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.
- “Bootylicious,” Destiny’s Child
- “Pop,” ’N Sync
- “I’m Real,” Jennifer Lopez
- “Stutter (Double Take Remix),” Joe featuring Mystikal
- “Someone To Call My Lover,” Janet Jackson
- “AM To PM,” Christina Milian
- “A Little Bit,” Jessica Simpson
- “Crush,” Mandy Moore
- “Rock The Boat,” Aaliyah
- “U Got It Bad,” Usher
- “More Than That,” Backstreet Boys
- “Clint Eastwood,” Gorillaz
- “Start The Commotion,” The Wiseguys featuring Greg Nice
- “Me, Myself & I,” JIVEjones
- “I’m A Believer,” Smash Mouth
- “Fat Lip,” Sum 41
- “The Rock Show,” Blink-182
- “Bad Day,” Fuel
- "Be Like That,” 3 Doors Down
- “Walk On,” U2
No book has had a more profound effect on my worldview than Neil Postman’s seminal exercise in principled humbuggery, Amusing Ourselves To Death. In it, Postman argues that television consumption inhibits critical thinking by encouraging passive viewing and presenting an endless array of exciting stimulus devoid of context.
For example, imagine you’re watching a typical newscast. The news lady tells a heartbreaking story about 5,000 refugees dying in an earthquake, followed by a heartwarming human-interest story about a puppy that learned to speak and teaches at a small liberal-arts college, followed by a commercial for McDonald’s, a commercial for a feminine hygiene product, and a PSA about teen suicide.
All right, try to think critically about what you’ve just seen. What do these things have in common? Absolutely nothing, except that they’re all on television. Postman argues that television decreases the level of intellectual discourse in the public sphere by transforming everything into easily digestible entertainment. The medium dictates the message: Don’t go looking for long, detailed NPR-style stories about labor strikes or environmental disasters in a world where delivering eyeballs to advertisers is more important than serving the public good.
Postman published Amusing Ourselves To Death in 1985, before television exploded into a million little niche networks designed to appeal to every conceivable demographic, and the rise of the Internet radically increased the pace of the news cycle. It’s even more resonant and relevant today.
What does any of this have to do with Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious”? I’m glad you asked. When CNN introduced its “news ticker”—a never-ending stream of factoids, trivia, and quasi-news that scrolls along the bottom of the screen during newscasts—The Daily Show did a bit where some bracing, important piece of news was accompanied by the news ticker informing a grateful world that Beyoncé does not like the word “bootylicious.”
What does Beyoncé’s ambivalence about the slang term she made famous have to do with, say, a newscaster reporting on the deaths of thousands in Chile following an earthquake? Again, nothing, but they were both presented on CNN as news. They weren’t represented as equally important—that crawl all but says “Here’s some bullshit you might want to consider if you get bored with the real news”—but they were both posited as information that audiences might be interested in learning.
The NOW! Series commits pretty much every crime Postman accuses television of by depicting the sum of pop music devoid of context, and prioritizing what’s new, flashy, and attention-grabbing over coherence and cohesion. Yet it seems altogether apt that the eighth installment of the NOW! series begins with Destiny’s Child taunting listeners by telling them they aren’t ready for jelly of such high caliber.
When I first heard “Bootylicious,” I thought it must be a joke, the kind of gag song groups slip onto CDs as a hidden track as a goofy lark. With its nursery-rhyme rhythms, deadeningly repetitive beat, and lyrics like “Lookin’ hot, smellin’ good / Groovin’ like I’m from the hood” and “Move your body up and down / Make your booty touch the ground / I can’t help but wonder why / My vibe’s too vibealicious for you babe” are stupid even by the exceedingly lenient standards of pop songs. Christ, the song title is repeated 10 times, along with a stark warning that the listener may not be adequately prepared for Beyoncé’s jelly.
Yet it’s foolish to underestimate a force as fierce and unstoppable as Beyoncé, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when “Bootylicious” became a smash-hit single and inane catchphrase adorning everything from bumper stickers and T-shirts to bumper stickers and T-shirts in different sizes and colors. It is never wise to doubt B, or her girl Cameron D, or her other interchangeable bandmates in Destiny’s Child. Eight years later, we as a culture are still not ready for her jelly.
