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Culture Shock

Now That's What I Call Pop History, Vol. 2

It’s been a bit! Finals and life and other things threw me a bit off schedule, but we’re back and I’m ready to tear into more 90s music. I feel like most of what needs to be said about this album is with the songs themselves, so I’ll make this intro brief. NOW 2 was released in July 1999, 8 months after the initial volume. Because the late 90s were a weird time for music and because this series was still in its early days, this album has another very odd mix of sounds, and includes a number of bands that really don’t feel like they belong in a series like this. With all that in mind, let’s get to it:

  • Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time”

The Princess of Pop is this volume’s big addition to the pop star canon. Spears exploded onto the radio at 17 with what, by what I can tell, is still the single biggest hit song of her career, along with being the only #1 hit on this volume. She was a legitimate cultural icon through her first few albums, and “One More Time” was *everywhere* for a few years. She also paved the way for basically every teen Disney pop star that populates the airwaves today. We can talk about her public collapse when it happens here, but for now we can focus on the meteoric rise. This song has a great, funky sound that fits right in with every other major pop group (it really lays a trail for *NSYNC in particular, because this sounds a loooot like “Bye Bye Bye”). It’s also a song that’s dripping with sex appeal, in both lyrical content and Spears’s vocal inflections. The sex appeal is part of what propelled Spears to stardom and made this song a huge hit, but it’s also something that makes the song feel super skeevy. The choice by songwriter/producer extraordinaire Max Martin to lean as hard as possible into the sexuality of a 16/17 year old girl feels very exploitative and uncomfortable, but any concerns about that seem to have been tossed aside in the name of making an undeniable hit. It’s a banger of a song, but it’s a song with some real issues hiding just beneath the surface.

  • New Radicals – “You Get What You Give”

Who’s ready for another week of 90’s Post-Grunge One-Hit Wonders? I swear I know this song, but I feel like I’ve never heard this version of it and I have no idea who the cover I’ve heard was by (it may have been The Maine’s version, but I’m nowhere near certain). In any case, this is a fun as hell song that’s really given life by lead man (and only actual permanent New Radicals member) Gregg Alexander’s unorthodox vocal rhythms. I feel like this song may not have made a huge musical impact on the scene when it was first released, but its structure and sound really feel like a forbearer to today’s alt rock radio.

  • Robbie Williams – “Millennium”

This is an extremely odd track that seems like it didn’t make a huge splash in the US that I’m going to chalk up to the UK organizers of the NOW series putting their thumb on the scales a bit in the early volumes. Honestly, the sound for this song is hard to pin down, but it’s kind of a mash between the 90s Brit-pop framework and Beck’s most recent albums, by way of “Bittersweet Symphony”. It’s an extremely weird combination that I think is mostly driven by Williams’s vocals and the big string section in the back. It doesn’t really work for me, and, judging by Williams’s US chart performances, it apparently didn’t work for US audiences either. He may be hot shit back in the UK, but here ends Robbie Williams’s foray into American pop.

  • Semisonic – “Closing Time”

Nearly 20 years later, and this song is still used to close down plenty of bars as a polite but stern “Please get the fuck out so we all can go to bed.” It’s held on for so long not just because of its title and lyrics, but also because it has a timeless sound. Like, it is very clearly a product of the late 90s post-grunge/alt-rock movements if you listen to it with its contemporaries, but it still sounds very good and interesting as rock music today. It’s aged much, much better than its pop contemporaries. It has emotional heft, a guitar riff you can move your head to, and lyrics that are very easy to sing along to (best done at extremely loud volumes).

  • U2 – “Sweetest Thing”

Originally a Joshua Tree B-side, this track got re-recorded and released as a Greatest Hits album single, which I feel tells you everything you need to know about the quality of this track. It’s slight, an afterthought of a U2 track that was just coasting on the skill and effort of one of their best periods of work. I feel like I should spend about as much effort talking about this track as it sounds like they did making it, so I’m going to stop talking about it right…… now.

  • Sheryl Crow – “My Favorite Mistake”

I feel like Sheryl Crow gets an unfair rap as a purveyor of bland-ish adult alternative music (though maybe that’s just me). A lot of her music is quite good and interesting, and definitely deserves a deeper listen if you feel up to it. This track in particular is an Americana track that’s given a pop tinge by Crow’s breezy, flat vocals. I think Crow’s voice is where a lot of the “bland” idea comes from, but that’s just kinda how she sounds, and it really shouldn’t take away from the interesting things happening in her music outside of just her voice.

