When I was in elementary school, I always chose to dress up as a writer for career day — mostly just because wanting to be Baby Spice didn’t actually qualify as a career.
Blonde, smokin’ and almost virginal in comparison to the other four, the marginally talented Spice Girl was the epitome of '90s cool in my eyes. Because of my age, gender and parental control, Trent Reznor, Kurt Cobain and other, more qualified idols did not even register on the Richter scale of my unyielding devotion.
They did not have dolls — or Union Jack go-go boots, for that matter. I had standards.
Thinking back even now, I can feel the nostalgia seeping in, cutting off the supply to my good judgment and clouding my senses with flashbacks to that part of “Spice World” where the girls inexplicably make contact with extraterrestrials. As I write this, I still have no idea why Sporty Spice was in the band. She kind of sucked. Come to think of it, none of the girls is even named after legitimate spices, with the one doubtful exception of Ginger. I have never put “Scary” on my chili. Simon & Garfunkel did not call that album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Posh.”
Maybe this is why I actually enjoy the first discs in the “Now! That’s What I Call Music” series. I don’t mean ironically: As a self-imposed way to examine the relevance of the series (read: as a self dare), I have listened to nothing but “Now! Vol. 1” for the past two weeks, and I’ve been skeptically surprised by how bearable that examination has been.
I chose that period of time because I assumed it was the largest amount of time a human could realistically be expected to survive under those circumstances, but I could go at least a few more days. A large portion of that 14 days was spent on a road trip, which meant going out of my way to listen to the album in its entirety at least twice a day. It also meant subjecting others to it. Although people in my presence could choose to listen to whatever post-Millennium jams they so chose (and I couldn’t force passing cars to listen to Hanson), I, for all intents and purposes, was firmly immersed in the year 1998.
And, dear god, was it tacky. But I mean this in the most simultaneously critical and respectful way possible. The series, despite its bewildering name (Now! That’s What I Call Lame), is currently on its 34th American album in way fewer than 34 years. There’s probably a 35th in production as I sit here listening to Everclear.
The series got a head start in Europe, where it is now(!) up to an almost unfeasible 75 volumes. The company sells the idea that it has its finger on the country’s musical pulse, and it has expanded to include side projects, such as “Now That's What I Call the USA,” “Now Esto Es Musica! Latino,” “Now That's What I Call Faith” and my personal favorite, “Now That's What I Call A Country Christmas.” That pulse has definitely been stronger in some years than others, but in 1998, it was ticking like a Tamagotchi.
The mind-numbing first American volume is as blasphemous as it is addictive. Although the album includes several one-hit blunders (K-Ci & JoJo, anyone?), its most cruel and unusual act was committed by whatever poorly adjusted, underpaid soul was in charge of the track listing.
For some weird reason, Radiohead consented to including “Karma Police” on the album, and for some even weirder reason, that track is surrounded on both sides by Aqua (“Barbie Girl,” may god smite them), and Lenny Kravitz (“Fly Away”). A track from the same album (”OK Computer”) that included lyrics, such as “We hope you choke” is now side-by-chorus with “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party!”
Irony did not escape the “Now!” series.
Disclaimers aside, the album was everything I wanted and expected from a '90s compilation that I knew included “Mmmbop.” I was looking to store up enough nostalgia for my youth to see me through the winter, and the Backstreet Boys and Janet Jackson had my back. They don’t care who I am, where I’m from or what I did — as long as I love them. And with the exception of a few misintentioned R&B tracks, I probably did love all of these songs when I was 9. I still love a few of them now. As long as you don’t take yourself, or your '90s chart hits, too seriously, it’s nice to look back to the not-so-distant future with a smile and a few ingrained dance moves. If I remember correctly, my Furby particularly liked Spice Girls.
But with this comes another disclaimer: I would never, under any circumstance, aside from possible tickle torture, use the “Now!” series as a serious indication of popular culture. There are only certain years (volumes one through eight) that I would even consider listening to, and in those cases, I would only use the discs as a musical time capsule. (H.G. Wells totally missed the boat on that one.)
Once you hit 2005, the songs make you less wistful and more uncomfortable, but only because there is a minimum of a 10-year safety period necessary to create nostalgia. If I wanted to listen to Ke$ha (I don’t), I would not need “Now! 34” to do so. I could simply turn on the radio. When it comes to the present and recent past, the token value of “Now” is replaced with a reminder that the series was originally conceived as a means for Virgin Records to sell more albums.
“Now!” is a standout example of instant gratification in consumer culture (Buy one album instead of 15), but it is also an icon, however cheesy. In the past 14 days, I have been embarrassed, proud and puzzled by the songs the series chose to represent my formative years, but I rarely disagreed with a song’s inclusion. “Mmmbop” makes me cringe today, but I firmly remember watching the falsetto threesome on VH1’s “Pop-Up Video.” It all depends on how much you liked the '90s — and how comfortable you are with admitting it. There is nothing wrong with maintaining a favorite Spice Girl or even with secretly remembering the choreography to BackStreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me."
Now, that’s what I call nostalgia.
Kelsey Whipple is the deputy editor of Vox. In the 1990s, along with listening to Spice Girls, she also had a grey Furby, until it went rogue and would not stop humming. It is likely still inside the towel closet where she shoved it.