Party Mixes for Shut-Ins

Navigating the poposphere now, totally.

So Jay-Z is calling it quits. Since you’ll never love him as much as you did Biggie or Pac or your grandma or Barney the Dinosaur, the game’s reigning MC’s gonna take his ball team and go home. Thing is, Jay has so perfected the art of being taken for granted, we may never realize we miss him. The same relentless nonchalance that’s allowed him to be upstaged by everything from Beyonc駳 ecstatic Catherine-of-Siena-as-Pussycat-Doll routine in the “Crazy in Love” video to his Che Guevara sweatshirt on MTV Unplugged has made the man’s threat of retirement seem more significant than his own potential disappearance.

Well, fuck an MC, ’cause if Jigga splits, we’re losing the game’s reigning emcee, in the old vaudeville sense. Shawn Carter should have his own TV variety show, like Milton Berle or Tony Orlando, complete with kiddie acts, juggling dogs, and bad comedy skits. Flitting from one guest spot to the next, he’s the social glue that binds pop’s imagined community, as demonstrated by a quick scan of whichever edition of Now That’s What I Call Music you slap in your player. Sony’s best-selling series of hits compilations, now up to volume 14, presents a bustling poposphere where repeated cameos make it feel like you’re bopping from one party to the next, running into the same friends at each. Good to see you again, Missy. Justin, glad you could make it. Dudewho invited Busta?

“A BEST-SELLING hits compilation?” I hear the gasps of amazement. “But the fact that file-sharing is gutting the music industry has been as indubitably proven as Saddam Hussein’s role in the WTC attacks.” I’m sorry, Ms. Rosen, I am for realthis year alone consumers have shelled out eagerly for Now 12-14, as well as slightly more specialized comps like BMG’s Totally Hip Hop and Totally R&B, proving people aren’t averse to buying the cow no matter how much milk they can download for free. Even though these hits no longer feel like commodities, but simply facts of existence, folks still insist on buying collections of songs they already know. Which makes you wonder, um, why?

Well, to quote Annie Lennox and Nas, everybody’s looking for something. Or, to quote plastic, PAX-ready soul-searcher Stacie Orrico (I don’t care how she spells her name, I just know her mom’s the one who’s got it going on), there’s got to be more to life than chasing down every temporary high. And yet what, to quote Faith No More, is it? Nostalgia? (See the Beatles’ 1 and Let It Be . . . Naked.) Love? Fittingly, Now 14 begins with a horn flourish and the voice of Jay-Z introducing his girl, thus kicking off a triptych, a meditation of that all-important subject: “Crazy in Love,” “Where Is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas (so named because they hatched from Body Snatcher pods), and Mya’s “My Love Is Like . . . Woah.” The latter’s answer to the Peas’ rhetorical mushstart at her navel and follow the pleasure trailsets up a near-perfect delineation of pop’s poles in 2003, from sermonizing to seduction. The Peas fall back on hippie pieties like “When you hate/Then you’re bound to get irate,” and it makes me want to hand out cigarettes to fourth-graders. Mya submits, “My main goal is to please you,” but she doesn’t sound submissive, just like she’s acknowledging pop’s current ground rules.

IF LOVE HAD ONCE been a many splendored thing, in 2003 it was stripped down to exactly one splendor: that of a hot young thing grinding away in the Champagne Room. Sure there was plenty of slow-jam loverman fibbery, but most was in the single-entendre spirit of Ginuwine’s Now 14 contribution, “In These Jeans” (is there room in there for him?), or the sensitive thuggery of Fabolous (“This Is My Party,” from Totally Hip Hop) or the as-yet-uncompiled 50 Cent. (Meanwhile, everyone was so obsessed with proving that Eminem would racially hijack hip-hop, they barely even noticed that Justin was the real 21st-century Elvis. He’s also the biggest slut of the year’s hits comps, appearing on Now 12 through 14 and Totally Hip Hopthough not Totally R&B. Ho-kay.) The flung genitalia and acrobatic sexuality of Chingy’s “Right Thurr” (Now 14) was just the thing for those who found Nelly too subtle, and R. Kelly’s “Thoia Thoing” (Now 14) sealed the dealall the world’s indeed a strip club, and we are merely playas.

