There’s something strange about the idea of Totally Hits 2, the compilation of recent pop smashes by various names, a follow-up to 1999’s equally incongruous Totally Hits. Nowadays, anthologies like these barely make sense. After all, hit music occupied as much a part of the mythology of the 1980s as big suits and Wall Street and scoreless movie soundtracks; that was when smashes enjoyed the buzz that, say, dotcoms do today. The American pop biz had then grown so monolithic that the elitist ethos concerning hits—an attitude that had ruled so definitively during the 1970s that for a time neither Led Zeppelin nor ABBA seemed able to catch a compliment—could no longer operate with much force. In the ’80s, thanks in no small part to MTV, people in the know finally lost their previous sheepishness about hits; by 1992, when Rhino Records released its Have a Nice Day series of often enormous and creatively distinguished ’70s one-shots, those tracks returned, for the first time, as nonsecrets, as relatives that at last could be let out of the attic.
But also by the mid ’90s, a backlash had set in. The rock cognoscenti in particular, always cranky yet stung especially by the failure of ’80s pets like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements to achieve planet superstardom, had simply had enough of Prince’s genius keyboards and ZZ Top’s sly ideas and Madonna’s oceanic career—not to mention the way they were all interrelated. So grunge, to cite one large example, pulled off the trick of crafting itself silly—it wanted to go bad and worldwide, and it did—yet by acting furiously as though it didn’t care to sell. Hucksterism was for hip-hoppers, who were meantime mounting the widest and deepest stylistic revolution pop music had witnessed since George Martin and the Beatles. But grunge, in retrospect, seems the beginning of a new kind of enforced single-style mania, and with its success, things got narrower but also bigger and more confusing.
In the midst of it all—all this competitive back-and-forth of styles and attitudes, not to mention the cold effects of history, which pop always feels—hits just sort of lost their luster. They drove the business, they were understood as essential to any sentient player within 10 yards of the game, they still often defined moments in the car or at the mall or coming over the sound system in some public place. They were, classically, brilliant or irritating or ho-hum. But hits were no longer sexy; their place in the end-of-the-century world had been won during the ’80s. Now hits were everywhere, thoroughly established and eagerly refining themselves, like chain stores. When you wanted them, they were there; when you didn’t want them, they were there, too.
Of course sometimes epiphanic hits would arrive, reminding you why Cyndi Lauper fans got as excited about them as Dusty Springfield fans once did. On Totally Hits 2, Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love,” or Donnell Jones’s “You Know What’s Up” or Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go”—or even, in a more twisted way, Lonestar’s “Amazed” all touch that level of panache. In the Houston song, American pop’s greatest voice devotes her burnished flow to testifying how no known form of destruction can extinguish her ardor for her guy. In the Jones, a coolly ecstatic soul man slides in and out of chord changes for the sternest r&b gods; and in the Third Eye Blind, singer Stephen Jenkins does a similar thing for pop-rock stalwarts by speeding up spidery guitars. And Lonestar’s “Amazed” is a contemporary Nashville apotheosis wherein the group almost palpably believes that what you do with a crack rewrite of Chris DeBurgh’s “The Lady in Red” is perform it with the passion of George Jones.
But all these records, with the exception of the Houston, do what hits do, most of the time these days, since they’ve become sonic institutions: They work too hard to be themselves and themselves only; there is none of the adventurous looseness that an inspired hit sensibility like Janet Jackson, say, has for years worked hard with Jam-Lewis to keep alive. The definitive example of this is Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” As a catchy electropop boast with a provocative metaphor, the track is as flawless as a Banana Republic store window. It can bore you to tears. Her body, as Aguilera half-raps, may be saying, “Let’s go,” but the music is scrupulously controlled in a way that doesn’t even make a resonant thing of its own limitations, as coproducer David Frank’s early ’80s System music used to. And Aguilera’s singing does nothing to defray this on-ice effect, as Olivia Newton-John’s once did, also in the ’80s. The track sounds like the smartest record producer on Mars delivered it.
Most Totally Hits 2 artists, in fact, seem to be doing everything they can to be utterly and unmissably one thing. Their hero could be Lou Bega, whose “Mambo No. 5” makes nonfans want to sign up for waltz lessons. ‘N Sync, at least, are so clear about stylistic singularity on their I-miss-you ballad “I Drive Myself Crazy” that, as in the best Swedish teenpop, the brutal exile of anything except the stylistic matter at hand partly explains the music’s freshness. But when Sugar Ray’s “Falls Apart” can’t get out of its otherwise satisfying midtempo rock-groove rut, or when Filter’s “Take a Picture” seems similarly stuck in an extremely well-done jangle, you just wish these hits would go somewhere—anywhere—beyond their loved-up conventions. Moby is supposedly a real tweaker, but on Totally Hits 2, his “Natural Blues” just makes him sound like an expert at selling techno to U.S. rock critics. The record that best transcends its own obsessions with form? LFO, who treat image and identity, with their excellent “Girl on TV,” from the point of view of three horny guys who, as they sing, “can’t relax.”
Of course Madonna doesn’t entirely comply with the new smash mentality. Years ago, when hits were quadrupling their place in the pop-cult scheme of things, she was the primary architect of the heat. Working with producer William Orbit, a genius himself whose arty past hardly blinded Madonna to his hit-making capabilities, she is on Totally Hits 2 with “Beautiful Stranger,” her and Orbit’s new old-’60s chill bump from the second Austin Powers movie soundtrack. This track includes a lot—deliberate woodwind bridges, wild guitar riffs, frilly keyboards, no-nonsense dance beats on top of chiming 12-strings—but Madonna, clever as she is, keeps all moves inside a retro-’60s sleeve. It’s a great record that doubles as a hairdo.
Only people emotionally locked into certain historic moments—prom dates, backseat encounters, football victories, jean styles—seriously maintain that the hits of one pop era dwarf in actual quality those of another. In my own case, I prefer hearing a great new hit to a great old one. When Deborah Cox, whose brilliant “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” is the artistic highlight of the first Totally Hits, reroutes gospel into the land of hard-rocking house, that’s by definition freshness of a sort with which no old hit can precisely compete. The point is that, right now—as the pop charts retreat from eccentricity as a result of impatient corporate bosses, mushrooming of viable markets, and the literal-minded ears of radio programmers—hits again have to figure out how to seem free without pursuing several directions. As artists from Cher to Eminem still playfully prove, you can turn a straitjacket into a party.