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.
- “Baby,” Justin Bieber
- “Nothin’ On You,” B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars
- “Your Love Is My Drug,” Ke$ha
- “Rude Boy,” Rihanna
- “OMG,” Usher featuring Will.i.am
- “Winner,” Jamie Foxx featuring Justin Timberlake and T.I.
- “My Chick Bad,” Ludacris featuring Nicki Minaj
- “Imma Be,” The Black Eyed Peas
- “Solo,” Iyaz
- “All The Right Moves,” OneRepublic
- “Halfway Gone,” Lifehouse
- “Sweet Disposition,” The Temper Trap
- “Heart Heart Heartbreak,” Boys Like Girls
- “Breakeven,” The Script
- “American Honey,” Lady Antebellum
- “The House That Built Me,” Miranda Lambert
- “Little Lies,” Dave Barnes
- “Worry About You,” 2AM Club
- “So Obvious,” Runner Runner
- “Almost Love (24/7),” Jessica Jarrell
When we mourned Michael Jackson in 2010, we were also mourning the death of a common cultural consensus, the idea that someone might be so gifted that just about everyone in the world knew who he was. There’s something beautiful and pure about that idea. So when a beautiful little boy named Justin Bieber exploded onto the national scene, I suspect some of the excitement around him was rooted in a hunger for a common cultural consensus. We wanted a new pop star everyone recognized. Now that pop has fractured into a million little niches, the idea of an artist whose popularity and presence are so huge they tie together disparate worlds has tremendous currency.
Like all pop stars, Bieber stands on the shoulders of giants. When we first looked at him, we saw Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and Usher. We saw an androgynous man-child preternaturally gifted at the first and most important requirement of teen idols: He made little girls scream. Oh, sweet blessed Lord, did he make the little girls scream. Their orgiastic cries could be heard from neighboring galaxies. He was equally proficient in fulfilling the other requirement of teen idoldom: He endured harsh glares from little boys and sneers of feigned indifference from people who consider themselves too cool to care about teen idols.
Bieber was the latest incarnation of a show-business staple: the radiant child whose angelic voice makes money for old men in suits. It was an old story with a newfangled twist. Instead of being discovered at a high-school talent show or Schwab’s drugstore, Bieber was discovered by a former So So Def executive named Scooter Braun, who stumbled across Bieber’s homemade videos on YouTube. He was transfixed. Soon the world would be, too.
The song that introduced Bieber to the world, and which kicks off the 34th volume of NOW That’s What I Call Music!, is pure bubblegum. I recently interviewed Luther Campbell and asked him how “Me So Horny” came about. He said he came up with the concept for the song and gave his groupmates Fresh Kid Ice and Brother Marquis a simple assignment: Dream up a scenario in which you are horny. It doesn’t get any simpler than that for a sex rap, just as it’s impossible to imagine a more basic conceit for a bubblegum-pop song than the old boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-pines-for-girl’s-return paradigm. There’s a good reason for that: It works.
“Baby” is cotton candy, but at least it’s spun from pure sugar. Bieber’s gift is his ability to invest basic lyrics of love lost with a real sense of adolescent hurt. The universality of the lyrics only adds to the song’s staggeringly broad appeal. And when I say staggeringly broad, I mean “staggeringly broad.” The video for “Baby” has been seen more than 545 million times. I can’t even wrap my mind around that number. That’s Thriller big. Of course, you can’t make little girls scream without arousing the anger of boys and men, so “Baby” also had the curious distinction of also being the single most disliked video on YouTube until another viral sensation barely into her teens took over: Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” (How does that one go again?).
There was a time when a respected rapper like Ludacris would fret about losing credibility by performing with a baby-faced teenage Canadian who looks like a really hot lesbian. That time was the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ridiculous charade that is “keeping it real” still had some currency. There was a time when the worst thing you could call an artist was a sellout. That was MC Hammer’s crime; Ice Cube, whom you may know from his regular guest appearances on the TBS family sitcom Are We There Yet?, even took it upon himself to record a song (“True To The Game”) to scold Hammer for his sins against hip-hop’s slippery code of authenticity.
At some point in the past two decades, however, hip-hop collectively realized that all this foolishness about “keeping it real” was tiring and probably not worth the bother. All that posturing and posing with guns and scowling takes a lot out of a person, especially as gangsta rappers are by nature chipper, upbeat people. Think about all the stuff they’re excited about: women, alcohol, drugs, killing people, having homoerotic relationships with other men in their entourage. There was also that minor matter of “keeping it real” being a form of posturing in itself.
