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 33 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.
- “It’s Gonna Be Me,” ’N Sync
- “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” 98 Degrees
- “Jumpin’ Jumpin’,” Destiny’s Child
- “Don’t Think I’m Not,” Kandi
- “I Think I’m In Love With You,” Jessica Simpson
- “Faded,” soulDecision featuring Thrust
- “Shake It Fast,” Mystikal featuring Pharrell
- “Case Of The Ex,” Mya
- “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It),” Aaron Carter
- “Lucky,” Britney Spears
- “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely,” Backstreet Boys
- “Incomplete,” Sisqó
- “I Wanna Be With You,” Mandy Moore
- “Doesn’t Really Matter,” Janet
- “Back Here,” BBMak
- “Absolutely (Story Of A Girl),” Nine Days
- “Kryptonite,” 3 Doors Down
- “Wonderful,” Everclear
- “It’s My Life,” Bon Jovi
Britney Spears’ “Lucky” is about a girl named Lucky—we know this, because the song opens with the words “This is a story about a girl named Lucky”—on account of she’s so lucky. She’s got it all, this Hollywood girl: a perfect smile, stardom, a thriving film career, an Academy Award, her very own makeup artist. But is she really lucky? No, she is not. In a bit of irony every bit as ironic as a black fly in your chardonnay or meeting the man of your dreams—then meeting his beautiful wife!—Lucky, it turns out, is not so lucky.
For Lucky’s perfect façade masks seething discontent. An anguished Spears incisively inquires of this poor little rich girl, “If there’s nothing missing in her life, then why do these tears come at night?” Like a pop-culture Cassandra, Spears seems to be singing about herself and her own tormented future when she sings:
Lost in an image, in a dream
But there’s no one there to wake her up
And the world is spinning and she keeps on winning
But tell me, what happens when it stops?
With the benefit of hindsight, I can now provide Mrs. Spears with a detailed answer to her query. In no particular order, she shaves her head, takes a fuckton of drugs, first marries a high-school friend during a drunken binge, then marries a backup dancer/aspiring rapper who would soon come to exemplify doucheitude, attacks paparazzi with an umbrella, is committed to a psych ward, has her children temporarily taken from her, embarks on a sordid affair with a paparazzo, makes a poorly received but lucrative teen drama called Crossroads, and finally has a modest comeback.
No one believed Cassandra, but everyone could foresee Spears’ indelicate tumble from grace. It was hardwired into her image and her music from the beginning. So it almost seems sadistic that Spears’ people would have her sing a song that seemed to foretell the unholy mess she’d soon make of her life and career. In “Lucky,” Spears sings about an archetype and a cliché she’d soon come to embody: the self-destructive pop star flashing a Colgate smile on the outside and crying inside (or at night, as the case may be). And the tragic part is that even Spears herself saw it coming in the “Lucky” music video, which miscasts her in dual roles: the hotheaded, mercurial superstar and the narrator looking on with dead eyes and a faintly android-like expression as her doppelgänger gains the world and loses her soul. Also, dig that star wipe!
The emptiness of fame serves as a motif on NOW That’s What I Call Music! 5. It’s also the theme of “Incomplete,” a lugubrious ballad sung by platinum-haired, vertically challenged cartwheel-and-thong enthusiast Sisqó and written by Montell Jordan, whom you might remember from his tragic love triangle with a dance-floor temptress and a jealous chicken in NOW! Volume 4’s “Get It On Tonite.”
“Incomplete” somehow manages to be even sleazier and more self-aggrandizing than “Get It On Tonite.” Here, Sisqó moans about the mind-blowing awesomeness of his life, but concedes that it all means nothing without that special someone. In rapid succession, Sisqó brags about a life of bright lights, fancy restaurants, and possessing “a bank account bigger than the law should allow,” a line that suggests he either feels guilty about being so wealthy, or nurses furtive Socialist leanings.