  • Fatboy Slim – “Praise You”

Somehow, the major Fatboy Slim singles, especially this one, are still a thing today. Sample-heavy late-90s electronic music doesn’t immediately seem like a thing that would age well, but whatever magic Fatboy Slim put into his production hasn’t aged a day. Much like how “Closing Time” is ageless rock, this song sounds like it could have been put together by some indie DJ in the past month and it would still fit in perfectly. It’s slightly weird, very grooveable, and insanely catchy. Some of Slim’s other music may potentially not have aged as well (I’m very interested in revisiting “Rockerfeller Skank” in a volume or two), but “Praise You” is about as perfect a song as you could ask for.

  • Garbage – “I Think I’m Paranoid”

All I remember about Garbage is that my elementary school best friend’s sister was super into them at the time. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t particularly get it now. This song has touches of The Cranberries, “Sex & Candy” and the early fringes of nu-metal. It coheres, but not into a package I care for or will go out of my way to listen to again. If you’re into nu-metal but kinda wished it was a little less aggressive and more female-led, then this might be your thing. Otherwise, meh.

  • Cake – “Never There”

Cake feels like it should absolutely not belong on this album. I adore Cake, but I don’t think they’re a particularly “cool” (they are extremely cool to me, but I feel like they’re not cool to the general populace) or pop band. This is the equivalent of Radiohead’s inclusion on Volume 1, and the kind of inclusion that more or less gets shaken out of the system by the next volume. In any case, Cake is wonderful, as is this song. After years of listening to them, I still don’t really know how to label Cake’s sound, but it’s all wonderful bass and brass horns and mostly monotone spoken word lyrics. It’s such a weird and unique style, and “Never There” is a perfect encapsulation of it.

  • 98° -- “Because of You”

Ah yes, here’s the other other major boyband of the period. They were so thoroughly eclipsed by Backstreet and *NSYNC that the only real cultural memory I can associate with them is the fact that breakout star Nick Lachey was briefly married to (and had a reality show with) Jessica Simpson. If early 2000s boy bands were Carolina college basketball teams, these guys would be NC State. No matter how successful they were (and they were pretty successful!), they were always going to be an afterthought in the dust of those two giants.

Based on this single song at least, they very much deserved that afterthought rank in history. This song is flat, bland, and poorly put together. The track has all of the hallmarks of a late-90s pop song (overbearing drum track, gentle classical guitar, random bursts from string sections, little electronic pops), but instead of all of these pieces coming together in a semi-sensible manner like they would on a Backstreet or Britney Spears track, they manage to actively work against each other. Every lyric is delivered with maximum breathiness, which I think was supposed to give a sexy vibe but mostly just comes across as trying too hard to be flirty after a semi-vigorous gym session. Let’s give this song one of those “You Tried” gold stars, and leave it at that.

  • Spice Girls – “Goodbye”

See, here’s a song that has the drum track and the strings and the guitar and makes it fit together in a nice, clean package. Do better Lachey brothers. Anyways, this was the Spice Girls’ first post-Ginger Spice single, and the first single from their last album together. It’s a very solid, touching, sad song about goodbyes that apparently was not written about Ginger initially, but is very extremely about Ginger in the context that it was recorded and released in. If you ever need a song for a breakup or something where you’re sad it’s over, but still happy it happened and wish the best for the other person, you could do much worse than this song. Outside of that context though, I don’t really see myself ever reaching for this song for any reason in particular.

  • Blackstreet (ft. Mya, Mase, and Blinky Blink) – “Take Me There”

Oh man, Rugrats. And The Rugrats Movie. Good times. I very clearly remember seeing that movie in theaters, but remember almost nothing about it besides it having a few extremely emotional moments, kind of wanting a baby brother after seeing it, and that the monkeys in the movie were fucking terrifying. Apparently Blackstreet got in on the movie soundtrack because they found out the Nickelodeon crew loved their music and the band wanted a chance to appeal more to the kids. So, they made an R&B song that’s built around the Rugrats theme song, which absolutely should not work at all, but it works so, so well. The backing track here really is incredible, especially if you’re listening to it in nice headphones or surround-sound speakers. The two Bad Boy rappers put in enjoyable guest verses, even when they’re straight up rapping about Tommy Pickles. And the whole track really belongs to Mya, who provides the gorgeous chorus and a solid verse of her own to start the song with. This is the gold standard for what any novelty-ish, soundtrack-tied song should be.