The old-school rules of authenticity were hard to live up to. They were hard to even remember. Only KRS-One really knew them, and he was a bit of a humorless scold. Then, while no one was paying attention, the concept of keeping it real was quietly discarded and replaced by a pragmatic imperative to chase every last cent at any cost. “By Any Means Necessary” got replaced by “Get Rich Or Die Trying.” To Ludacris, collaborating with a baby-faced Canadian teen idol was simply good business. He looked at Justin Bieber and saw what everyone else did: money.
There was a time when Justin Bieber occupied a vastly different cultural space than Raekwon or Kanye West. That’s no longer true. When Kanye West tweeted that he was listening to Bieber’s “Runaway Love,” Bieber Tweeted him back, and before long Bieber, Raekwon, and West had collaborated on a song together. That’s how the world works these days: quickly and invariably in the direction of capital. West, Raekwon, and Bieber don’t occupy different lanes anymore. They’re all pop stars. They’re all digital.
The inexorable rise of The Bieber afforded pop stars exactly two options: co-opt his incredible popularity and fan base, or oppose it and be crushed. One is a little more appealing than the other, so just about everyone has taken the David Bowie/Madonna route: co-opt, co-opt, co-opt, and if you want to fuck or collaborate with whomever you’re co-opting, then more power to you. Usher and Justin Timberlake were so eager to co-opt their ostensible competition that they each tried to sign him. Usher succeeded.
The rise of Nicki Minaj presented established hip-hop stars with a similar conundrum: accept the new order or get destroyed. Ludacris is secure enough in his place in the hip-hop hierarchy that he immediately harnessed the incredible power of Minaj for the single of his new album. Lil’ Kim went up against Minaj and was crushed.
This is how hip-hop works now: If you’re the hot new thing, you appear on everyone’s album, are managed or not managed by Diddy at some point (no one can quite figure out which), have a complicated relationship with Kanye West and 50 Cent, and beef with older artists resentful because they were the hot young thing on everyone’s albums and being managed by Diddy a few years earlier. They’ve breathed that rarified air, and it kills them to see a new generation take their place.
Ludacris was the hot young thing back when he exploded with “What’s Your Fantasy.” It’d be a stretch to call him a hip-hop elder statesman, but he has, at the very least, eased comfortably into the role of rap’s favorite cool uncle. On “Baby,” Ludacris maintains an unmistakably avuncular presence as he takes a leisurely ramble down memory lane. He’s the older brother schooling the Bieb on the mysterious ways of love. On “My Chick Bad,” he defers to his guest.
Minaj isn’t much of a presence on Battle Of The Sexes, the album that spawned “My Chick Bad.” She’s just one guest on an overflowing roster of high-profile female rappers dueting with Ludacris. But the song and album titles both seem to reference Minaj, directly or indirectly. In fact, they do more than just reference Minaj; along with the rest of hip-hop, they pant, leer, and ogle. And Minaj is comfortable with that. Exhibitionists need voyeurs, and Minaj has an entire planet leering at her. Minaj is Lil’ Kim for the age of social media. Like Kanye West and Lady Gaga, she’s made fame both a common subject of her music and her principal art form. She’s part of a generation that gazes rapturously into the magical mirror that is social media and finds out, to their palpable delight, that they are the fairest of them all.
Lil’ Kim was in some respects a creation of Notorious B.I.G. He crafted the image, the persona, and the sex-bomb aura. Minaj created herself as a pop-culture Frankenstein fusing the creative DNA of Lil’ Kim, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Lauryn Hill into an ungodly new pop monstrosity. She’s Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Frankenstein, not to mention the Bride Of Frankenstein and possibly the wolfman as well. Minaj cultivates her eccentricities. Music constitutes only a minor component of her empire: Her genius is for dressing up and looking outrageous as much as it is for singing and rapping. She’s a cartoon burlesque of hip-hop sexuality that appeals equally to her rabid gay fan base and equally rabid horny heterosexual fan base.
The old rules have fallen away. Hip-hop has not yet embraced its raging homosexuality—make no mistake, hip-hop is incredibly gay, no homo—but it’s making progress. They’re baby steps, to be sure, but thankfully, hip-hop has queer-friendly artists like Minaj to help it catch up with the rest of society. Minaj has downplayed rumors of bisexuality, but if fans want to imagine her and I dunno, Rihanna—who contributes “Rude Boy” to the compilation—in a series of acrobatic sexual scenarios, and if doing so makes them more likely to buy her next album, I suspect that Minaj wouldn’t have a problem with letting listeners’ imaginations travel to sordid, incredibly vivid and detailed places.
