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.
- “Survivor,” Destiny’s Child
- “All For You,” Janet Jackson
- “Baby, Come Over (This Is Our Night),” Samantha Mumba
- “In My Pocket,” Mandy Moore
- “Play,” Jennifer Lopez
- “The Call (Neptunes Remix),” Backstreet Boys featuring Clipse
- “Playas Gon’ Play,” 3LW
- “Ride Wit Me,” Nelly featuring City Spud
- “Danger (Been So Long),” Mystikal featuring Nivea
- “Fiesta Remix,” R. Kelly featuring Jay-Z, Boo, & Gotti
- “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” Eve featuring Gwen Stefani
- “What Would You Do,” City High
- “Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know,” Britney Spears
- “This I Promise You,” ’N Sync
- “Never Had A Dream Come True,” S Club 7
- “Hanging By A Moment,” Lifehouse
- “Jaded,” Aerosmith
- “From My Head To My Heart,” Evan And Jaron
- “Flavor Of The Weak,” American Hi-Fi
The theme of most of Beyoncé Knowles’ hits, as both a solo artist and the lead singer of Destiny’s Child (otherwise known as “Beyoncé and two random women in the background”), can be reduced to “I’m awesome. Fuck you.” That theme courses through such monster hits as “Bills, Bills, Bills” (“Hey, fuckface, would it kill you to pick up your own checks once in a while, instead of scamming money off my superior earnings and credit rating?”), “Say My Name” (“If you aren’t a lying, cheating douchebag, loudly proclaim your love for my infinitely terrific self”), “Irreplaceable” (“I could so fucking replace you in a heartbeat”), “Independent Women (Part 1)” (“I can buy my own shit, asshole”), “Bootylicious” (“My ass is more than your fragile system can handle”), and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” (“If you weren’t such a dick, you would have married me, given that I am an awesome superwoman.”)
“Survivor,” the Destiny’s Child’s smash that opens the seventh installment of NOW That’s What I Call Music! represents the purest, most intriguingly hypocritical manifestation of this recurring motif. In a staggering act of chutzpah only Beyoncé could get away with, she lashes out at her luckless former band-mates, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, for, um, being annoyed that she
Beyoncé obviously couldn’t tolerate such insolence on the part of her former collaborators. It’d be as if you were kicking some losers in the face, and they had the unmitigated gall to be all, “Please stop kicking me in the face. You win.” That would piss me off so much! I would kick twice as hard if they pulled a stunt like that. So in a mind-boggling act of bad winnerdom, Beyoncé wrote and performed a song in which she rubbed her phenomenal success in her former bandmates’ faces, boasted that her winning streak would never end, and crowed that she would never lower herself to disparaging her former collaborators in a song that does nothing but disparage her former collaborators! “I’m better than that!” Beyoncé and those two other people crow with ferocious, wholly unmerited self-righteousness.
“I’m not gon’ blast you on the radio,” Beyoncé sang, as she blasted Luckett and Roberson on the radio. She similarly boasts, “I’m not gonna compromise my Christianity.” Heaven knows, there’s nothing more Christian than antagonizing people you’ve fucked over, while also bragging about your incredible success.
Yet “Survivor” is a great pop song. Beyoncé is fierce and committed to the point of seeming borderline possessed, while co-producer Anthony Dent whips up an infectious synthesizer symphony. “Survivor” is an incredibly forceful, empowering song, assuming you aren’t Luckett or Roberson. Ah, but isn’t that what pop music of the NOW That’s What I Call Music! variety is all about: making something wrong feel strangely, exquisitely, irresistibly right?
Anthony Dent, Beyoncé, and Mathew Knowles are credited as songwriters on “Survivor,” but I think a fortune cookie must have ghost-written the lyrics “After all of the darkness and sadness / Still comes happiness / If I surround myself with positive things / I’ll gain prosperity.” I understand there’s an extended version that also includes the couplet “A stranger will bring good tidings / Keep yourself open to new business opportunities.”
When it comes to inter-group drama, Luckett and Roberson’s indelicate ejection from Destiny’s Child has nothing on the sad, sordid saga of City High. For a brief idyll, City High looked primed to fill the hole The Fugees’ breakup left in the hip-hop/R&B landscape. Comparisons between The Fugees and City High would have been unavoidable, even if Wyclef Jean hadn’t executive-produced the group’s first and only album.
City High followed a successful template: rapper-singers and high-school pals Ryan Toby and Robbie Pardlo were joined by Claudette Ortiz, a knockout pegged for superstardom following the group’s hit debut album. (She was, in other words, the group’s Beyoncé/Lauryn Hill). On its Grammy-nominated, smash-hit debut single “What Would You Do,” the ambitious trio tackled just about every social ill known to man in a story-song about a man who castigates a stripper for her choices without understanding the circumstances that might lead a woman to work in the sex trade. In just under three catchy minutes, “What Would You Do” touches on drug addiction, incest, runaways, sexual abuse, prostitution, poverty, suicidal depression, and single parenthood with a dour, heavy-handed solemnity worthy of a Stanley Kramer message-movie, complete with a neat little sample of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.”