  • R. Kelly – “When a Woman’s Fed Up”

R. Kelly is quite possibly the single most problematic individual (give or take Chris Brown, eventually) that’s going to come up in this series, and he is going to come up a lot, because despite everything he seems to have done, he has still been able to make just a prodigious amount of music. He’s a trash person and (allegedly) a repeated sexual predator. He was also a hugely popular and influential R&B artist who put out one of the greatest pop songs of all time (“Ignition (Remix)”). Kelly is awful and finally seems to be getting the scorn he deserves, but in history, and particularly in pop history it seems, awful people have to be dealt with to get the complete picture.

This song is a true R&B burner. It sounds smooth as hell, with gorgeous instrumentals and some fun vocal layering. The lyrics are all failed relationships and regrets and a surprising amount of narrative and character. Kelly pours every ounce of emotion he can into the lyrics here. This is a really easy song to get lost in and end up endlessly grooving and singing along to. Honestly, this would be some great bedroom music, if not for the subject matter and the man behind the music, and unfortunately those are both massive mood-killers.

  • Everclear – “Father of Mine”

I mentioned this a bit last time, but the NOW series really got me into Everclear in my elementary school days. They were the first modern rock band I really liked, and looking back on it, they really shaped some of my musical preferences today. And this is THE quintessential Everclear song. It’s got a fun riff, a cheery sound covering some extremely heavy content, and, most importantly, all of the daddy issues. This wasn’t Everclear’s biggest hit at the time (though it was absolutely a hit), but I think it’s been their song that’s had the longest shelf life. I think that’s partially because this song just flat out rocks and is fun as hell to listen to, and partially because it’s painfully relatable and understandable for anyone who’s had serious issues with a parent (fortunately, I never had those issues, but I’ve heard about that life from plenty of friends who’ve lived it). This song gets personal catharsis while being eminently listenable, which is one of the hardest balancing acts to pull off.

  • Sublime – “What I Got”

Light one up and go rub your crushed velvet posters, because it’s Sublime time. Everyone’s favorite stoner dub rock music seems like it is still somehow as ever-present today as it was when it was released 20 years ago. Seriously, this song still seems to get so much airtime on rock radio (especially when I was living in Western New York, where white boy reggae rock is somehow one of the most popular regional genres). It’s one of the few non-current songs that qualifies as still overplayed for me. I kinda get its popularity, because this is a feel good, happy-go-lucky song to unwind to at the end of the day. But this is a song that should be left in everyone’s sophomore year of college or so. Let’s move on to better things together. There are better chill anthems around. There are better bands to get high to. We can cherish our Sublime memories, but let’s go move onto something new now, okay? Okay.

  • Backstreet Boys – “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”

Do you remember the music to the “Dire Dire Docks” level in Super Mario 64? That’s all I can think of when I hear the guitar part in this song. Outside of that bit of lovely goofiness, this is a great, Motown-y song that clowns all over 98°’s attempt at something similar from earlier. This song makes fantastic use of vocal harmonies, backing vocals, and overlapping leads. If you have multiple people in a group who can really sing, it makes sense to do more with their voices than just have them swapping lead parts, and this song really goes for that in the choruses. It lets everyone (or at least I think everyone? I can’t really tell who’s who here) flex their skills some and provides some interesting vocal contrasts. Now that I’m getting back into the swing of the great Boy Band Debate of the late-90s, I feel somewhat comfortable saying that while *NSYNC may have had the bigger hits and the better musical sound, Backstreet was doing more interesting things with the members of the group as vocal instruments. I will be sure to keep a lookout for these trends in future issues.

  • Jay-Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”

This is probably one of the more uncomfortable songs an extremely white, goofy, 10-ish year old me could have been very into. And I was into it, because the beat and the Annie-sampled chorus were, for some reason, very alluring to young me. That this was a very good and classic rap song didn’t really dawn on me until much later. But this is a very good song from a hot, rising Jay-Z that gives a pretty honest view of life in the rough streets. There’s some glorification happening here, but a lot of it doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. This Jay is a young, angry, hungry rapper who’s trying to come from a life of nothing and will himself into being a star. He’s seen some shit, and he’s going to let you know all about it.

  • Baz Luhrmann – “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”

What the hell is this? Why was this a hit? Like, it’s interesting and unique, but a 5-minute spoken word song should never have made it anywhere outside the place of an artsy last track on a particularly hopeful-feeling electronic/pop album. I know this was done as a part of the Romeo+Juliet soundtrack, and all I can assume is that it was propelled to hit status purely on the back of Leo DiCaprio’s endless, youthful charm. Nothing else possibly makes sense. Man, the late 90’s were a gloriously dumb time.

Next time: We welcome two blissfully dumb, eternal music memes to the stage.

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