In this context, Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh Ooh Uh Ooh)” (Now 14) provided a blast ofwell, not innocence, let’s not be prissy about this. (Odd that hip-hop had to travel all the way to Jamaica to remember how to skip rope, and along the way discovered the Caribbean shortcut to India that eluded Columbus.) But let’s just say those AutoTune-be-damned girls stake out some middle ground between Mya and the don’t-ask-don’t-tell flirtatiousness of a Hilary Duff (how exactly did Hil wind up with the jeans she vows not to return to her ex on “So Yesterday,” anyway?).

And yet, oversexed as it was, Pop 2003 wanted something more from a night out than an opportunity to arrange that evening’s orgasm. “In Da Club” is about actually wanting to be in da club, Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” is about loving this bar, and on “Ignition Remix,” R. Kelly not only doesn’t want to leave the party or the after-party, but he hangs out in the hotel lobby until the management kicks him upstairs. Compilations, of course, aren’t for such club rats, they’re for stay-at-homes who’d rather idealize a social scene than put up with the long lines and spilled Cristal. Like all dance music, today’s R&B and hip-hop hits demand that we recognize our bodiesyou can’t register an opinion on these songs until you’ve moved, swayed, somehow responded physically to a record. But when all these songs are gathered together, they create a representation of a disembodied fantasy world, a place where we can enjoy the pleasures of belonging to a community without making the sacrifices real participation would entail.

IT’S HARD TO ENJOY pop music in a vacuum; the shallowest set of tunes offers some social ideal. Sure, Now 12-14, Totally Hip Hop, and Totally R&B are corporate in the worst sense of the wordthey’re mix CDs made by a total stranger. (The downfall of the Now discs is a sort of reverse affirmative action: They feel constrained to include the year’s biggest “rock” hits, though their compilers have at least learned to stack dead wood like 3 Doors Down’s “When I’m Gone”Now 12or Chevelle’s “Send the Pain Below”Now 13at the end.) But they’re no more impersonal than shopping malls or bookstore chains, and as the reclamation of such business as quasi-public space indicates, sometimes the only way most of us know to register our assent to a social vision is financially. These compilations not only offer a respite from da club but also from pop radio, where morons crank call hapless office workers or badger you into attending the area’s hottest all-ages dance party. They offer the illusion of a consensus, a synthesis without the clash of antithesesjust the thing for a nation where we love the same songs but hate each other.

Having spent the bulk of the year relocating, shifting my possessions between trucks and storage spaces, and wasting away for two unfortunate summer months in the suburbs, I didn’t have the chance to enjoy these songs in their proper context until a recent Christmas party. Here a series of amateur DJs plugged their iPods into the boards and blasted the year’s biggest hits. Finally, I had the chance to publicly shout “To all skee skee motherfuckers” along with Lil Jon, bid good night to actual gentlemen and good morning to real live ladies along with Justin, change clothes and go with Jay-Z and Pharrell and a hundred of my closest friends. And then we shuffled along to “Hey Ya,” in Andre 3000’s illusion: Sideburned hipsters and Astro blacks, all get together across the tracks, and shake it like a Polaroid picture.

Except in truth, we were less diverse than a Howard Dean meet-up, just a bunch of mostly white, mostly young, mostly drunk media professionals. If you didn’t know the woman dancing across from you, then you knew someone she’d slept with or shopped with or had been fired by. We shared a public moment of sorts, but we weren’t “in public,” not really. When the Chi-Lites lick from “Crazy in Love” burst into the room, we all geekily pumped our fists in the air like we’d won, and the rapper who’d soon retire because he felt like hip-hop held no more challenges shouted us on to victoryand that victory (hollow, but that’s fun for you) was that for a few minutes we were also unchallenged. Finally, nothing was at stake.