In a cringe-inducing bit of Montell Jordanian wordplay, Sisqó exclaims, “Pretty faces from the covers of the magazines / From their covers to my covers wanna lay with me.” (I see what you did, there, Mr. Jordan.) Sisqó screams throughout that he doesn’t “want to be a lonely fool.” That’s sentiment separated Sisqó from the many R&B singers crooning about their desire to be solitary dullards. The suitably histrionic video for “Incomplete” conveys the decadence of Sisqó’s life and his deep internal anguish by showing him bottle-feeding his pet tiger and later falling onto the ground and engaging in seizure-like convulsions. “Incomplete” was, remarkably, a No. 1 single, but Sisqó’s solo success was cut short when scandalous rumors began to spread that the Dru Hill frontman wasn’t a natural blonde.
The underrated joy of mutual infidelity provides NOW with another motif on the fifth installment of the most important compilation series ever. On “Jumpin’, Jumpin’,” Beyoncé Knowles and the other two members of Destiny’s Child invite men and women alike to ditch their partners and head to the club in search of adventure and excitement with “ballers” whose pockets are “full grown.”
Even as an 18-year-old, Beyoncé radiated steely authority and self-determination. She somehow manages to make everything she sings about seem empowering and vaguely feminist, whether advocating chasing wealthy men (“Jumpin’, Jumpin’”), angrily demanding that her partner pay his own way (“Bills, Bills, Bills”), or standing strong after you fire two of your less popular bandmates (“Survivor”) when they express a desire to be managed by someone other than your dad.
Kandi Burruss, perhaps not coincidentally, wrote “Bills, Bills, Bills” for Destiny’s Child and the similarly themed “No Scrubs” for TLC, but she’s represented here by her solo single, “Don’t Think I’m Not,” a sneakily subversive dance number that shares the empowerment-through-cheating message of “Jumpin’, Jumpin’.” In “Don’t Think I’m Not,” Burruss sasses a boyfriend who thinks he’s being slick by fooling around on her. She assures him that she can and will match him infidelity for infidelity. “They say two wrongs won’t make it right, but it’s suiting me just fine,” Burruss quips in a line indicative of her wry take on the battle of the sexes.
Burruss is a fascinating figure whose career reflects the evolution and devolution of pop culture over the past two decades. She began her career as a member of moderately popular girl group Xscape, then segued into writing hit songs for a new generation of girl groups like Destiny’s Child and TLC. Infectious tracks like “Don’t Think I’m Not” aside, her solo career was a bit of a non-starter, but in 2009, she reinvented herself yet again as one of the stars of The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. She also wrote and produced “Tardy For The Party” for castmate Kim Zolciak, a horrible, horrible woman who embodies the crass excess of our reality-show age. Burruss recently made headlines under more tragic circumstances when her fiancé, A.J. Jewell, died during a scuffle outside a strip club. This development echoes the cultural zeitgeist as well: When pop sociologists look back upon this age, it will go down as the era of the fatal gentleman’s-club mêlée.
Mya is in many ways the anti-Beyoncé. If Beyoncé conveys almost preternatural levels of self-confidence, Mya’s early singles betray uncertainty and vulnerability. On “Best Of Me,” she sings from the perspective of an inexperienced young woman more than a little terrified of her overpowering attraction to a sexy thug. “Case Of The Ex,” Mya’s contribution to Volume 5, finds her once again operating from a position of weakness (or does it?) as she diligently lays out the evidence that her boyfriend is either cheating on her with his ex, or at least pondering infidelity. Here’s the corroborating evidence supporting her assertion, in order:
- Mya caught them chatting on the phone after midnight.
- The boyfriend and the ex aren’t bound by familial obligations, since their union created no progeny.
- Nor are they linked through a shared social network, since they had no mutual friends.
- The ex is of low moral character, since “she turned trick when y’all broke up in ’96.” I think you all know exactly what that means. No, wait. You probably don’t. I’m not sure I do, either.
- Nostalgia cannot be the purpose of the call either, since the relationship in question was fatally flawed and did not last.
- Last but not least, the harlot in question isn’t even particularly becoming from a physical standpoint, as Mya has “seen her photo” and has determined, after careful consideration, “She ain’t even all that.”
