Arts & Entertainment

Stairiker: Pop music: guilty pleasure then and now

Columnist Kevin Stairiker discusses the relevance of the “Now That’s What I Call Music!” CDs.

Listen, don’t pretend that you were a fan of “cool” music when you were 10 years old. I don’t care if you had really hip friends or parents – there’s a good chance that, at some point in your life, you were inexplicably in love with a certain kind of popular music. A lot of that can probably be traced back to the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series.

“Now That’s What I Call Music!” Volume I was released in the U.K. in 1983 as a double-vinyl collection and featured artists such as Phil Collins, The Cure and Kajagoogoo. Around the time its British counterpart was at the 41st entry, the U.S. decided it would be a good time to start repackaging pop hits to a frothing musical market.

The first U.S. version came out in 1998 and,  judging by the track list, it really didn’t know what it wanted to be yet. Sure, it had the hits you would expect, like the Backstreet Boys’ perfect “As Long As You Love Me.” But would you believe at song No. 14, nestled between Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Everclear’s “I Will Buy You A New Life,” was Radiohead’s “Karma Police”? Pretty crazy, right? In its American infancy, the “Now” series played it pretty fast and loose, but soon molded itself into the gold standard that we came to expect.

I arrived late to the “Now” party. On my 10th birthday, I received my first two CDs and my own CD player. The first CD was Smash Mouth’s self-titled 2001 album, and though it was chock full of hits, I ended up really latching on to the second CD: the eighth volume of the “Now” series. For those unfamiliar with this particular entry, why are you still reading this? Go track it down, because it takes priority over whatever you’re doing right now. It covered every base of what was considered pop music in 2001, ranging from Aaliyah to Sum 41. It followed the basic “Now” formula: The first couple tracks are the main hits, followed by an R&B midsection, and rounding it out are the usually laughable modern rock hits. “Now 8” specifically was loaded with both terrible songs that are fun to listen to, such as The Wiseguys’ “Start The Commotion” and genuinely great songs, like “Clint Eastwood” by the Gorillaz. And if you’re still on the fence, track one is Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious.” Seriously, it’s a perfect compilation.

As of this writing, the U.S. series is up to No. 43, but who is counting anymore? The series is largely useless now thanks to YouTube and the rapidly accelerating disposability of pop music in general.

The first track on “Now 43” is the very obvious “Call Me Maybe,” which became massively and achingly popular in June and was treated as the audio equivalent of newly minted vomit by July. By the time “Now 43” came out in early August, the song might as well have been five decades old. The series as a whole has been downgraded from “vital pop music directory” to “thing exasperated parents get their kids when they don’t know them well enough.”

The “Now” series represented a very specific, and recent, period of time in popular music where popularity wasn’t governed by charts, but by inclusion on a beyond-arbitrary gift bag of loosely “pop” tunes. There was a period of time in my life when if a song was featured on a “Now” album, I just assumed and accepted that it was popular and worth listening to. This unfortunate line of thinking led to brief forays into the discographies of such luminaries as Three Days Grace and Murphy Lee, but that’s for another time.

But to say that the “Now” series doesn’t serve a clear and important purpose would be a lie. It’s an audio yearbook series. I could dig up any of those CD volumes that I still have lying around somewhere and remember what I was doing at that point. Just scanning the Wikipedia page for “Now 16” reminded me that, wow, I absolutely still know the words to Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue” and, yes, Hoobastank’s “The Reason” definitely was the soundtrack to a seemingly endless number of cringingly, world-endingly awful middle school slow dances.

Most times, nostalgia should be treated as the crippling social disease that it is. But there’s something about seeing those album covers alone that is comforting. They’re all the same, save for the numbers and the never-ending line of color formations. And with some exceptions, no, I wouldn’t call most of these songs music, and definitely not with a firm exclamation point afterwards. But they’re fun, damnit.

Music listening has become this serious business where the hint of mediocrity is instantly dismissed because there’s such a wealth of amazing music at our fingertips at all times. But, with the “Now” series, it’s almost as if mediocrity was the point. And seriously, do you know how much fun that amounts to? Roughly 20 tracks worth. Listen to some of those songs today and have a laugh. It’s good for your health.

5 One-“Now” Wonders:
“All My Life” – K-Ci&JoJo (“Now 1”)
“Lean Back” – Terror Squad (“Now 17”)
“Walked Outta Heaven” – Jagged Edge (“Now 14”)
“AM to PM”– Christina Milian (“Now 8”)
“Somewhere Out There” – Our Lady Peace (“Now 11”)

Kevin Stairiker can be reached at kevin.stairiker@temple.edu.

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