Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here. (Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)
In 1983, the UK arm of Virgin Records released the first edition of Now That’s What I Call Music, coming as close as possible to commercially nailing the mixtape sensibility. The inaugural compilation featured top-selling hits from the likes of Phil Collins, KC & the Sunshine Band and multiple Mens (Without Hats and At Work). The design was and is simple and brilliant: pile together as many chart-topping songs as possible and sell sell sell. The personal touches of the hand-to-hand mixtape were replaced with the casting of as wide a net as possible. The move was successful enough to result in a sequel being released the following year. And the following year. And so on.
In 1998, I was 11 years old, the lead singer of 5 Seconds of Summer was one year old, and the first Now That’s What I Call Music! (now featuring an “!”) was released in the United States, a move referred to by nobody as “the second British Invasion.” The model was kept intact with 17 radio hits slammed one after another. Many of the hits on the first US Now live and die in ’98: Hanson’s “Mmmbop,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot,” but a handful hold their song-strength even today: Fastball’s “The Way,” Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” K-Ci and JoJo’s “All My Life” and, oddly enough, Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” All songs that surely made our grandparents cringe and look for their missing copy of Now That’s What I Call Peter, Paul and Mary.
Now That’s What I Call Music! 51 features 21 tracks and 49 credited songwriters, compared to the first Now’s 29 songwriters on 17 tracks. Swedish gazillionaire Max Martin is the only songwriter to have a piece of both albums, holding the sole songwriting credit for the Backstreet Boys’ song on the first Now and as part of a five-person crew responsible for Katy Perry “Birthday” on Now 51. The behind-the-scenes of the pop songwriting community is a murky swamp; the work actually done by all the names credited can vary drastically from song to song. Can the real heart of any song survive when touched by so many hands? The subject matter of these songs has largely been the same since the invention of recorded music, but the ear can tell the difference between a hit that hits home and a shallow vessel reciting the same formula. Given that this music is targeted largely at hyper-susceptible kids, their ears could learn too quickly that this is the way music should be. And if they like Now 51, it’s a sure bet Now 52 will be right up their alley. Free will exists, as it always will, but in the world of catered pop it is tightly tethered.
Chapter 1: So, I Listen to the Album
This is bad. Bad bad bad. No no no. I subject my friends to it. I listen alone. As I work through every song, I struggle to keep an open mind, to do as I promised and hear these tracks as people singing songs and not just products being delivered at the highest level.
There is a thick stench of heartlessness across the majority of the tracks. “Why do any of these songs exist?” I wonder as I struggle to open my pill container with different compartments for every day of the week.
Hate is too easy. It’s too simple to hear the music that’s everywhere and despise it for that reason, or to let a brain-blockade build up that says pop is bad. Pop has been great, pop will be great again, and occasionally and sometimes often, it is great now. But like the internet commenter in its natural habitat, we can too easily see the pop stars as heartless robots deserving of any piercing statement we feel like throwing their way.
I listen again. Days separated from the initial points of impact. It’s not all bad. Granted I’m dealing on a skewed scale, but some of these songs have merit, some of these songs are good for dancing, some of them are plain trash, and a rare few are wholly good.Katy Perry’s “Birthday” does what it’s supposed to. Max Martin and Dr. Luke run her songwriting game wisely and there’s a strangely satisfying quality control to it all. Ariana Grande was an artist I’ve never heard before, and her song, “Problem,” similarly does no harm; the structure is even slightly off balance with its whispered chorus, and upon a second listen I began experiencing feelings that I could almost pinpoint as “fun.” Would I dance to this in the right setting? Yes. Yes. Then again, in the right setting, I might dance to anything except Insane Clown Posse or Nick Drake.
Australian songwriter Sia delivers the true gem of the whole collection, a song called “Chandelier” that was originally written for Rihanna to sing. Sia put her own performing career on hold to put in time as a professional songwriter and found significant success for her talent in the field. From her first album in four years, this single shines with creative energy, perhaps because it’s written by someone who has written for her own personal voice as well as for others’. In the sea of Now 51, “Chandelier” is a lifeboat, or at least a whale that eats you and puts you out of your misery. And maybe there’s kelp in there!
Now the misery: It doesn’t feel good to be so negative. To escape the pit of despair I’d say about a third of the songs on this album call home (including the Nickelodeon child-actors-turned-singers MKTO song, “Classic,” which cites Michael Jackson and Prince in its lyrics as well as Luke Bryan’s country song, “Play It Again,” which is all about a great song on the radio), and I will instead feature the worst song on the entire album.