Spears’ ex, Justin Timberlake, makes his first NOW! appearance here alongside his ’N Sync compatriots, on the kick-off track “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The boy-band selections I’ve written about here tend to be frustratingly generic, but Timberlake wastes no time asserting the charisma that would render him the last man standing when the boy-band boom collapsed. Like Knowles, Timberlake didn’t ask for the spotlight, he angrily demanded it. So the title of “It’s Gonna Be Me” comes off like an order to his singing partners, not like a suggestion to a partner shell-shocked by too many trifling men and dead-end relationships.
Timberlake’s fellow alumni of the Louis J. Pearlman pop-star-breeding experiment, the Backstreet Boys, contribute a much more forgettable ballad in the form of the sonic sleeping pill “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely.” On the other hand, Aaron Carter—the younger brother of Backstreet Boy Nick Carter—makes a debut that’s memorable for all the wrong reasons.
One of the more disturbing products of the Pearlman teen-idol factory, Aaron released his self-titled debut at the ripe old age of 9. Pearlman, he of the Jabba The Hutt physique and Fagin-like sense of personal ethics, apparently figured that if he could find a prepubescent white moppet who could rap like a young Fresh Prince, he could make millions.
Accordingly, Aaron’s contribution to the compilation, “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It)” is a de facto remake of “Parents Just Don’t Understand” with Aaron in the role of a young scamp whose attempt to throw the world’s most swinging party goes comically awry. Yes, things get pretty fucking nuts. Just how fucking nuts? At one point, some worthless sack of shit spills juice all over Aaron’s mom’s couch! As if that weren’t fucking nuts enough, another kid breaks a lamp! Can you believe that shit? The shit gets even more fucked-up when kids who Aaron doesn’t recognize show up! Clearly, there’s no way for Aaron to avoid being grounded.
Aaron followed “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It)” with “That’s How I Beat Shaq.” There are some cynical folks out there who say the song owes a debt to The Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson,” but I don’t see it, nor do I see any similarities between the work of DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince and subsequent Aaron singles like “Friday The 13th On My Boulevard” “Falltime,” “Ft. Lauderdale,” “Young Women Are Often Problematic,” “Crazy, Crazy East,” and “Fellows In White.” Many of those tracks can be found on Carter’s little-loved third album, I’m The Vocalist, He’s The Turntablist.
“Aaron’s Party (Come Get It)” depicts a wholesome burlesque of childhood innocence at a time in Aaron’s life when an actual out-of-control party was more likely to involve doing rails off strippers’ tits and drunkenly crashing sports cars into swimming pools. (And sure enough, Aaron dallied with such noted pop tarts as Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, and Paris Hilton during his teen years.) Pearlman apparently conceived the younger Carter as a prepubescent heartthrob who’d appeal equally to 8-year-old girls and pedophiles, though in a rare display of restraint, he never booked Aaron to perform at any NAMBLA conventions.
Speaking of jailbait pop sensations, Volume 5 marks the debut of Jessica Simpson. Back in my prehistoric days in Madison, I was unfortunate enough to review a Jessica Simpson concert in a mall parking lot for nme.com. Under normal circumstances, I would have found the whole spectacle terribly amusing and weirdly fitting. (Is there really any difference between the disposable product Simpson was shilling in the parking lot and the consumer goods available inside Eastgate Mall?) But I was in a deep, dark depression at the time, so I found Simpson’s performance soul-crushingly sad.
Like Spears, Simpson has gone through myriad permutations since she screeched her way through NOW! 5’s “I Think I’m In Love With You,” one of those asinine dog-whistle ballads that Mariah Carey favors. It’s built, perversely and distractingly, around a sample of John Mellencamp’s “Jack And Diane.” Simpson has been a walking punchline/infamous reality-show dumb-ass, a Dukes Of Hazard sexpot, a failed would-be movie star, a troubled diva, a tabloid fixture, a country singer, and most recently, Sexual Napalm (which is also my drag name). But “I Think I’m In Love With You” finds Simpson in her first incarnation, a freshly scrubbed, good Southern Christian girl crooning asinine ditties about young love. And it worked. These days, only the biggest superstars even dream of going platinum, but in the halcyon days of the late ’90s, Simpson’s debut went double-platinum. And that’s just in America. It truly was a different era.
