All I want for Christmas is [_______]

All I want for Christmas is [_____]
All I want for Christmas is a giant bedazzled green triangle
Five days before Christmas (and one day before the end of the world) I went to The Base, the mega mall on the outskirts of Hamilton that’s played a significant part in sucking the life out of downtown Hamilton, which is such a mid-20th-century thing to do. So retro.

Anyway, it was right in the middle of the pre-Christmas crazy period, when the stress starts with finding a car park and ends with wondering what sort of consolation present makes up for not being able to buy an iPad Mini as they’re all sold out. Not that such issues plagued me, but I like to empathise with the middle-classes, etc.

My issue was the music. As to be expected, Christmas songs were on high rotate. But here’s the thing – I heard four different versions of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. At one point, I could position myself near the bath bomb selection of Lush and simultaneously hear the Michael Buble version in the store and the original Mariah version in the main mall. It even followed me outside, with a third version playing on the PA in the car park, and another one aurally ruffling me as I passed by a shop.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a great song. As a gift of the ’90s, it’s a far better contribution to Christmas pop than anything the ’60s or ’70s managed. But when it’s coming at me as a quadrophonic retail extravaganza, this does not lead to a pleasing experience.

But here’s the thing. I wasn’t at the mall to buy Christmas presents, but yet I found myself getting a $2 bag of candy canes because it felt like the correct seasonal thing to do. Ach, Mariah – you’ve sucked me into your vortex of glad tidings and good pop.

‘N Sync’s “Celebrity” – 10 years later

Hey, you!

What, me?

Yeah, I’m talking to you, sassy girl.”

*blushes*

Need a little achh! in your step? Try this on for size. It’s Pop and it tastes great and it makes you feel kinda funny. Not here [points to head], not down there [points downwards], but all up in this area [gestures to the general chest region]. And coming July 24th 2001, Jumbo Pop!

That’s the intro of ‘N Sync’s “Pop” video, where a Max Headroom-esque Justin Timberlake suddenly appears on the flatscreen TV in a cereal-eating sassy girl’s living room. The Pop in question is an orange fizzy beverage presented in a round-bottom flask. But the pop is also the music on ‘N Sync’s third and final studio album “Celebrity” which was indeed released on Tuesday 24 July 2001.

It went five times platinum in the US. That sounds impressive, but ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached” went 11x platinum, and their debut album (which wasn’t even all that good) went 10x platinum.

But it sales aside, it’s a good place to draw a line. It was released only a few months before 9/11, and it also seemed to represent the last gasp of the millennium giddiness, before we all had to settle down and get a bit serious for the next decade. How did this final album of Justin, JC, Joey, Lance and Chris hold up over the passing decade?

And “Celebrity” is one of my fave albums, and it got my through some tough times, man. So as it’s the 10th anniversary of the album, I though it was about time to look back and do a track-by-track.

1. Pop

In which ‘N Sync want some respect.

First, it’s not just pop, it’s dirty pop. ‘N Sync are quick to establish that they aren’t the squeaky clean teen pop idols of 1998. They’re not talking the NKOTB route and dressing up in leather, trying to pretend they’re street hoodlums. No, ‘N Sync still fully own that they are a vocal harmony band with fresh dance moves. But they’d just like a little respect, ok?

The chorus triumphantly unites:

Do you ever wonder why this music gets you high?
It takes you on a ride.
You feel it when your body starts to rock, and, baby, you can’t stop.
When the music’s all you got, this must be pop.

That’s what it is. When you listen to pop because a good pop song feels good. It is better than sex, better than drugs and better than rock ‘n’ roll.

But then the song hits the breaks and Justin says, “Man, I’m tired of singing.” This was originally just the intro for – gasp – Justin’s beatbox solo, but now it takes on another meaning. Because Justin is tired of singing. His last solo album was released in 2006, and he’s now moved on to acting.

If you want to look for other signs of impending doom, they’re there. “The thing you got to realise, what we’re doing is not a trend. We got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it till the end.” No, Justin, what you were doing was just a trend. Though it is true that ‘N Sync brought it till the end. “Celebrity” had only a couple of dud tracks, and is a fine album to unintentionally go out with.

And then there’s the other sign of doom – it’s a Justin and JC sung track, written by Justin and his Australian choreographer. It’s produced to let Justin and JC’s voices stand out, with the rest of the group sounding more like session singers brought in for a few oohs.

But here’s the thing, despite all that has happened since, it’s still a great pop track. It’s danceable and uplifting and full of slices of club music and other bits of the late ’90s that didn’t usually make it to the top of the charts. And it’s a great opening track for the album.

2. Celebrity

In which ‘N Sync grow weary of this world.

“Write what you know,” they say. So Robyn writes about ‘N Sync and ‘N Sync write about being celebrities.

It’s hard out there when you’re a famous pop star and your girlfriend isn’t. Although, it’s a Justin-penned track and at the time he was very famously in relationship with Britney Spears, who enjoyed equal levels of celebrity to her fellow ex-Mouseketeer.

If I wasn’t a celebrity would you be so nice to me?
If I didn’t have cheese, like, every day, would you still wanna be with me?

The first time I heard this song, I didn’t know that cheese was slang for money, so I imagined ‘N Sync were talking about actual cheese. I imagine Lance frolicking with a giant wheel of gouda, when suddenly hordes of screaming teens run after him, making him frantically roll the cheese wheel down the street to make getaway.