Yes, everything was coming up Milhouse for City High. Giddy with the hubris of youth, the trio was convinced that their rocket ride to the top would never end. Alas, as Tommy Wiseau is keen to remind us, two is company, but three’s a crowd. Ortiz broke up with Pardlo and hooked up with his friend and bandmate Toby. Put yourself in Pardlo’s place: Seemingly overnight, he lost a friend, a group, and a woman who looks like this. What would you do?
If I were Pardlo, I would have become morbidly depressed and gone on a massive bender. Pardlo did just that, except that his bender lasted a full decade and didn’t stop until he was the subject of a particularly heartbreaking episode of A&E’s Intervention. (Which, it should be noted, is a really fun show to watch while drunk or high.)
It’s easy to relate to Pardlo’s boozy depression. One moment he was on top of the world, collaborating with superstars, traversing the red carpet at the Grammys, and sleeping with one of the most beautiful women in the world. Then it all went away. Pardlo went from being the family and neighborhood superstar to that drunken has-been who tunelessly sings along to YouTube clips of “What Would You Do” while luxuriating in self-pity.
Pardlo faced the same grim reckoning as countless other NOW That’s What I Call Music! alumni. How do you face each day knowing that you peaked at 20, and will probably never attain even a tiny fraction of your early success? How do you live with the knowledge that your best days are behind you? When you’re a pop star, how do you go back to being a normal guy?
Being a pop star is an invitation to permanent adolescence. Pop stars are coddled and pampered. Their every wish is some flunky’s command. But Pardlo was pampered well before he became briefly famous. He was the favorite son of a distinguished, accomplished family that considered itself part of W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth that would create lasting change and provide leadership for the African-American community. So when Pardlo fell hard from grace, his indulgent mother was there to cushion the blow. In her eyes, he was still the bright-eyed Boy Scout whose accomplishments filled her with pride even as he spiraled into the gutter. Thankfully, Pardlo’s saga has a happy ending. Rehab apparently worked, but the road before Pardlo is long and hard. Being a former pop star can be hazardous to your mental health.
Speaking of troubled alliances, R. Kelly and Jay-Z have proven time and time again to be two great tastes that taste terrible together. They’re like Eminem and Kim: something terrible happens every time they join forces, yet they team up repeatedly all the same.
To be blunt, the duo’s first collaborative album, the ironically titled The Best Of Both Worlds, was fucking terrible. It was so bad, soulless, and impersonal that the inexplicable 2004 follow-up shouldn’t have been called Unfinished Business, it should have been named Seriously, Why Are We Even Doing This? What’s The Point? Shouldn’t We Have Learned From The Last One?
Astonishingly, the best/worst of the Kells/Jay-Z shotgun marriage of convenience was yet to come. R. Kelly and Jay-Z’s Best Of Both Worlds Tour was a fiasco of historic proportions. But it did produce this amazing document: Jay-Z’s countersuit claim after R. Kelly sued him for breach of contract after Jay-Z kicked him off the tour for a wide variety of hilarious and pathetic offenses. Here are some highlights, courtesy of the good folks over at The Smoking Gun:
127. R. Kelly concentrated his time on a simulated sex skit involving a “ménage a trois” inside a cage. R. Kelly also rehearsed a skit involving simulated text messaging with a female audience member. That skit concerned the audience member’s age, inappropriately prompting reminders of R. Kelly’s criminal matter involving an underage girl.
143. [After leaving the stage in a rage], R. Kelly returned to the stage, bowed to the audience, changed his outfit, hopped onto a waiting “People Mover,” and left the venue before the concert was completed. The entire incident appeared on video screens in the arena. R. Kelly then went to a local McDonald’s where he began serving food to patrons through the drive-thru. The concert’s grand finale could not be performed in his absence.
145. On October 29, 2004 Jay-Z and R. Kelly appeared at the Garden for the first of three scheduled concerts. However, that evening became R. Kelly’s final curtain call. Stating that he observed two men at separate times brandishing firearms, R. Kelly announced to the audience that he could not continue his performance. He threw his mike to the ground and exited the stage while crying hysterically.
The document, which I encourage everyone to read, feels like a real-life version of a piece I wrote for Modern Humorist back in the day. Ah, but Jay-Z couldn’t possibly have imagined a future filled with hysterical crying jags, ménages a trois inside cages, or impromptu McDonald’s quasi-employment when he hooked up with Kelly on the “Fiesta Remix,” the duo’s characteristically inane contribution to NOW 7. It’s instantly forgettable Top 40 filler with a rinky-dink Trackmasters beat and lazy lyrics about partying and having fun.