When “Shake Ya Ass,” presented here under the more radio-friendly title “Shake It Fast,” exploded in 2000, much of the attention went to Mystikal, an excitable graduate of the Master P school of style over substance. The energetic New Orleans MC with the Captain Caveman rasp and unpredictable, agitated delivery was heralded as the second coming of James Brown. Few could have guessed that Mystikal would spend much of the decade he ushered in on such a memorable note in a prison cell, while the little-known moonlighting producer doing a half-assed Curtis Mayfield on the hook would change the sound of pop music, and become one of the most successful producers of the past 20 years.
But while Mystikal did time for sexual assault—he made the eminently avoidable mistake of videotaping his crimes—Pharrell Williams and his partner Chad Hugo quickly came to dominate hip-hop as production team The Neptunes. They had a bold, original sound, a skittering, nervous funk that eschewed sampling in favor of live instrumentation and Pharrell’s ever-present crooning. We’ll see a whole lot more of The Neptunes as the NOW! series progresses. This was the duo’s Big Bang, the seminal moment that announced the arrival of a brash new voice in hip-hop, pop, and R&B. They’d scored hits before with Ma$e and Kelis, but they’d never attained success of this magnitude.
Canuck funksters soulDecision resembled a boy band, with their male-model looks, wholesome sexuality, and shitty, shitty name, but they actually wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, which made them an anomaly in Lou Pearlman’s heyday. NOW! Volume 5 compiles “Faded,” one of the compilation’s few pleasant surprises. It’s an infectious slab of disco-inflected, blue-eyed soul with a guest rap by Thrust, a gentleman whose contribution here solidifies his status as C.L. Smooth’s Canadian, non-union equivalent.
Rock has never been NOW That’s What I Call Music!’s strong suit. Accordingly, Volume 5 ends with four dire rock numbers. There’s 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite,” one of many, many terrible songs referencing Superman; the bland pop-rock of Nine Days’ “Absolutely (Story Of A Girl)” (always be wary of bands with numbers in their name); and Everclear’s thoroughly forgettable “Wonderful.”
But Volume 5 saves the worst for last in the form of “It’s My Life,” a hoary bit of dad-rock from the dinosaurs in Bon Jovi. Co-written by Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and Max Martin, the slick songwriter behind many of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys’ biggest hits, it’s a hokey would-be anthem in which a 38-year-old multi-millionaire thumbs his nose at people who would, um, keep him from living his life and doing his thing. Bon Jovi’s rebel posturing comes off as more than a little ridiculous: It’s hard to stick it to The Man when you are The Man. But what makes “It’s My Life” unforgivable, instead of merely shitty and disingenuous, are the lines, “My heart is like an open highway / Like Frankie said, ‘I did it my way.’” I think I speak for everyone when I say “That’s Mr. Sinatra to you, asshole.”
Even more ridiculously, Bon Jovi claimed in an interview with rockradio.com that Sambora urged him to cut that line because “Nobody cares about Frank Sinatra but you.” Wow, that certainly was bold, for Bon Jovi to associate himself with one of the most beloved entertainers of all time. In conclusion, fuck you, Jon Bon Jovi, you self-aggrandizing motherfucker.
The upside to Volume 5 closing with “It’s My Life” is that it leaves the series nowhere to go but up, right?
Next Up on Then That’s What They Called Music!: Shaggy doles out expert advice to the fidelity-impaired, Jennifer Lopez’s love don’t cost a thing, Coldplay and U2 bring the rock, and Creed bleats about the joy of fatherhood
Outside the Now That’s What I Call Music bubble: What else was happening musically in late 2000:
Black Eyed Peas release their final pre-Fergie album, Bridging The Gap
Ludacris is Back For The First Time
Sade releases Lovers Rock, is ridiculously hot
Rawkus releases Lyricist Lounge 2
Reflection Eternal releases debut, Train Of Thought