Like in “Pop”, Justin takes the first verse and JC takes the second one. But JC gets the best bit – “See, it would be different if you had something, maybe like a J-O-B”. Only the “J-O-B” bit is sung a cappella with the full group harmonising on it. Because that is their J-O-B.

The song sounds quite bitter, with the protagonist vowing to leave Ms Golddigger and find someone who will “love me for me”. The song is a little bit of a middle finger to all of ‘N Sync’s nutso fans, who blindly vow their love for the band, but it also reveals a weak point of self-esteem among the lads. What if the girl answered, “Yes, I’d still want to be with you because you’re not a horrible person and I enjoy being with you”?

3. The Game Is Over

In which ‘N Sync do not achieve the high score.

“The Game Is Over” is a JC song, so he also gets to sing lead vocal first. But that’s not the best thing. The song is super cool because it samples bits of the Pacman theme. It’s chipcore years before all the cool kids were into it. (But, ok, Yellow Magic Orchestra fully got there first back in 1978 with “Computer Games“.)

And the video game samples are effective. ‘N Sync are the generation who grew up playing spacies. It makes perfect sense to extend the “game over” of a false-hearted lover’s betrayal into the same sense of loss one feels when the ghosts get Pacman.

“The Game Is Over” also works as a counterpoint to JC’s other technology-themed song “Digital Getdown” from ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached”. “Digital Get Down” was a celebration of cyber sex, which was a fairly awesome thing for a pop group to be singing about in 2000.

But “The Game Is Over” is angry. “How could you think that you could do me like that,” JC spits, and his posse is right behind him. “You played yourself!”

If one wants to get Freudian here, one can look at the sexual parallels of the coin in the video game slot. In ‘N Sync’s live tour, they dressed up Tron-style versus an army of fembot types. But in reality, it’s more about a lone dude in a T-shirt and Levis, angrily battling away at a video game cos he’s just found out his girlfriend’s been rooting around.

4. Girlfriend

In which ‘N Sync try to peer pressure you in to being their girlfriend.

Why don’t you be my girlfriend?
I’ll treat you good.
I know you hear your friends when they say you should.

Every girl wants to be wanted, and this song is the voice of a guy who wants a girl. Let’s take a moment to luxuriate in the fantasy of “Girlfriend”. Let’s say you’re a girl and you have a crush on Justin or JC (or Joey, Chris or even Lance). You know realistically there’s no way that Mr Timberlake will be your boyfriend, but maybe if you got to meet him backstage at an ‘N Sync concert you could convince him.

“Girlfriend” turns it around. Rather than you having to seduce/beguile/drug your favourite ‘N Sync into loving you, there he is trying to convince you to be his girlfriend with song.

The song is written by the Neptunes, with plenty of their trademark staccato sound. Kids, that was back when the Neptunes wrote and produced songs, rather than Pharrell making Qream, that weird low-calorie cream liqueur for the ladies.

There’s a slightly sexed-up remix of the song, with Nelly showing up for a guest rap. That and the video (gangs, drag races, go Greased Lightning) show that ‘N Sync were continuing with the slightly toughed-up image.

“Girlfriend” was their final single off “Celebrity”, and it was the first single released after 9/11, five months after the event. It makes sense that in the confused post-9/11 world, they’d want to harden up a little.

But sometimes you just want a boy to want you to be his girlfriend.

5. The Two of Us

In which ‘N Sync just can’t get you out of their head.

Romantic obsession, it’s quite fun, yeah? The song starts with some sweet harpsichord-style keyboard, not unlike that of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, before stuttering to life with some tasty beats.

The song treads a fine line between the romantic and the sexual. The song works as the story of a man waiting for his new girlfriend to come home so they can stay up late watching DVDs and eating chips or he’s waiting for his girl to come home to they can have sex all night long.

“I always wanted to tell you,” Justin sings, “but I was so afraid.” Now he’s made that big step, he’s confessed his feelings and now things are going to get better.

But there’s a little self doubt. “Baby, I wonder if you feel the same as I do.” In the back of his mind, there’s the very real possibility that the girl might not be as into him as he’s into her. She might just be using him for sex. Or chips.

But there is hope in my heart. I think the girl will be into him and will want to do more than just watch DVDs.

6. Gone

In which ‘N Sync struggle with loss.

Was this song, the second single off “Celebrity”, the straw that broke the ‘N Sync camel’s back? (And is there a Backstreet Boys dromedary?) Written by Justin and his Australian choreographer, and with Justin on all the lead vocals, it might as well have been credited to “Justin Timberlake and the ‘N Syncs”.

It’s a sad song, chronicling the aching loss that comes with a breakup. Following the two previous tracks at the hopeful beginning stages of a relationship, the sting of “Gone” is even stronger.

With the girl out of his life, what does Justin miss? “I’ve drove myself insane wishing I could touch your face, but the truth remains – you’re gone”. It’s simple, tender and the lack of face-touching, it hurts so much.

The song functions as a showcase for Justin. As well as the getting all the lead vocals, the song also affords him a bare a cappella break down, just to prove he’s got the skills that pay the bills. This is what it sounds like when a boyband splinters, when a guy goes solo.

And so the song takes on a double meaning. Now it’s not just about a guy missing his girlfriend. Justin is singing the loss that his group will soon feel when he sidesteps away from them, and the group’s theoretical hiatus becomes a permanent breakup.

7. Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby

In which the big guns are brought out.