Backstreet Boys’ “The Call (Remix)” outlines a scenario melodramatic and hysterical enough for one of R. Kelly’s hilariously convoluted story-songs. The song’s actual premise is simple: a guy goes out with his buddies and is about to head home when he spies a dance-floor temptress who offers to take him to a “little place nearby” so they can, I dunno, play Jenga or something. Then the girlfriend’s friend sees the gentleman out with another woman and snitches on him, leading to a breakup. Simple stuff, but the Boys over-emote as if they were describing the single most important event in the history of the universe.
When The Neptunes remixed “The Call,” they were well on their way to dominating hip-hop, R&B, and pop production for the entire decade. The duo’s work on “The Call (Remix)” is a marvel of stripped-down minimalism, though the Malice and Pusha T verses feel a little phoned-in, no pun intended. The Neptunes scored a second smash on NOW 7 with “Danger (Been So Long),” a vaguely Eastern-flavored vehicle for Mystikal’s Tasmanian Devil flow.
The Backstreet Boys weren’t the only pop stars looking for elusive hip-hop credibility at the turn of the century. Gwen Stefani lent her sultry vocals to “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” a Dr. Dre-produced single by Philadelphia rapper Eve, who once seemed destined for greatness. I’ve always liked Eve. She’s likeable, sexy without trading on her sexuality, and had swagger before swagger became a nauseating buzzword. But her once-thriving recording career became a victim of the musical equivalent of development hell. She was signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath as Eve Of Destruction before being released and finding substantial success with the Ruff Ryders collective. Then Eve re-upped with Aftermath for a second stint that, not surprisingly, went nowhere, whereupon the label released her again. Eve hasn’t released an album since 2002’s Eve-Olution, but I know exactly how she can revive her moribund recording career: by signing with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. Everything that man touches turns to gold, and the third time’s a charm, right?
A long time ago, I made a hip-hop mix-tape for an ex-girlfriend. She said she liked some of the songs, but was put off by the rampant misogyny. (I’ve listened to so much hip-hop that I’ve become deadened to a lot of the genre’s sexism.) But she did like the infectious single “Ride Wit Me,” Nelly’s contribution to NOW 7 because she thought it contained the lyrics “Cindy talks and Nelly listens, Nelly talks and Cindy listens.” She thought it was sweet that Nelly was bragging about how he paid close attention to everything his girlfriend Cindy said. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the lyrics were actually “City talk, Nelly listen, Nelly talk, City listen” and that they referred to City Spud of Nelly’s (all-male) group St. Lunatics, not a woman named Cindy.
Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson contribute bouncy little dance numbers in the form of “Play” and “All For You,” respectively. “All For You” prominently features the lines “All my girls at the party, look at that body / Shakin’ that thing like you never did see / Got a nice package, all right / Guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight,” which I can only imagine is some sort of political allegory. Alternately, the package in question contains a go-kart. Wouldn’t that be fun?
I tend not to say that much about rock songs in this column, for the following reasons:
- I find them less interesting to write about than pop songs.
- These columns are already crazy long.
- At heart, NOW! compilations really are all about fizzy, disposable, prefabricated pop from attractive young people, not bloated rock songs.
But even in a NOW! world dominated by manufactured pop stars, S Club 7 stands out for being especially mercenary and ersatz. It wasn’t enough for evil genius Simon Fuller to manufacture another pop group. No, with S Club 7, he manufactured a pop group that doubled as the stars of a Monkees-like television show documenting a British pop group attempting to make it in the United States. Here’s the video of the group’s NOW 7 contribution, “Never Had A Dream Come True,” followed by a clip from the very first episode of S Club 7 In Miami. Watching it, you can literally feel television and music evolving by leaps and bounds. Fuller took the star-making machinery as far as it could possibly go. I imagine even the compilers of NOW 7 found it a little on the tacky side.
Hey, speaking of shameless, I appeared on Last Call With Carson Daly not too long ago to discuss this series. I inhabited the puffy pop world of Total Request Live throughout THEN!’s early entries, so it felt strangely right to have Carson Daly, who towered over the era like a colossus, talking up the series. It was the closest I will ever come to actually appearing on Total Request Live. It’s always surreal seeing yourself slickly packaged for a mainstream TV audience: Watching the show, I felt like I’d somehow stumbled into Reality Bites, but in a good way. In case you missed it, here it is.
Up Next on NOW 8: Redman and Pink resurrect the Eurythmics, Beyoncé wants to know if you’re ready for this jelly, The Wiseguys and Greg Nice start the commotion, and Sum 41 find out what happens when you crossbreed Licensed To Ill-era Beasties with generic pop-punk.
Outside the NOW bubble: What else was happening musically in 2001:
The Coup generates the wrong kind of publicity for the original album cover of its excellent 2001 release Party Music:
The Dungeon Family releases arguably the best posse album of all time, Even In Darkness:
De La Soul releases the strong second entry in its Art Official Intelligence trilogy. We’re still waiting for the thrilling conclusion: