Show Us Your Hits!

Middlebrow Britney, now available in brunette! Vanessa Carlton
Kurt Iswarienko

What I learned on my summer vacation:

  1. All Clear Channel stations are not exactly the same. Some start with K and some start with W.
  2. Ashanti is apparently the Swahili word for "anonymous backup singer."
  3. "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got"--Sheryl Crow, "Soak Up the Sun." (Next week, Sheryl discovers that honky-tonk women really do give her the honky-tonk blues.)
  4. No enterprising young gent ever went broke by encouraging the nearest obliging young lady to hoist her halter top skyward for the viewers at home.

Okay, so you don't have to spend the greater part of a week in your dad's house surfing late-night cable's sea of pixilated breasts in search of Robot Wars to learn that the United States is rapidly becoming the world's largest open-air titty bar, one foam dance at a time. And you don't have to spend the following weekend chauffeuring friends around North Jersey in a rented Ford Escort with no CD or tape player to learn that Nelly's "Hot in Herre" is Topless America's new national anthem. But such immersion does make one thing clear: Pop music has never aligned itself so deliberately against clothing. Come home, Jim Walsh. All is forgiven.

For those of you just tuning in, the top-doffing went into effect this spring with Tweet's autoerotic "Oops! (Oh My)": a sort of Orientalist "She Bop" on Klonopin in which one girl's clothing mysteriously floats away from her bod. Still, one shouldn't underestimate the flesh-peddling contributions of Shakira's impeccable "Underneath Your Clothes," which implies that regular attendance at Mass entitles you to feel up the son of Argentina's deposed president and to rip off a Bangles melody. (She's right on both counts.)

But the anti-clothing lobby has met its dream spokesman in Nelly. I'm receptive to cavils that teenage girls don't need to be subjected to what's essentially a more rhythmic variant of "Show your tits." But personally, I find Nelly's tone cajoling rather than commanding, and I hope his playground skitter inspires many games of strip double dutch. (Imagine the possibilities!) Nonetheless, I'm bitter. After all, a decade ago, in my desperate, much-unlaid, barhopping prime, women were chanting, "Never gonna get it" along with En Vogue. Now they're cooing, "It's getting so hot, I wanna take my clothes off" even before you shell out for the Jell-O shots. What gives?

The pleasure of "Hot in Herre" comes from hearing R&B consciously dance on the razor's edge of self-parody, a trick no one has pulled off so deftly since you reminded R. Kelly of his car. Of course, R. has now been busted for his own private Girls Gone Wild tapes. One problem with his "Heaven, I Need a Hug" is that the lyrics offer up self-justification on a scale that Michael Jackson would find grandiose. The other problem is that it's called "Heaven, I Need a Hug." And yet Kelly sings it so gently, you want to organize a posse to egg the house of Jim DeRogatis, who turned America's Least Funny Home Video over to the cops. Unless, um, you know, you just watched a video of Kelly pissing on your teenage daughter. Still, I say if the scuz shows up in court with "Hug Life" tattooed across his chest, the court will merely sentence him to cover Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off."


It's a strange pop world, as always, and does Eminem's "Without Me" make any contribution to this discussion? Bah. Not only does Em offer to show little more than his ass, he shirks his appointed role as pop's Jay Leno--you know, making second-hand jokes about pop culture so you don't have to consume it yourself. But while "Without Me" is a fun little romp, its targets are scattershot. I mean, if, as Eminem whines, nobody listens to techno, how come I can't escape Dirty Vegas or "Heaven," DJ Sammy's chintz-house Bryan Adams cover. (Yeah, yeah, it's Eurodisco, not techno, and I'm sure that distinction is carefully delineated in, say, suburban Wichita, not to mention in the mind of M. Mathers.)

But really, who is Em gonna lash out at in the bland popscape? John Mayer? Dude's "No Such Thing" sounds so much like Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking," I wondered if Pretty Woman 2 went straight to video while I wasn't looking. Granted, I might think "there's no such thing as a real world" if I were touring with Norah Jones (rrrraow!!) and bedding Jennifer "I'm With the Band" Love Hewitt, now continuing her quest to prove that every generation gets the Winona Ryder it deserves. (Run, Justin! You could be next!) Incidentally, J-Love can now be seen on MTV in her new video, "BareNaked." And, no, of course, she isn't.

Meanwhile, for emo kids who are feeling rebellious and embarrassed that their parents still listen to Elvis Costello, radio offers up what I call Soundtrack Rock. You know, the sort of post-Blink pop-punk bounce so tuneful, disposable, and insistent that, as it fades out, you expect to see Tara Reid packing up stuffed animals and exclaiming, "Can you believe we're finally graduating from college?" The best-selling exemplar, Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle," offers more uplift than a whalebone corset. If lyrics like "Try your best, try everything you can," don't power you through midterms, there's always "Live right now/Just be yourself/It doesn't matter if it's good enough/For someone else." Um, when did yearbook quotes start being used as song lyrics rather than vice versa? Cool kids think Jimmy Eat World have snatched the Promise Ring, but the rest of us know they're just Eve 6 with sideburns.

And though the video for "The Middle" shows more skin than an hour of BET (very au courant, boys), some insist their "mature lyrics" (do I have to start quoting again?) make them a post-teen's socially responsible Blink-182. Nah, I say it just makes the Jimmies the Vanessa Carlton of modern rock. This latest version of Middlebrow Britney™ comes complete with brown hair (proves she's smart--don't you guys watch any TV?) and "I've been practicing so hard!" piano runs. (National Geographic-sounding string bombardment and MTV Beach House sold separately!) Actually, I'm of two minds about Nessie's "A Thousand Miles." On the pro side, that's four minutes I won't have to hear Michelle Branch. Con: That's four minutes I won't get to hear Avril Levigne.

Ah, Avril! "Take off all your preppy clothes," the 17-year-old Canuck commands her stuffy boyfriend on "Complicated." No, she isn't pulling a reverse Nelly. Gross! She's saying that boys should not go and act one way when you're alone with them and then totally act another way when their stupid friends are around. And she's right! I mean, that's so lame! Avril delivers "pose" in perfect Alanisese, her chorus is literally meaningless when followed word by word, and she fights in bars she's not even old enough to enter. But what makes "Complicated" such a great rant against phonies is that, as the video reveals, it's really just about breaking stuff at the mall. Not quite stopping the war or suing Ticketmaster, true, but hella more rebellious than calling out Chris Kirkpatrick or tossing your hair back so that the 40-year-old with the camcorder can get a clear nipple shot. God bless Canada!

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