The Swedes are back. There’s always a moment of tension when one hears that a pop artist has started writing their own songs. Sometimes it works, other times it’s terrible. In the case of ‘N Sync, the songs co-written by Justin and JC were perfectly good pop songs, but it took the Swedish pop production house of Cheiron to really bring the power pop. On this song, it’s Max and Rami from Cheiron.

The first sign that something great is happening is the ellipses in the song title. You know what other song used that? “…Baby One More Time” is what.

The song starts with perfectly adequate beats and “oh ohs”, before one of the ‘N Syncs stops things and says, “Hold it, can we back it up just a little bit?” The song rewinds and starts over with a sonic explosion of shattering glass and snippets of Cheiron’s previous hits with ‘N Sync. Take that, Justin and his choreographer!

The song also features that hallmark of the Cheiron/Jive Records oeuvre – the pronunciation of ‘me’ as ‘maaayyee”, which nicely rhymes with ‘baby’.

Like “Gone”, it’s a cry for a relationship that’s fallen apart. But unlike “Gone”, there’s hope that things can be mended. It’s more of a group song, with a united boyband sound. It’s the hope that ‘N Sync can stay together, forever. Maybe they just need Cheiron to work some more magic.

At this point I was going to come to the defence of professional songwriters and pop production houses. But if it’s not Cheiron (which closed in 2001), it’s Tamla Motown or the Brill Building. And it’s the same old criticism that come up again and again, only to go away when the songs are a few decades old and are recognised as gems. Really, if a single sounds amazing, why is it a bad thing that the person who wrote it is different to the person who sings it?

8. Up Against the Wall

In which ‘N Sync enjoy a good humping.

I love this song because it’s about humping. It’s a collaboration between Justin and JC (hot), and is self-consciously full of two-step beats. Yeah, take that, Craig David.

She took my hand.
We never said a word at all.
We starting grinding.
Shorty had me up against the wall.

You could choose to think of it as a dance style like jacking or daggering, but there’s also the possibility that it’s just about an attractive young couple, high on who knows what, who’ve spotted each other across a crowded room but just don’t have time to deal with the hassle of removing clothes.

The action takes place in a disco, where the protagonist spots a fine young lady who then proceeds to come over and hump him. This is top quality humping, because it takes the fellow away from all his cares. “Ask me about tomorrow – you know that I don’t care at all. I just got caught up when she had me up against the wall.”

But what happens tomorrow? Does he wake up with the fly honey in bed with him, realising he has to go through an awkward morning-after conversation? Or does he wake up alone, wondering what happened to his leather trousers at the club?

9. See Right Through You

In which ‘N Sync shed an angry tear.

Things are bitter. A moment of clarity hits ‘N Sync. That girl, the one they loved, she ain’t nothing but a cheating ho.

Covering similar territory to Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know”, the song is the voice of cheated-on lover angrily dealing with the aftermath of that discovery. But where as Alanis bluntly asks, “Would she go down on you in a theatre,” ‘N Sync get more euphemistic, asking, “Does he freak you the way that I do?”

‘N Sync move into slightly sweary territory with the line “These games they’ve gotta stop. About to get pissed off.” It’s also remarkable that it’s “pissed off”, which is more British than the American “pissed”. I think this may be a contribution of Justin’s Australian choreographer.

The song is angry, but it doesn’t quite seem to have the real anger of being dicked over. Later, when Justin’s girlfriend rooted his Australian choreographer, he wrote the bitter epic “Cry Me a River“.

Yeah, write what you know.

10. Selfish

In which ‘N Sync cater to the all-important newlyweds demographic.

There are two dud songs on “Celebrity”, which was the same miss rate on “No Strings Attached”. But while the two songs on ‘N Sync’s previous album were written by Richard Marx and Diane Warren (yeah….), this time around the lads managed to write the songs themselves. The first is a JC song.

I used to tolerate this song, but now it annoys me. “Selfish” sounds like an ’80s slow jam, with strings, mellow keyboard and key changes. Lyrically it’s a boring declaration of love. It’s a mature grown-up boring kind of love, not the fun sexy kind of love.

I have this idea that every ‘N Sync album has to have a “wedding song” – a slow-dance declaration of love for the bride and groom to take their first steps as husband and wife. But this song makes me feel ill. It makes me not want to get married, ever, if that means avoiding ever having to hear this song again.

11. Just Don’t Tell Me That

In which ‘N Sync ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger.

Another Cheiron production, this time by songwriters Andreas, Kristian and Jack. “Just Don’t Tell Me That” works on the same theme as “Celebrity” – a fame-hungry, gold-digging girl is given her marching orders.

Predicting the popular rise of Playboy in the coming decade, the song opens with, “You’ve got to be seen at every party at the Playboy Mansion”. The girl is revealed to be camera whore, who enjoys the lifestyle to which ‘N Sync have treated her. But, of course, she’s a fake so she needs to hit the road.

This song is a bit of a litmus test for the listener. Either the girl thinks, “Well, I deserve the fancy car and to be seen on your arm at the VIP events, so if you can’t treat me right and give me what I need, then I will find someone who can, like Hef.” Or she thinks, “Yay! JC is ditching his no-good girlfriend. I am pure-hearted so now we can be together!”

But neither of these types have a place in the real world of ‘N Sync.

12. Something Like You

In which ‘N Sync pray just to make it today.

The second dud song is a Justin song, co-written with his old vocal coach Robin Wiley. But what makes it even worse – it features guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder. No! What? Stevie?! Yes, further evidence that everything Stevie Wonder has done since the ’80s has been a bit rubbish.

It’s not quite a wedding song, with the relationship in its early stages. It’s the blossoming of a serious, adult relationship. This is a song to be sung dressed in baggy white linen suits, seated on stools.

It’s the most religious song, with Justin’s prayers to “the Lord above” and asking, “Is this what God has meant for me?” The next step after this is not to get involved in some sweaty humping in a crowded night club. It’s to don a chastity ring and wait until marriage before doing anything else.

I also think songs like this exist to give the lads a bit of a breather during their hectic live shows. But for the listener, it’s much more enjoyable to skip to the next track.

13. That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)

In which ‘N Sync reach for the top.

The trio of Swedish power pop is rounded out with “That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)”, which was also the theme song of Lance and Joey’s romantic comedy movie “On The Line”, back when Lance was heterosexual.

Like other Cheiron productions, there’s a unified group vibe, Justin and JC’s lead vocals supported by the rest.

The song starts with a very brief burst of 1950s-style vocal harmony, before bursting into some fresh ’00s pop. The lyrics examine a case of unrequited love. Sometimes in the world of ‘N Sync a crush suggests it will lead to a lifetime of happiness, but in this case, it’s nothing put trouble.

The girl in question is some sort of celebrity, “tearing up the big screen”, but “she’s in a different league.” A reminder that while ‘N Sync are famous enough to write about the perils of fame, there are others who are more famous, who might sneer at these pop wannabes.

There is determination in the lyrics, “She will be mine!” I like to think this song is about Madonna, the culmination of which was the epic, next-level “4 Minutes“.

14. Falling

In which ‘N Sync let the short one have a go.

This song comes close to making it a trilogy of songs that I don’t like (it has a ‘truck driver’s gear change’ key change!), but there’s something strangely appealing about this cheesy ballad.

It’s the only song on the album written by ‘N Sync member Chris, who sings the high parts. It starts with some moody electric guitar, not unlike that of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You”, and expertly builds to a dramatic chorus. It feels like a really well constructed song. It’s nothing amazing, but has a nice comfortable feeling to it.

Like the Cheiron songs, “Falling” also feels like a good group song. ‘N Sync’s strength as a vocal harmony group is put to good use, with lush layers of harmony. And Chris has even thrown in a few high bits for himself.

If this was all ‘N Sync were capable of, they’d have been a perfectly adequate footnote in the history of late ’90s, early ’00s pop, but the fact that there are so many better song on the album make it just all that much more thrilling.

15. Do Your Thing

In which ‘N Sync are doing their thing and doing it well.

The album ends with a question: Are you doing your thing and doing it well? It’s a simple song about pursuing one’s goals, about staying focused on being the best.

If ‘N Sync were to ask themselves that question, the answer would be yes, and the song amply demonstrates their talent. But then where do you go? If all your dreams have come true, what is there left to achieve?

So it seems inevitable that ‘N Sync broke up. They could have easily made another album, but instead they took the hard road. Joey became a father, Lance came out, Chris went on a reality TV show, JC put out a bunch of killer singles that didn’t get enough attention, and Justin had a very successfully solo career that he put on hold to move into the harder world of acting.

Are you doing your thing and doing it well? Yes? So then what? You move on to the next thing.

All the artists of the world: The case of Milli Vanilli

milli vanilli acceptance

Exhibit M

22 February 1990. The 1990 Grammy Awards, recognising the musical output of 1989. Young MC and Kris Kristofferson present the Grammy for Best New Artist. “This year, the nominees for Best New Artist are making all kinds of music,” the bespectacled author of “Keep It In Your Pants” says. “And each one of them expresses himself in a unique way that commands attention,” Young’s elder co-presenter concludes.

The nominees are announced, along with a video clip of a respresentative song. There’s Neneh Cherry, rippin’ shit up with “Buffalo Stance”; the Indigo Girls belting out some harmonious acoustic pop on “Closer To Fine”. So far the applause is polite and appreciative.

Then comes Milli Vanilii’s nomination, along with the braided pair singing, “Girl you know it’s true. Ooh, ooh, ooh, I love you.” And dancing. And staring with those needy eyes. The audience breaks out into screaming and rapturous applause. Yes, yes, Rob and Fab!

Back to Soul II Soul and a bit of their art/house/soul/pop song “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)”; and finally gravel-voiced rapper Tone Loc rounds out the nominations with his Young MC-penned track “Funky Cold Medina”.

The winner is announced. Milli Vanilli. The room erupts with screams. Yay!

Rob and Fab receive their award, and Rob makes this speech:

“We wanna say thank you very much, but we wanna say there are a lot of artists here in this room, there are a lot of artists outside in the world, who could achieve the same award that we achieved today. And it’s an award for all artists in the world. Thank you very much.”

That night, all the artists in the world gave silent thanks to Milli Vanilli.

Exhibit L

April 27, 2034

“Come here, my little ones. Gather around and I’ll tell you why we used to like the Milli Vanillis in the olden days. Oh, they were so pretty. It was like if you got Justin Beiber, made him brown, cloned him, gave him too many hair extensions, and dressed him in lycra bike pants, a jacket with giant shoulder pads and clompy boots. And how they could dance! They used to do this thing where they would jump up and spin around and their dreadlocks and braids flew about gaily. And that Rob, he had the most beautiful eyes.”

“Grandma?”

“Yes, child.”

“Who’s Justin Bieber?”

Exhibit K

November 16 1990. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences withdraws Milli Vanilli’s Grammy for Best New Artist.

The main point comes down to the vocal credit on the album specifically naming Rob and Fab.

But the awarded recordings themself hadn’t changed. Milli Vanilli hadn’t changed. It was just that the two fellows on the album cover and in the music videos and dancing on stage were different from the men who sang on the record.

But somehow that affected the recording.

Exhibit J

It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat. It’s not until you lift the lid on the album that you can form an opinion on the music. If the cat is alive, there’s a couple of handsome singers on the album and it’s a great album; if the cat is dead, it’s ordinary looking session singers on the album and it’s a terrible album.

Exhibit H

January 1990. Happy new decade. I had a $15 record voucher from either my recent 15th birthday present and/or Christmas the week before. I’d recently purchased De La Soul’s debut album Three Feet High and Rising and was really enjoying it. Yeah, soundtrack of summer.

So I was feeling a bit adventurous. I wanted something a bit urban, a bit gritty. Something that would keep reminding me of my summer holiday in Auckland and not the impending return to rural Hamilton.

I looked around a forgettable record shop (remember, kids, this was the early ’90s, when record shops were all over the place and could easily be forgettable), but I couldn’t find anything that took my fancy.

Then I saw something on the top 20 rack of tapes. It was Milli Vanilli’s All or Nothing (US Remix Album). I’d heard their songs. They were ok. I bought the tape, listened to it a few times but it wasn’t very captivating.

One of the album tracks was “Girl You Know It’s True (NY Subway Mix)”. This suggests someone has taken the original “Girl You Know It’s True” and remixed it to reflect the gritty urban beat of New York’s public transport system.

In reality it’s like someone’s heard MARRS’s groundbreaking samplefest Pump Up the Volume and decided to apply a similar style to Milli Vanilli. But instead of using an experienced DJ, it sounds like they gave the work-experience kid a Fairlight and some Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie, Michael Jackson, and Deep Purple singles and let them have at it. With disastrous results.

If I really want to feel a stab of regret, I can remind myself that at the time, The Stone Roses album would have been out there on the shelves for me to buy.

Exhibit G

April 2 1998. Let’s try not to think of Rob Pilatus’ final night on earth, alone in a hotel room in Hamburg, an accidental overdose. Let’s try not to think of the drug rehab and the assault charges and the relapsing and the neediness and the depression. Let’s try to remember the good things.

Exhibit F

After it was revealed that Rob and Fab were not the people singing on the Milli Vanilli records or dancing in their videos, the public outrage made it clear – there is no room for lack of authenticity in pop music.

Yet, surprisingly, the Indigo Girls did not see their sales go through the roof in response to this newfound desire for musical authenticity.

A lesson was learned – cheat, just don’t get caught. Today no one’s quite so bold as to hire pretty frontmen for frumpy singers. But there’s Auto-Tune to tidy up messy singers. Or what about getting a great singer to record the demo, which the mediocre singer memorises, right down to the quirky phrasing. And the potential that ProTools offers for chopping and layering to disguise flaws.

But why are we still obsessed with authenticity in music? Why is it ok for some types of art to be polished to an artifical state of perfection, but not ok for others?

Exhibit E

We hide our love for Milli Vanilli. We disguise it as contempt for the ’90s, beecause the ’90s were awful. At the moment, at least.

Milli Vanilli gets filed away with Crystal Pepsi, biker shorts and giant hair – pop culture anomalies that will never happen again.

Because the past was awful and the present is better. Apart from the bits of the past that were golden. We cherish those.

But that’s not the Milli Vanilli bit. That’s the bit where we pretend we never bought a Milli Vanilli album. Or if we did, we thought it was awful.

We don’t remember all the songs that went to number one all over the world, or the joy people got from dancing to “Baby Don’t Forget My Number (NY Subway Mix)”.

Perhaps that actually happened in a parallel universe, where Al Gore was president and the World Trade Center still stands.

Exhibit D

Q. Do you like Milli Vanilli?

A. No, I do not like Milli Vanilli because I think that they are crap!!!! I mean, they don’t even write their own songs or sing on their records and they have those braids which look really STUPID. Also, they do those dumb dances where they go from side to side, which look really LAME. Plus they wear really weird clothes with giant shoulder pads. Shoulder pads are so mental. I like proper singers who are actually talented, like Margaret Urlich, Jamie J Morgan, Ngaire and Madonna.

Exhibit C

I mean, it’s not like they were the only ones doing it. Technotronic had blue-lipped fashion model Felly lip-syncing in their Pump Up the Jam video; petit Zelma Davis stood in for plus-size Martha Walsh in C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat video; and it was shockingly revealed that Paula Abdul’s singing partner MC Skat Kat was not actually a streetwise cat, but was, in fact, two human males.

Exhibit B

Rob did the grunty singing and Fab did the rapping, but there always seemed to be a few more male voices in there too. And maybe there was even a voice of caution from the future.

It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over.
And I never will forget the day we met.
[Multi-platinum pop career], I’m gonna miss you.

Girl I’m Gonna Miss You

Exhibit A

Justified and ancient

I first got into Justin Timberlake when I got into Nsync back in 2001, and that was sparked by seeing the Nsync IMAX concert film “Bigger Than Live”. So when I heard that Mr JT was coming to Aotearoa,… um… I was kind of indifferent to it all. I couldn’t be bothered to go and see him live.

