Heya, Barbie! Wanna go for a ride? How about all the way back to 1998, when boy bands were just starting to be a “thing” (again), we listened to music on compact discs, and the blonde brothers Hanson seemed like they might have long-lasting relevance in the pop music sphere? (Okay, that last part was never true.)
In our latest episode, When We Were Young revisits Now That’s What I Call Music Vol. 1, along with other compilation CDs you could order over the phone (what?!), like the ready-to-rumble Jock Jams and the whale-saving, orca-flowing Pure Moods. We listen to acts ranging from the poppiest of pop (Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys) to moody alternative acts (Everclear and Fastball), seeing how they’ve held up over the past couple decades. (‘Cause that’s what you get when you mess with us.) Yes, we even pause to throw back a bottle of beer and debate what the hell was up with the 90s revitalization of swing spearheaded by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot.”
So don’t “Fly Away” — please “Say You’ll be There” as we get “Together Again” with the musical masterpieces and misfires of the late 1990s — and some surprisingly dark origin stories. Let’s go party!
I’ll keep this pretty brief, since this episode of When We Were Young is especially not, and I got a chance to say just about everything I could ever say about the songs on these compilations.
I never owned a Now That’s What I Call Music CD, because by the time they were released I was either over all the songs I liked or had purchases the albums they were found on. (I almost never bought CD singles. Maybe most songs I wanted weren’t released that way, or maybe I just didn’t know about them.) Liking songs I heard in passing somewhere led me to discover full albums I loved, like Filter’s Title Of Record and Everclear’s So Much For The Afterglow. (I’m pretty sure that neither of Everclear’s big singles from this album, “I Will Buy You A New Life” or “Father Of Mine” was the one I bought the album for, though.)
I’ve always had a rather contradictory relationship with mainstream pop music. I was around in the late 90s, of course, when some of the most enduring pop artists of the past few decades emerged. I watched TRL and got my dose of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, Christina Aguilera, and so on. I tended to like the female pop artists, and didn’t have much affinity for the boy bands.
(I certainly didn’t have much affinity for Jock Jams or Pure Moods, either.)
Later in life, I came to feel even more this way — I was a bigger fan of “Slave 4 U” Britney and “Dirrty” Xtina than I was of their bubblegummier days — and I usually preferred electronic artists remixing pop tunes than I actually liked the Top 40 versions.
This is still mainly true. I may like about 25% of Top 40 songs marginally, and am indifferent to 50% while hating 20%. I maybe actually really like 5% of this. The Now That’s What I Call Music albums have endured (pretty unnecessarily), and I peruse their track lists and have affinity for almost none. Partially, this is being more familiar with the artists than the songs by name, and also, not being a teenager. But I think the digital age has definitely segmented music much more, and we’re less likely to be inundated with big singles that absolutely everyone is hearing. There are maybe a couple of these per year — from Adele and Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, often — and the rare breakout by a new artist, like “Call Me Maybe.” I’d say I was pretty familiar with 14 or 15 of Now Vol. 1‘s 17 tracks, by comparison, and I don’t think it’s only because I’m “out of touch” with “what the kids are listening to” these days. It’s a factor, sure. But the digital age has also allowed people to segment their music consumption on playlists that will only play songs with a certain flavor, and Top 40 radio is not a staple in most people’s lives anymore. (I still listen to the actual radio in the car sometimes, because I have an older car.)
I am interested in what doing this episode made me consider, how the consolidation of music, film, and TV has been a long-gestating, ongoing process. A little over 100 years ago, there was no such thing as consumption of music unless it was live. The early films had no synced sound, and instead relied on pianists to score the film live in the movie theater. The phonograph and radio changed this, and no one would ever have tried to play a reel of Citizen Kane on their phonograph, or flip on the radio expecting to find the latest I Love Lucy. (Though Lucy did begin as a radio program, My Favorite Husband.) “I Love Lucy” notably has long Ricky Ricardo performances in almost every episode, which was a way of mixing a sitcom and musical entertainment; perhaps it was the Beatles who first introduced the idea of getting music via TV as a mainstream commercial idea. Not long after, there were plenty of TV programs geared around music that mainly targeted teenagers, which predicted the rise of MTV.
Movie screens got wider in the 60s and 70s as a way to differentiate cinema from television. Record players, TVs, and film reels were still distinctly different. Music beat film as a consumer product, but in the 1980s, VHS tapes caught on around the same time that most music was consumed on cassette tapes, too. Gradually, these mediums got even more similar. MTV debuted mainly as a “visual radio,” playing music videos, which were like short films set to music. Soon, music made the leap to compact discs, which films did soon after as DVDs. Computer games moved from disk to CD, too. TV was sold on VHS and then, more popularly, on DVD. At this point, all of these mediums could essentially be found on very similar-looking discs. Now That’s What I Call Music was basically a CD version of listening to the radio.
It was also an early adopter of “getting music via your phone,” which of course happens much more quickly now. Our TVs have widened and grown to look more like movie screens. Music, TV, and movies are consumed by many digitally, and physical media in these forms may eventually be phased out altogether. We can listen to radio and albums, watch TV, or see a movie all on the same devices. Most of us still have TVs, in addition to smart phones and tablets, but the same media can be played across all of these. Soon, we may not have more than one device at all, or at least, it will become much simpler to consolidate the content that plays on these devices.
These compilation CDs are a hilariously dated but fascinating look at a specific moment in this evolution. This was a fun episode to record, and hopefully is a fun episode to listen to, too!