One of the many guilty pleasures of writing this series involves reading the sometimes hilariously straight-faced and serious Wikipedia entries on ridiculous pop songs. The Wikipedia entry for “Bootylicious,” for example, reads in part:
The song popularised the portmanteau term “bootylicious,” a combination of the words booty and delicious. The success of the song came after the rise in media visibility of voluptuous “non-skinny” personalities like Jennifer Lopez and later Beyoncé. There was a media perception that the appearance of these women corresponded to an appreciation of the supposedly neglected larger hips and thighs common in the figures of African-American, Hispanic and some Middle-Eastern women. The approving neologism “bootylicious” has entered the mainstream English language as part of the “crossover” of African-American popular culture, fashion and sexual politics.
I began this entry with a treatise on how the theories of Neil Postman relate to “Bootylicious,” and even I find that paragraph amusingly pretentious. And also fairly incisive. Also, who out there was neglecting “larger hips and thighs common in the figures of African-American, Hispanic, and some Middle-Eastern women”?
On volume 8 of NOW!, “Bootylicious” is followed by ’N Sync’s “Pop,” a crucial transitional song that finds Justin Timberlake trapped somewhere between the shiny, asinine bubblegum R&B of his boy-band days and the grittier, more hip-hop oriented and infinitely superior blue-eyed soul of his solo work. Over a stuttering electronic beat from producer BT, Timberlake and his longtime companions in ’N Sync angrily demand respect, espouse the virtues of pop escapism, and generally try to make listeners forget their prefabricated Lou Pearlman days, with some success. And for some reason, the music video features Timberlake doing his best Max Headroom impression, an impression undoubtedly lost on prepubescent fans.
Jennifer Lopez is next with “I’m Real.” At the time she recorded the song, rumors abounded that Lopez was a cyborg or a fictional construct like the title character in the little-loved Al Pacino movie S1m0ne. This upset her handlers, who had her programmed to release numerous singles asserting that she was, in fact, real and not a mass hallucination or a figment of overactive imaginations. First Lopez recorded “I’m Real,” then “I’m Real (Murder Inc. Remix),” and finally “Jenny From The Block,” where Lopez asserted that, contrary to popular belief, she was from the South Bronx, not a cloning lab or breeding facility.
Janet Jackson and Aaliyah make characteristically strong contributions with “Someone To Call My Lover” and the posthumous smash “Rock The Boat.” After “Rock the Boat,” millions found themselves in the uncomfortable position of sexually fantasizing about a dead woman. But the compilation mostly reflects the commercial triumph and creative bankruptcy of a massive wave of instantly disposable teenybopper icons like Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Backstreet Boys, and Christina Milian.
You probably don’t remember Milian from her non-star-making performance in Be Cool. In the ill-conceived sequel to Get Shorty, John Travolta’s wily hood discovers Milian, a female singer so explosively talented that superstardom seems imminent. Be Cool goes so overboard hyping Milian’s explosive, incontrovertible gifts that I expected nothing short of the second coming of Lauryn Hill. Then we finally get to hear her sing. The result proves wildly anticlimactic.
“Stutter (Double Take Remix),” “Clint Eastwood,” “Me, Myself & I,” and “Start The Commotion” all hearken back to the golden-ageish hip-hop I enjoyed as I entered puberty. Joe and Mystikal’s “Stutter (Double Take Remix)” borrows the melancholy beat of Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By” to tell a torrid tale of infidelity and guilt-induced speech impediments. “Clint Eastwood” resurrected the career of early-’90s West Coast rap icon Del Tha Funkee Homosapien by pairing him with Dan The Automator (his partner in Deltron 3030) and Damon Albarn, who has two primary modes as a singer: cheekily ironic and exhausted/despondent. Though he professes to be happy and to have sunshine in a bag, Albarn nevertheless sounds suicidally depressed. Yet “Clint Eastwood” caught fire all the same, and helped transform a fictional cartoon pop band called Gorillaz into unlikely real-life pop stars. A killer video certainly didn’t hurt.
