Now That's What I Call History!

Now That's What I Call Music! has turned 30 - why has it remained so popular and what does it say about the UK?

Some important events of 1983:  Seatbelts become mandatory in the UK; The Soviet nuclear false alarm incident that nearly leads to mutually assured destruction; Maggie Thatcher gets re-elected in a landslide, which legitimizes her mandate for neoliberalism; and most importantly, the release of Now That’s What I Call Music! Volume 1.

The release of Now… was a landmark in compilation album construction as it was a collection of original contemporary pop music that was in the charts, as opposed to an ensemble of pop songs that were simply covers versions.  The series has turned 30 this week and perhaps it is time to reflect on how the series has remained relevant for three decades…

The 1980s was an era of high postmodernism – in that media products were becoming self-reflective, everyone was obsessing about identity and image, money was becoming the motivation for art and artists were beginning to use the process of bricolage and intertextuality.  Everything was becoming an influence for everything else, and the Now album was a perfect manifestation of this shift.  It is no surprise to look back at the album art for Now 1 and see a picture for every artist next to the song information – and all of them have ‘a look’.

The albums share a delicate position in pop culture as they insight derision on release yet gain perpetual kitsch value as they age.  Hipsters and vinyl nerds may hate Now 86 with its inclusion of OneRepublic, Bruno Mars and Eliza Doolittle, but would undoubtedly get excited if presented with dusty copies of Now 1 that includes Mike Oldfield, The Human League, The Cure and Heaven 17.

The albums have always been a huge commercial success, none more than Now 44, which sold 2.3 million copies (which features an awesome tracklisting by the way – including 2 Geri Halliwell solo numbers).  The biggest achievement of the collection however is to constantly redefine the boundaries of what ‘pop music’ is.  No one is denying the pop sensibilities of Wee Papa Girl Rappers (Now 13) or Nik Kershaw (Now 4) but there are also some classics for the vinyl diggers, as well as some fairly loosely defined pop songs on recent albums – Reload by Wiley and Eat Sleep Rave Repeat (Calvin Harris remix) by Fatboy Slim & Riva Starr for example; popular but hardly ‘pop’.

The term “pop music” is usually used as a derogatory term to refer to ‘commercial’ music designed and controlled by shady record label executives to appease the masses – music for people who don’t like music.  What the Now series has done is to redefine “pop” to mean both ‘of the moment’ and ‘future nostalgia trigger’.  Obviously any piece of music could mean something to an individual, but the music collected on these albums are/were so saturated across all of the mainstream media channels (music TV channels, radio, advertising) that they immediately become associated with a season for a whole generation of media consumers.  They are the closest we can all get to having a communal OST…

The final beauty of the Now volumes is the attempt that is made to craft the tracklist that that creates a narrative across the double album.  The tracks aren’t alphabetical or chronological, or even aligned by genre; instead they are positioned to reflect a snapshot of the zeitgeist that tells a musical story of the period.  For example, Now 83 begins with Gangnam Style by Psy, a comedy song that went viral online, and ends with One Day Like This by Elbow, the unofficial anthem of the London Olympics.  This is one simple example of many whereby decisions made outside of the music industry have dictated which outliers must be included within the series.

One day in the future, the news will arrive that the Now series is being laid to rest, and when that happens I hope some serious musicologists use the volumes as a cultural time capsule to submit to analysis.  If I had the resources I would love to undertake some quantitative analysis to discover which songs were commercial successes and which were included as indicators of a wider cultural phenomenon.  They may tell us more about our collective psyche than we care to imagine.


(Just to clarify, I haven’t been paid by Now! and think most of the music on the albums is pap… I just love what they stand for!)

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