But then on Thursday, on the eve of his first show, I was at the pub with my old NZmusic.com-ettes, Joanna, Martina and Heather, and they were like, “Why aren’t you going!?” Good seats were still available, so I bought a ticket ($140?!) and got my arse along to Vector Arena for the last of his three Auckland shows.

As I entered the arena, Nine Inch Nails’ family fun-time singalong tune “Closer” was playing. “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” Trent Reznor snarled. This is not the result of someone’s iPod being put on random. Justin wanted us to hear it.

I was pleased to discover that I had an aisle seat, one row from the front and about two-thirds of the way down from the stage. Next to me were two girls working their way through eight cups of bourbon and Coke.

So, there was a whole lot of smoke and lights and the band started playing familiar fragments, and the audience screamed and cheered, and finally the bits and pieces suddenly exploded into “FutureSex / LoveSound”. A shadowy figure on stage was revealed to be Justin and it was really awesome. “You know what you want, and that makes you just like me,” he sang, and it was true.

Over in L91, I was dancing my arse off, and back on stage Justin was running through the best bits off his two albums. “Like I Love You”, “What Goes Around”, “My Love”.

Justin then had a quiet word with the audience. He loves Noo Zealand. Scream. It’s better than Australia. Scream. Noo Zealanders are so crazy, he wants some of what we’re smoking. Scream. In fact, he loves Noo Zealand so much, he might even move here. Screeeeam.

Which leads us to the Kaipara Bait ‘n’ Switch. I heard that on Friday Justin went ballooning over Helensville. It was a nice sunny day that day. A few years ago, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers also visited the Kaipara area on a nice sunny day and was so impressed he bought a house there. But he soon discovered that nice sunny days are an anomaly and it’s usually a nice rainy day there. So, Justin, be warned.

Two girls in the row in front me told me there was a spare seat next to them, so I moved down into the front row. Nice one. But I discovered that the bourbon and Coke girls had spilt some on the floor, getting my hoodie all wet. Ugh. But it’s OK cos Justin was there.

I can only conclude that Justin Timberlake is a huge nerd. I mean, you don’t get to be a good singer, dancer, co-songwriter and entertainer without spending hours and hours and years and years practising. It’s kind of the Madonna template (she is a huge nerd too) – you just work your arse off at the art of being a pop star. And this also involves being too busy working to flash your cooter all over town.

There was a no-camera rule, but everyone these days has cameraphones, so the audience was dotted with the glowing screens of people holding up their cellphones, taking photos and jittery 30-second movie clips to stick on YouTube.

The question is, does Justin have enough songs to fill out a two-hour show? Well, not quite. There were a few dull patches. I could have done without “Sexy Ladies”. But the worst bit was the horrible ballad “Losing My Way”, which is about a guy called Bob (who has a job) and smokes the P. A mini gospel choir showed up for that one.

But the best was saved for last, with the bombastic “SexyBack” finale. It was all smoke and lights and it was like a funky sexy alien mothership was landing (hey…). I’m not sure, but I think it’s possible that Justin literally brought sexy back.

After that he came back on stage and just walked around, while the audience screamed at him. You’d have to be really well adjusted to be able to elicit that sort of reaction and be able to both accept it and not let it mess with your ego. Bags not.

He sat down at a piano and did one more song (during which heaps of lame-arses went home), before taking a final bow and disappearing into the stage. The audience was seen out with The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. (Another mid-’90s tune. Hmm…)

As I left, reeking of someone else’s bourbon and Coke, I had strangely mixed emotions about my first stadium extravaganza. I’d just seen Justin Timberlake live and it was a great experience, but I think I’ve had better times at the King’s Arms.

I want candy

Currently the number one song in New Zealand is a cover version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”. The group who have covered is a five-piece male pop group called BOYBAND.

BOYBAND are the deliberately cynical, tongue-in-cheek, ratings-week-focused creation of a radio station. They advertised for five guys who would be “Gay Boy, Hot Boy, Bad Boy, Mummy’s Boy and Fat Boy”, and promised that the winners would get “no big prize, major recording deal or guarantee of fame, just the chance to record a hit single, $500 cash, a 5th share in a 1994 Mazda Bongo van and enjoy a fleeting moment in the ‘pop music’ limelight.”

See, the thing is, New Zealanders are very serious about music. We like people who can play guitars and write their own songs; we like bands who come together because they were flatmates or went to school together, not because they replied to an ad or entered a competition. Even though “Popstars” originated in New Zealand, we generally ain’t got no time for “manufactured” pop acts because, um, well, just because.

So because of this, a normal local pop group wouldn’t have much luck unless they had a signed certificate saying they could all play instruments and had known each other since kindergarten.

But because BOYBAND is a big fat joke, it’s OK for people to like them. Their built-in obsolescence means that there’s no risk that they are going to dominate the charts forever, depriving proper, serious, grown-up artists, such as Bic Runga and Dave Dobbyn, of their rightful place in the pop charts.

The song itself is fairly unremarkable (YouTube). It’s got a bit of rock guitar with some mixed-up DJing and – of course – a rap in the middle. None of them are great singers – they could never ever handle performing anything this majestic.

It’s kind of sad that New Zealand can’t do fluffy pop properly. It’s either the aforementioned serious guitar pop or this entertaining yet cynical comedy.

Where is some sweet, locally made ear candy when you need it?