“Me, Myself & I,” which borrows its chorus from the De La Soul classic of the same name, is a terrible, terrible song I could not get out of my head. I have a real love-hate relationship with JIVEJones’ sole contribution to the NOW! canon. All that really needs to be said about Jones’ songwriting aesthetic is that the song first refers to high school as “high-school hell,” then to the neighborhood surrounding said school as his “neighborhell.” Jones delivers those quasi-bon mots with an insufferable “Ain’t I a stinker?” smirk that somehow renders them even more obnoxious.
Pop music is forever stuck at 18 years old, so it’s strangely apt that the song is delivered from the point of view of a high-school student. In that respect, it reminded me a little of Lil Wayne’s terrible recent rock album Rebirth, where Wayne slips inside the skin of a high-schooler and unsuccessfully tries to rewrite “Hot For Teacher” 12 times. Before sinking into well-earned anonymity, Jones co-hosted a web series called I Bet You Will, where contestants debased themselves and sacrificed their dignity in exchange for money. His co-hosts? Single-named comedian Godfrey, pop tart Willa Ford, and enterprising young documentarian Morgan Spurlock, who also created the show. Has anyone experienced this masterpiece of the televisual arts?
“Start The Commotion” is the final throwback track. It’s a prime example of a genre called Big Beat. At its best, Big Beat reminds me of the Ramones or Girl Talk. It’s nothing but climaxes, hooks, and choruses: all killer, no filler. In this case, that means farfisa organ, flutes, “ba ba ba” background vocals, and Greg Nice of Nice & Smooth delivering the monster hook. As a young man, I listened to Nice & Smooth’s Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed on cassette until the motherfucker broke. Nice & Smooth were the idiot savants of hip-hop’s late-’80s/early-’90s golden age. Their lyrics were corny, their singing off-key, their rhymes simple, and their pop-culture references random and goofy. Also, their two biggest hits sampled The Partridge Family (“Hip-Hop Junkies”) and Tracy Chapman (“Sometimes I Rhyme Slow”). Yet that somehow didn’t keep them from making awesome music. They never took themselves seriously, they’re a ton of fun, and Nice is one of the all-time great hype men, right up there with Flavor Flav and Bob Wills. He plays that role beautifully on “Start The Commotion,” even though Wiseguys simply sampled Nice’s solo single “Set It Off” instead of recruiting him to add a new chorus. And it would have been nice if they’d actually put him in the video, instead of having a generic B-boy lip-sync his lines.
This brings us to the rock portion of the compilation. Blink-182 contributes the almost nauseatingly sincere “Rock Show,” a tale of puppy love at the Warped Tour that highlights the fundamentally innocent, tame nature of pop punk: It’s more Norman Rockwell than Sid Vicious. Sum 41, meanwhile, illustrates what happens when you crossbreed Licensed To Ill-era Beastie Boys with Blink-182 on “Fat Lip,” a power-chord-heavy smash with a chorus rich in pop-punk posturing and quasi-rebellious clichés: “I don’t wanna waste my time / Become another casualty of society / I’ll never fall in line / Become another victim of your conformity and back down.” Ironically, immediately after the song’s release, the band became another casualty of society, fell in line, became another victim of conformity, and backed down. Fucking hypocrites. I expected so much more from boys with electric guitars rap-shouting self-deprecating lyrics in a shameless appropriation of Beastie Boys’ nasal whine and lyrical tag-teaming.
Then Smash Mouth solidifies its status as the ska Monkees with an achingly inessential cover of “I’m A Believer,” and Fuel and 3 Doors Down suck up the joint before U2 closes with “Walk On,” one of its trademark feel-good anthems. Once again, the old folks show the young whippersnappers just how it’s done. In a compilation devoted to the new and ephemeral, U2 is timeless.
Up next: Pink and Redman get the party started (for real this time), Britney Spears wants to be your sex slave, Aerosmith tries to update its sound, Shakira crosses over, and Ja Rule and Ludacris make their NOW! debuts.
Outside the NOW! bubble:
Garth Brooks releases Scarecrow, which then goes platinum eight times over.
Prince continues his slide into irrelevance with “Rainbow Children.”
Wu-Tang Clan returns with Iron Flag.