5 Seconds of Summer are also Australians, doing their best impression of an American pop-punk band, reminiscent of Fall Out Boy, but without that endearing sincerity that somehow in retrospect became an appealing quality. The trip across multiple oceans has somehow subtracted even more punk than you thought could be removed from the genre, making Sum 41 sound like the Stooges. The band’s contribution is “She Looks So Perfect.”
It preys on the sensibilities of susceptible young girls who like this sort of thing and shapes the minds of young boys who will want to be these sorts of dudes. 5 Seconds of Summer — I refuse to abbreviate them to 5S0S — rose to fame by doing acoustic covers of pop songs on YouTube, gaining over a million views from people who searched for a Chris Brown/Justin Bieber duet and then decided they’d rather watch a group of pretty white boys sing it.
This chorus. The chorus of “She Looks So Perfect.” A coup d’état against your ear canals, the last thing you ever want to hear sung directly at you, the listener. If I imagined even for one moment that I was the “you” being addressed in this song, I would need to find a new apartment that is a giant shower, preferably with a big lawn.
You look so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear
And I know now that I’m so down.
On hearing the second chorus for the first time, I feel my hip break and the sudden desire to go to bed before 6 p.m.
I made a mixtape straight out of ’94
I’ve got your ripped skinny jeans lying on the floor.
In 1994, the lead singer of 5 Seconds of Summer was negative three years old, Green Day broke into the mainstream with Dookie and Weezer debuted their first album — paving the way for bands like this — and Kurt Cobain took his own life, bowing out before ever seeing it get this bad.
It also appears to be the year that Now That’s What I Call Music for Young Creeps was released in Australia.
Chapter 2: Who Is It For?
The great Tom Scharpling taught me a valuable lesson. Despite his ability to rant about absolutely anything on his triumphant comedic/music/life sounding board The Best Show on WFMU, he also never shied away from truthfully admitting when something just wasn’t for him. If you are not the target demographic, is it truly worth expending excessive energy being mad or sad or confused about a song that was never intended for you in the first place?
The issue here is that some of these songs become unavoidable. Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” by Now’s third Australian-doing-an-impression, can make it a nightmare just to leave the house, if anyone is driving by with a window down. It’s simply everywhere.
Some people like it that way. Many people, in fact, the hundreds of thousands of them who listen to and love this album. I can pretend my way is the right way, that my taste is the best or the most well-rounded or the most honest, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many people in the world hear these songs, and are happy to hear them. For those people, Now That’s What I Call Music 51 is a dream. Every Now album is.
It certainly isn’t for me and may not be for you, but if these jams bring anyone joy, is there anything wrong with that?
Chapter 3: Subject Matter
Partying and/or Miscellaneous Sexual Activity
—Katy Perry, “Birthday”
I’m Better Off Without You
—Ariana Grande, “Problem”
—Demi Lovato, “I Really Don’t Care”
I Want To Marry Your Daughter But You Don’t Want Me To (Because My White Reggae Music Is Offensively Bland)
– Magic! “Rude”
I’m the Shit
—Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy”
—Justin Timberlake, “Not a Bad Thing”
Girl, You Are Something Special
We’re in Love and That’s Nice (Now Let’s Have Sex)
—Pitbull featuring G.R.L., “Wild Wild Love”
—5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”
I Moved and Now I’m Not As Cool in the New Community
—Paramore. “Ain’t It Fun”
Living For Today
I Have No Idea What This Song Is About
—Kongos, “Come with Me Now”
Have Sex with Me Tonight So I Feel Better About My Breakup
—Rixton, “Me and My Broken Heart”
We Had Sex, Now Stay Over Because I’m a Sensitive Gentleman
—Sam Smith, “Stay with Me”
I Freeze Innocent People With My Ice Powers and That’s Hard For Me
—Idina Menzel, “Let It Go”
Your Favorite Song Came on the Radio, Now I’m Playing It for You, Sorry I Made It Boring
—Luke Bryan, “Play It Again”
Chapter 4: Musical Breakdown
There is one major potential problem that must be addressed. In the least curmudgeonly way, as a document of the top-selling, most-heard music of today, is Now 51 a sign that popular music is getting worse and worse? Are the lives of the many people who do enjoy these songs and who only get their jams from Top 40 radio being done a disservice by not getting higher quality doses of pop?
Only three out of the 16 songs here present a relatively untouched human voice. The only way to escape pitch correction in 2014 is to have majorly presentable pipes: Sam Smith does it. Sia does it. Hayley Williams from Paramore does it.
Sam Smith’s success follows the Adele model of “can you believe a human being can actually sing anymore?” and allows his half-decent material to reach as far as it does now. It doesn’t hurt that the chorus to “Stay with Me” is a melodic and syllabic carbon copy of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”
Sia has plenty of otherworldly effects on her voice, but you hear the real thing within: a personality in the vocal chords, which are connected to a mouth and a stomach and arms and feet, all without a computer interfering with the bloodwork. That song hits so hard because as a listener you hear yourself in the humanity of the performance. Imperfections are inevitable and tend to do more magic than harm. Even though “Chandelier” is Sia playing dress-up, there’s still a breath of personal identity within it all, an artistic quality that demands respect and a deeper listen. Paramore show off a compellingly real vocal performance but break out another big reveal with their R&B-style left-field turn: that sense of personal identity is mostly absent in every other artist on this album.
Comparing Now 51 to the first Now, there are differences beyond just the changing decades. More than half of the artists on the original Now were real bands with their own internal directions, decisions and tastes before coming under the spotlight. That can be said of very few of the artists on Now 51. That’s not to say many of the artists featured in the current volume haven’t worked extremely hard to get to where they are, but by the time they reach where they are, which is here, the absence of the checks and balances that come with being in a band allows the results to be as polished and stale as they are here.
The first Now had a Fastball for every Janet Jackson. Marcy Playground’s “Sex & Candy” is a ridiculous song, but it still portrays an honest, weird personal perspective, undoubtedly different from the Backstreet Boys, Aqua or Everclear, all of whom they’re featured amongst.
The songs of Now 51 could be traded by their songwriters like baseball cards (do I sound old yet? Pass me that bowl of Werther’s Originals) and given to different singers, and the public wouldn’t bat an eye. That much could be said for the songs created in the Phil Spector, Stax and Motown machines, but that was all within a landscape that allowed for infinitely more risk and variation than is permitted today.
There is a homogeneity now that I believe is at its worst. When the full sample of offerings available to the public presents so few personal differentiations of point of view or honest style, the public ear can grow dimmer and duller.
It wasn’t always this way. Now 11 (2002) holds strong hits by rappers Eve and N.O.R.E., while No Doubt’s reggae-inflected “Underneath It All” feels 1000% less blood-boiling than Magic!, and features a verse from Jamaican dancehall singer Lady Saw. Now 21 (2006) is home to “DARE” by Gorillaz, proof that a single can have artistic body and still be beloved by many. Now 31 (2009) features our old friend Pitbull with his cocky “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho),” a song totally not targeted at me. Yet even I can feel Pitbull’s heartbeat sounding undeniably confident over the reggaeton instrumental of that track, as honest as he can be, and his version of being true to himself is one that an audience can subconsciously absorb. There’s room for truth in pop, however it may come.
Which brings us to now, a year following a year where there were no black artists with #1 singles. A year where racially driven police brutality and the revocation of women’s rights has reached an alarming height. A year when a white female hip-hop artist is celebrated to the point of having millions of ears ready to take in what she has to say, and who, in a southern hip-hop dialect, raps about how “Fancy” she is. Weird Al made a stronger statement with his version.
Iggy Azalea cites Missy Elliot as a major influence. Elliot is the prime example of an independent, raw energy that could top the charts and get the mass public dancing while still inspiring a personal fire. Of her recent inactivity, Elliot has said, “Your brain needs time to refresh! Things happen in your life where you can then write something else instead of the same three topics. Like, how many times we gonna talk about the club? I gotta feel like what I’m giving the fans is 100 percent and that it’s game-changing. I don’t just throw out microwave records.”
The total commitment presented on Now That’s What I Call Music 51 didn’t even make it into the microwave. Or they forgot to press Start.
Chapter 5: We Can’t Escape These Songs
I don’t feel hate. But I do feel regret that these songs aren’t better. There could still be a standard for pop music. It can still follow the rules and be as good as it can possibly be.
Now That’s What They Call Music! is not for everyone. We can continue to cherish our friends’ bands, we can take root in the underground, we can find what is not handed out to us, but the world is still shaped by the biggest of songs. A song of the summer claims an entire season, and that is pop’s great responsibility. To ask whether or not these songs will be remembered cannot be separated from nostalgia. The lives we lead while these songs run their course. The fun we have. The pain we feel. But do any of these songs inspire fun? Do any of these songs carry the weight needed to ease us in a time of pain? Do any of them claim to?
I think the answer is no. I think we are ready for a higher plane of music to dance, live and love to. I think I hear the doorbell. It’s time for my weekly cribbage game.