The desolate wasteland of pop

When a was younger, I’d amuse myself by looking at a list of the top 10 singles and mentally singing the song title the way it was sung in the song. Occasionally there’d be a tune I didn’t know, but usually by the next week I’d know it.

I was looking for some self-amusement tonight and decided to have a go doing that with the top 40. I didn’t get very far. Out of the 40 songs, I knew only four of them. Two of them (Sugababes’ “Push the Button” and Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”) I know because I’ve discovered them online, and the other two (Kanye West’s “Golddigger” and James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”) I know because they’re everywhere (and frankly, I’d rather that “You’re Beautiful” wasn’t, but apparently The People heart vile sentimentality).

Of the remaining 36 songs, 25 are by artists I’ve heard of before, and 11 are completely unknown to me.

I don’t know who Mt Raskil, Chris Brown, KT Tunstall, Corinne Bailey Rae, The Veronicas (twice), Hollie Smith, Bernard Fanning, Thirsty Merc, T-Pain, or Daniel Powter are.

How has this come about? Lack of exposure to places where top-40 music is played.

When I had a car, I used to listen to Mai FM a lot, which kept me in touch with most popular songs, and at home I’d watch C4 quite a lot. But I sold me car, and ever since I started working in television, I feel less inclined to randomly watch it at home.

The interweb also factors into it. Instead of just going with the flow of the status quo, I can seek out music that I know I’m going to like. I can listen to stuff on Myspace, preview (*ahem*) music that friends recommend, and seek out older music that I might have missed the first time around.

I’m also acutely aware of the ol’ windows of receptivity. I’m 31 now. The part of my brain that’s into new music is becoming less effective. Sooner or later I’m going to hear some contemporary pop music and declare it to be tuneless crap.

Thinking about this, it doesn’t really bother me. Pop music is for the young. Seeing Madonna turn into an elderly contortionist power-mother has not really been pleasant. I’m quite happy for pop to go on without me. While Thirsty Merc and Daniel Powter do… whatever it is they do, I shall be in my bedroom listening to Bauhaus.

The mystery of pop surrounds us

I realised that amid all the hoo-ha surrounding NZ Idol Michael Murphy’s debut single “So Damn Beautiful,” I hadn’t actually heard the song. So I popped along to my local purveyor of quality music and picked up a copy of the CD.

Evidence:

paidinfull

I listened to it a few times, and then realised that it wasn’t actually a bad song. Well, it’s not up there with such recent magnificent pop tunes as Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Rachel Stevens’ “Sweet Dreams My LA Ex” or Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body”, but it’s not complete rubbish either.

“So damn beautiful” is about a guy who wants a picture of his girlfriend so he can remember her when she’s away (Where? The army? On the evening shift at Burger King?).

Thematically it reminds me a little of two top-five singles, The Who’s “Pictures of Lily” and The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese”, but both those songs were more about using the photos as masturbation aids, whereas I think “So damn beautiful” seems to be more about reaffirming the girl’s self-esteem.

She sounds like the kind of chick who doesn’t believe her boyfriend when he tells her that how beautiful she is, and probably doesn’t want her photo taken because she thinks she’s an ugly ho-dog. So the dude is determined to let her see how beautiful he finds her to be. Awww, isn’t that sweet? (Yes, it is.)

The mystery of life, and other hidden depths.

0.00 The song starts with a deep note that quickly fades up, reminiscent of REM’s “Star Me Kitten” or even Bongwater’s “Folk Song”. It’s a somewhat unconventional start for a pop song.

0.03 Some acoustic guitar and rhythm suddenly comes in along with some mid-90s-style guitar, like that in the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Rhinoceros” or Collective Soul’s “Shine”.

0.14 The vocals start, but sound a little muffled. Funnily enough, the pictures of Michael on the CD liner make him look like his mouth is a little swollen, like he’s had recent dental work. How peculiar that he starts out sounding like that too.

0.17 Whoa, suddenly things get a little bit exciting with both double-tracked vocals and a burst of fuzzy electric guitar. Excuse me. It’s time to put my bopping trousers on.

0.21 Some really satisfying cymbal crashes can be heard. Not many pop songs utilise the cymbal. It works here. Giz some treble.

0.24 Things get quiet again (Hey, loudness then quietness – just like the Pixies, or Nirvana).

0.28 Roll over Beethoven, etc. It’s loud and guitarry and double-tracked again!

0.32 It’s time for the bridge and it’s keeping that bad-boy rock vibe going quite nicely, thank you, Vicar.

0.36 At this point a slowly swelling string quartet can be heard bluntly underscoring the emotion of the bridge. There’s something that he wants to tell you, girl, and that violin means he’s serious, dammit.

0.44 “…for yooooooooou-ugh!”

0.45 Behold, the mighty chorus.

0.46 Behold, the American vowels: “I’m takin’ yur picha so I don’t forget cha.”

1.02 “You’re so damn beautiful,” he sings with absolute gusto.

1.06 The Pumpkins guitar is back and things get quieter. This time the title line is repeated, but in quiet, drawn-out tones: “You’re so-o da-amn beautifaaal”

1.16 Suddenly things get really quiet. Yes, that’s right – it’s an a capella bit. This is the special bit where anyone who dares to throw the “glorified karaoke” label at Michael can go and get stuffed. Unfortunately the lyrics showcased in this part are, “the mystery of life surrounds you,” which has to be one of the worst pop lyrics ever. Fortunately the a cappella bit makes up for the awful lyrics.

