hang out in some very sad, very stodgy circles or you have a friend who bought that metal album as a gag gift, chances are you haven’t heard Boone in ages. Yet throughout the ’50s, Boone was a massive cultural figure who sold millions of albums to families who preferred scandalous R&B songs homogenized for their protection.
Pop fades with time. Art endures. We’re drawn to the real rather than the ersatz. That’s why we’ll still be listening to R.E.M. 50 years from now long after the name of Train has been cursed for the very last time.
We last encountered Train a decade earlier when “Meet Virginia” poisoned the fourth volume of NOW with its Manic Pixie Dream Girl-friendly leaden whimsy. Train serves an important function: It gives the Counting Crows someone to look down on. With the possible exception of Skrewdriver, I can’t imagine a group less qualified to release a song called “Hey, Soul Sister.”
Then again, I suspect “Hey, Soul Sister” is another Will.I.Am-style exercise in exposing the emptiness of pop music by embodying its banality in a manner that betrays its fundamental worthlessness. Would even the most amateur songwriter pen a chorus with the lyrics “Hey soul sister, ain’t that Mister Mister on the radio / stereo, the way you move ain’t fair you know?” unless he was, as the Brits like to say, taking the piss?
For that matter, I can’t conceive of a context where the male-model type who fronts Train could un-ironically utter the lyrics “The way you can cut a rug / Watching you is the only drug I need / I’m so gangsta, I’m so thug / You’re the only one I’m dreaming of.” In case there’s any doubt that “Hey, Soul Sister” is a stealth parody of coffeehouse wimpiness masquerading as the real thing, the bemused delivery of “My heart is bound to beat out of my untrimmed chest” gives the game away. Train has inexplicably become so popular that it can deliberately set out to make the worst possible song, and it’s still a goddamn smash. It is apparently impossible for Train to fail.
When it comes to clumsy appropriations of hip-hop slang and culture, the douche from Train (I know he has a name—I’m not going to give him the honor of learning it) has nothing on Ke$ha, from the opening lyric of “Wake up in the morning feeling like P-Diddy” to the Too $hort-style dollar sign in her name.
On “TiK ToK,” half the joke comes from a twentysomething white party girl with a valley-girl sneer talking shit. Ke$ha knows she has no business using phrases like “swagger” and “crunk” in a hip-hop context, so those words come ensconced in invisible quotation marks—everything in the song belongs between quotation marks. Ke$ha is now apparently living her life between them, though I suspect that her Black Eyed Peas-like determination to extend the party at least until sun-up is sincere.
My first response to “TiK ToK” was “What is this shit? It’s fucking terrible,” followed by “I can’t wait to listen to it again.” Which I did, probably 50 times. “TiK ToK” fits snugly into a pop-culture realm where there no longer seems to be any guilt involved in guilty pleasures, and selling out is a sin only if you don’t get a big enough price. Ke$ha constructed a homemade brand out of trashy sexuality, Auto-Tune, electro-pop, and brazen calculation. It’s tailor-made for a post-authentic era, when music resembles less the work of human beings and more a collaboration between synthesizers and voice modulators, or content providers and their corporate benefactors.
Yet I still love “TiK ToK.” I wrote in an earlier column about how songs often make an indelible impression through irritation rather than seduction. “TiK ToK” is half irritation, half seduction, half rap, and half pop. It’s so of its time that a mere year and a half later it already sounds like it belongs in a time capsule.
“TiK ToK” grabbed me the first time I heard it and hasn’t let go. Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” went even further. At the risk of dazzling the lot of you with my hipster cred, I originally encountered it as part of a polka medley of recent hits at a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert. The performance raced through the melody and the chorus, but it was enough for me to seek the song out. “Need You Now” is one of those perfect pop songs that captures in amber a mood and a moment. In this case, that mood is late-night desperation fueled by a potent cocktail of whiskey, heartbreak, horniness, and a world-weary sense of exhaustion. I can’t vouch for the rest of Lady Antebellum’s oeuvre, but “Need You Now” almost threatens to give slick mainstream country a good name.
Owl City takes the twee sensitivity of The Postal Service to comic extremes. Ben Gibbard gets a lot of shit for being a sensitive soul/total pussy, but he’s never uttered anything nearly as vomit-inducingly precious as the “Fireflies” couplet “I’d get a million hugs / from 10,000 lightning bugs / as they tried to teach me how to dance.” I don’t know if there are any fireflies reading this, but if you encounter the lead singer of Owl City (even its name is too twee), please refrain from giving him a single hug, let alone a thousand. And for fuck’s sake, don’t teach that guy how to dance, or he’ll be doing some sad emo shuffle all around Williamsburg. I’m sure he’s sensitive and a lovely human being, but man, fuck that guy.
NOW That’s What I Call Music! launched before the era of American Idol, one of the game-changers I mentioned earlier. There’s been a strong-to-unbearable level of American Idol alumni on previous volumes, but graduates of the Simon Fuller Star-Making Academy dominate the 33rd volume. There’s the pouty glitter of Adam Lambert’s moody “Whataya Want From Me,” the hunger-dunger dang bleating of Daughtry’s “Life After You,” and the clean-cut earnestness of Kris Allen’s horrifically overwrought “Live Like We’re Dying.”
Has American Idol made the music world a blander place? It’s a show designed specifically to create stars that will appeal to the broadest possible audience. That’s a recipe for mediocrity more than success, but we’ve always had television shows, prefabricated pop stars, and grumpy old folks decrying the death of music at the hands of the villain of the day.
We’re always looking for the next big thing, and the good folks over at NOW That’s What I Call Music! aren’t any different. In addition to 16 bona fide hits, volume 33 also contains what it euphemistically refers to as “NOW What’s Next Bonus Tracks” from lesser-known artists like Agnes, Jaicko, Jamie Cullum, and Young & Devine. While I am in favor of giving breaks to new artists in theory, I can’t help but feel like these tracks violate the spirit of NOW That’s What I Call Music! This is a goddamned popularity contest—always has been, always will be. NOW has always been about celebrating and perpetuating the ubiquitous, not lending a hand up. The bonus tracks reek of desperation. They’re dispiriting proof that the music industry is now so clueless that even a monster compilation series devoted to delivering nothing but the hits is reduced to gambling on which obscure new artists might make it. And that’s sad. NOW used to go platinum automatically, but in this day and age, there are no sure things, especially where the music industry is concerned.
Outside the Bubble: What else was happening in pop music in Spring 2010