Various Artists: Now That's What I Call Music - Volume 13
Who, in this age of the Neptunes, this age of Jay-Z, this age of White Stripes at #1, this age when even Justin Timberlake is putting out good singles -- who, I ask, in the midst of all these riches, has the right to put out a bad pop compilation? It's easy to brush off the Now That's What I Call Music series as lowest-common-denominator fluff, but the fact of the matter is that the lowest common denominator is, for a lot of pop music, momentarily pretty high; and the fact is also that, inexcusably, the 13th American volume of Now dips far, far below it. Now has descended from being, as All Music Guide has been so frequently content to sigh, a warts-and-all snapshot of a brief moment in pop history, to being an in-depth examination of the warts alone. Nat Hentoff would beg to differ, but this is where censorship needs to come into play: Now 13 is offensive to my community standards, and it needs to be stopped, by the courts if necessary.
Things do kick off in gratifying style, with the aforementioned Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body", funky and unrepentantly hedonistic and about as excellently confectionary as pop gets. A few songs later we also get Jay-Z (though "Excuse Me Miss" is a bit less than a high point for him), and then there's the twin blast of Ginuwine's "Hell Yeah" and Joe Budden's "Pump It Up", both of which are, in a word, hot. Nas's "I Can" is undeniably sappy, but the verse on African history should earn it some indulgence. These tracks comprise most of the hip-hop section (Now is overtly segregated for your convenience), and the close of this section marks the point of no return for those daring enough to venture into this particular heart of darkness.
What's R&B without tha' R.? R. Kelly's "Ignition" first hit the charts at about the same time as "Excuse Me Miss", but it's nowhere in sight on this compilation of hits. Instead we get Frankie J's passable "Don't Wanna Try", followed by a Bobby Brown-caliber bitchslap in the form of Daniel Bedingfield's "If You're Not the One", a stomach-churning bit of adult contemporary pap that hit number 1 in the UK but had the good sense to barely show its face Stateside. From there it gets even more painful, at least for me personally -- I actually once owned a Counting Crows record, which I guess makes me indirectly responsible for "Big Yellow Taxi". This in turn leaves me open to prosecution at the Hague, since this song is fucking torture. Sample lyric: "Hey farmer, farmer put away your DDT / I don't care about spots on my apples, just leave me the birds and the bees . . . please!". Someone call Ani DiFranco, she's getting bitten hard over here.
For a moment it seems Robbie Williams's diva act might save things, but I don't care how many Metrosexual Club Card Points "Feel" earns him -- he's getting no free Aveda from me. The song's not epic enough to be camp, and not cloying enough to be satire, so it ends up sounding like he really means it when he sings "I've got too much love / Running through my veins / To go to waste". Still, this is the last bit of oxygen in the tank -- after Robbie's near-miss we enter a nightmarish world of hits-that-might-have-been, all of them so ill-conceived and misshapen that we can't but imagine some fiendish pop-music Moreau cackling with sadistic glee, churning out blasphemies against God and nature as he quests for revenge against the world that spurned him. Stacie Orrico is a Christian who sounds vaguely like Christina Aguilera but is, amazingly, "not trippin'". Elvis's justifiably disturbed daughter thinks she's Sheryl Crow. I was going to say that Bowling for Soup, the Ataris, and Sum 41 team up to piss on Joey Ramone's grave, but that actually sounds vaguely punk, which these bands are anything but. Chevelle, 3 Doors Down, and Godsmack are all really, really tortured souls -- in fact, Godsmack are so tortured they've decided to become Tool.
Ugh. These songs are so insipid I can't even insult them creatively. And, somewhat amazingly, the tyranny of the masses is not to blame. Most of the worst tracks on Now 13 were never "hits" in the U.S. In a stunning reversal of what would have been the case a few years ago, these embarrassments seem to have been included on the strength of headway that they made in the UK and elsewhere, but they had already been rejected by the suddenly enlightened U.S. audience by the time Now 13 was released. These weren't necessarily bad business bets -- Bedingfield, incredibly, unseated Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" from the number one spot in Britain (albeit with a different track), so a numbers-oriented compiler might have expected something similar Stateside. But "If You're Not the One", along with Orrico's "Stuck", Presley's "Lights Out", and others, manages to be not just terrible, but also terribly out of step with the market -- this stuff is too watered down for even Top 40, where Black Eyed Peas' nauseating "Where Is the Love" nonetheless gets over partly by trading on (or, I increasingly suspect, affecting) hip-hop "realness".
If there's anything to be learned from the grandiose awfulness of most of Now That's What I Call Music Volume 13, it's in the non-awful first third. It's a simple fact that hip-hop and R&B are the only commercial genres that have significant artistic life in them. Want proof? Well, the cool kids over at Pitchfork are now offering up assessments of rap singles in the same breath as their gushes for the Rapture, while the guy from the Mountain Goats busts a nut over Ignition -- in short, people with far better taste than you or I now officially approve of Jay-Z. Now's drive to cover multiple genres forces it to include a selection of stuff with little or no mass-cultural currency -- when was the last time a rock song dominated U.S. pop consciousness the way "Crazy in Love" is doing right now? At the same time, these also-rans are less innovative and compelling musically. Maybe someone will come along to light a fire under the rock market's ass the way the Neptunes, Timbaland, and Jay-Z vs. Nas did for hip-hop starting a couple years back, but until then, two-thirds of the pop spectrum, and two-thirds of every volume of Now, will be a merciless killing field for talent and taste.