1.20 But the only a capella pop song to have any level of success in the pop charts was “Don’t Worry Be Happy” back in 1988, so the crunchy guitar (but not big and crunchy, because this is pop, not rock, and we don’t want to scare the grandmas) comes back to gently nudge (not kick) some arse.

1.27 Then it’s time for another quiet moment, but this time Michael is accompanied by a pretty, wistful bit of guitar, not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” or the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the bridge.”

1.31 The Pumpkiny guitar is back again, as are those double-tracked vocals.

1.35 And it’s time for the second bridge, again with the sincerer-than-thou string accompaniment. When he sings “I’m dying to have you right here” the “right here” part is magically harmonised with his own vocals, just to emphasise that he wants you right here, not some other place in the space-time continuum.

1.48 Behold, the mighty chorus, again.

1.51 Michael sings the line “so I don’t forget you” to sound like “so why don’t forget cha?” Why indeed?

1.59 The second part of this chorus has Michael doing his own backing vocals, and sounding very urgent and/or constipated in the process.

2.06 The chorus ends and suddenly things get very subdued: “You’re so damn beautifuuuuuu-uhl… Yes, you are.” This can only mean one thing: it’s time for the middle-eight. Yes, it is.

2.13 It’s more of the wistful guitar as Michael contemplates what it would be like, “if I were to lose you.”

2.29 Evoking the “Whoa-oh-oh” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Don’t dream it, be it” or the “Hey, hey, hey. That’s what I say” from the Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction, Michael sings that he only needs one one look “to get by-hi-hi-hi.”

2.34 It’s another semi-a capella moment, with the vocals sung over the top of quiet, strummed electric guitar. There’s a curious little Beach Boys quality to the close vocal harmony here.

2.39 Behold the mighty chorus, yet again.

2.55 The song goes up an octave! The crowd goes wild, etc. Jumping up an octave is an old pop production trick and is a cheap, cheesy trick at that. That probably make this the lowest point of the song, but actually, I think it may also be the highest point, too.

3.06 With the strings sounding very urgent and very, “weep, dammit,” Michael sings, “so I can re-me-em-baaa”

3.12 It’s the melancholic chorus end again: “Cos yur so damn beautifuuu-uhl”

3.22 With only quiet piano, like the Carpenter’s “We’ve only just begun” or John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Michael quietly asks, “So don’t you know how pretty you are?” It’s sung in a really sweet voice, but he puts a slight growl on “you”, as if to reassert his rock roots over his pop career.

3.34 It’s said that the perfect pop song is three minutes and 33 seconds long. This one raises a middle finger to convention and clocks in at one second over. How punk is that, huh?

Of course I’ve had it in the air before.

It really irritates me how in the Pluto song “Hey Little” there’s a line that goes “did you remember to wash behind your ears”, but the dude who sings it (I think it’s Mr Borich) mispronounces “ears” as “airs”.

If you want to know how to pronounce ear in a rock song, please listen to “Lust for life” by Mr Pop – he snarls it out like “eeeeee-aaaaaaah!”.

Thank you.

Boys on films

I like the revisionist history that says that Duran Duran’s songs were actually really meaningful. Like, “Girls On Film” was actually about the exploitation of models. Yes, ok.

Why don’t they just be honest and admit that the songs were just about stuff that sounded cool to sing. Like, what was the union of the snake? Yes.

I got excited when I saw the band on TV arriving at the airport. I’d love to see them and Mr Williams live, but I can’t afford it. Excuse me while I weep.

Oh, I’ve made a blog for NZ Idol! I realised I’m obsessed with it already, so instead of putting all my Idol crap in here, I’ve got a separate place for it. I’ve called it NZ Idle (ha ha!) and have cleverly photoshopped the NZ Idol logo. Hopefully it’ll be a refuge of wit in (what will soon become) a sea of illiterate hysteria.

Not many

Today I heard on Mai FM that Scribe’s debut album “The Crusader” has gone double platinum. In New Zealand this means sales of over 30,000.

Victoria Beckham was dropped by Virgin records after her debut album sold less than 50,000 copies. Her new single will be a double A-side with one pop and one hip-hop song. Er, perhaps she needs to get Scribe working with her?

I was delighted to read that Ms Paris Hilton has been having much naughty hotel room fun with Mr Robert “Millsy” Mills, one of the “Australian Idol” final ten. They were photographed having a pash on a hotel balcony, after blearily emerging one afternoon.

This is what has been missing from “Australian Idol”. One of the best things about “Idol” shows is the sudden fame that the contestants get. Gareth Gates, second place getter in the first British “Pop Idol” famously lost his virginity to large-bosomed glamour model Jordan when she was four month’s pregnant.

“Australian Idol” finalists Shannon and Guy are nice, but don’t seem to be getting up to any mischief, so I’m glad that Millsy’s done the right thing.

Oh, and I so love Paris Hilton. She is the living proof that you can never be too rich or too thin, or even too blonde or too sluttily dressed. She is a globe trotting party girl and I love her extravagance. I hope Millsy wasn’t a dud root.

P.S. I saw “Matrix Revolutions” today. The previous film “Matrix Reloaded” raised a whole lot of interesting questions and possibilities, but “Revolutions” didn’t seem to answer or explore many of them. It seemed like a hastily concocted conclusion, that had a few parts that felt like reruns from “The Matrix”. When the film concluded, I was almost expecting a bunch of Ewoks to appear and break into celebratory song and dance. I was disappointed because it could have easily been a much better film. And it so was not worth $14.