Hip-hop was born in the streets of New York, but it now belongs to the world. Minaj blew up internationally at the same she exploded domestically, while Europe was ahead of the curve in embracing the Black Eyed Peas. In the recently released memoir Fallin’ Up, The Other Other Guy writes about Will.i.am in quasi-mystical terms. Time and again, Taboo watched in quiet awe as Will.i.am communed with powerful spirits, wrestled with his demons, went on vision quests, and at the end of a series of grueling, powerful, profound physical, spiritual, and emotional experiences, came away with a song like “My Humps” or “Let’s Get Retarded.”
In Taboo’s telling, Will.i.am isn’t shamelessly chasing fickle commercial fads in a desperate attempt to maintain Black Eyed Peas’ immense, almost unimaginable popularity. Will.i.am is simply attuned to the rhythms of the universe. In 2009, the rhythms of the universe told Will.i.am that dance music was traveling in an exciting new direction. It was all about beats, not rhymes, Will.iam told Taboo, though for Will.i.am, it was never really about rhymes, even in the early days.
At first, Taboo had difficulty accepting the new direction in which the Black Eyed Peas’ music was traveling. But he wasn’t about to second-guess the commercial sensibility of his Mr. Miyagi. In Fallin’ Up, Will.i.am isn’t just Taboo’s spiritual guru; he’s his everything. If Fallin’ Up were The Matrix, Will.i.am would be Morpheus and Neo, and Taboo would be the guy in the background staring worshipfully at him. He might not even occupy that distinguished a role; he’d be more like one of the pixels that make up The Matrix’s digital universe.
“Imma Be” represents the Black Eyed Peas’ new electro sound in its purest form. Lyrically, the song is beyond basic, but musically, it never stops moving and shifting and mutating into intriguing new shapes, though the lyrics provide little incentive to continue listening. But who really listens to a Black Eyed Peas song?
At this point in the THEN project, it should be apparent to everyone that pop music is just fucking with us. People with too much money and too little talent are taunting us to call their bluff and concede that they’re all empty vessels conducting an insane masquerade that has gone on entirely too long. The release of Usher and Will.i.am’s “OMG” should remove any lingering doubt. Will.i.am and Usher have so much contempt for their audience that they can’t even be bothered to spell out the words in their songs. In this crazy modern world, they only have time for acronyms.
“OMG” feels unmistakably like an endgame. In keeping with Will.iam’s mission to destroy/subvert pop music from within, it is the product of two men mad with the furtive knowledge that the public will embrace anything they release, no matter how transparently ridiculous and insulting it might be. And releasing a single called “OMG” with Will.i.am is as insulting and ridiculous as you can get.
Usher and Will.i.am broadcast their contempt for everyone and everything with their dispirited delivery of couplets like “Honey got a booty like pow pow pow / Honey’s got some boobies like wow oh wow.” These are grown men that wrote that song, men with families and homes and mortgages, men who command respect in their communities through virtue of their money and power alone. These professional musicians have a powerful forum to communicate their ideas. Instead, they chose to write the lyric “Honey got some boobies like wow oh wow.”
The crowd chanting Usher and Will.i.am along as they drone their way into oblivion is cheering the death of art and culture at the hands of Will.i.am. Just as Taboo suspected, he is the One. We’re clearly in the Matrix. This can’t be reality. OMG? Seriously? We’re going to have to tear it all down and start all over again from scratch, a process that begins with the next volume of NOW!
Up next on THEN! Usher and The Bieb just want somebody to love, Snoop and Katy Perry have a thing for California Gurls, and Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars think that having a great deal of money may prove advantageous in some respects.
Outside the bubble (what else was going on in music in summer 2010)::
The Steve Miller Band briefly reminds universe of its existence with the release of a covers album, Bingo!
Sarah McLachlan releases an album entitled Laws Of Illusion, dies of pretension overdose immediately afterward.
Devo reunites, releases Something For Everyone, an album that promised to appeal to a narrow spectrum of listeners.
Tom Petty releases an album called Mojo that probably got a really good review from Mojo, a publication that exists solely to give really good reviews to late-period Tom Petty albums.