11 Things You Might Not Know About Now That's What I Call Music!

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Whether it was a late-night television commercial or a Walmart display, chances are you've come across Now That's What I Call Music! These greatest-hits compilation CDs debuted in the U.S. in 1998 and feature track lists made up of the hottest singles in music. And while the 69th installment was released earlier this year, the brand is actually much older across the pond. For a closer look at this best-of series—including why a pig was involved in its creation—check out our liner notes.

  1. Now That's What I Call Music! was created in the UK.

The back cover of the first Now That's What I Call Music! album, which included a picture of the vintage poster that inspired its name.

The back cover of the first Now That's What I Call Music! album, which included a picture of the vintage poster that inspired its name.

Bradford Timeline, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Now That's What I Call Music! didn't originate in the United States. The brand actually dates back to 1983, when UK record labels Virgin Records and EMI teamed up to create a compilation of popular acts under contract, like Phil Collins, Tina Turner, and UB40. The idea was that the bigger names would draw attention to lesser-known artists included.

  1. The name Now That's What I Call Music was inspired by a poster of a pig.

While executives at Virgin were brainstorming possible titles for the release, they took note of a poster for Danish bacon that Virgin founder Richard Branson had bought from a general store as a novelty. The poster featured a singing chicken and a pig who was apparently happy with what he was hearing. Above the pig, a caption read: "Now. That's what I call music." That's what Virgin decided to call the record.

  1. Each Now That's What I Call Music! album is meant to be a time capsule.

The first Now That's What I Call Music! album, which was released in November 1983.

The first Now That's What I Call Music! album, which was released in November 1983.

Bradford Timeline, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The first UK installment of Now That's What I Call Music! sold 900,000 copies and was a huge success. From that point on, three albums were released annually, and the selection process has largely remained the same. Jeff Moskow, who oversees the tracks for the U.S. edition, told TIME in 2014 that the brand's priority is to provide a snapshot of popular music in a given era. Moskow looks at radio play, album sales, and streaming figures as well as social media followings to determine what's relevant in the culture. "You're supposed to be able to grab Now 4 or Now 25 or Now 50 and appreciate the music of that particular moment," he said. "Now is meant to give you that picture."

  1. No one was sure Now That's What I Call Music! would work in the U.S.

Now spent 15 years in the UK before Sony and Universal, which jointly produce the albums, decided to bring it to the United States in 1998. At that time, U.S. retail outlets didn't necessarily have shelf space devoted to compilation CDs—plus, different record labels rarely worked together. Producers had to convince them that including popular songs wouldn't cannibalize an artist's own album sales—instead, it would likely have the opposite effect, bringing new listeners to acts they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

  1. Not all artists are interested in participating in Now That's What I Call Music!.

In order for a track to appear on a Now release, record labels and artists need to give their consent. Speaking with Thrillist in 2017, Moskow said that younger artists tend to be more enthusiastic about getting their music out to a wider audience, while more accomplished artists who have perhaps been around a little longer are more "pensive" and reluctant to offer permission. Bruce Springsteen is one example of an artist who has yet to say yes to Now.

  1. There's no cursing allowed on Now CD tracks.

When a track has been selected, producers are careful to obtain the radio edits, which typically have any expletives present on the album version removed. The reason is the target audience of Now can skew heavily toward adolescents. The compilations are often played in cars for kids to sing along to, and cursing might invite the wrath of parents.

  1. There's a reason no artists appear on Now That's What I Call Music! covers.

Now That's What I Call Music! 5, which was released in the U.K. in August 1985.
Now That's What I Call Music! 5, which was released in the U.K. in August 1985.
Bradford Timeline, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The first Now release in the UK featured a collage of some included musicians (Phil Collins's likeness was on there twice—both as a solo artist and as a member of Genesis), and the next three also had promo shots of artists like David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Culture Club, Queen, and Lionel Richie. But starting with the fifth installment, which only showed the early-days mascot pig, subsequent releases have almost always featured a graphic instead of any artist photographs. That's because it's already a challenge to secure permission to license songs: Any last-minute problems with getting approval for a photo would only complicate the process and could conceivably delay the album's release.

  1. Some songs aren't the right fit for Now compilations.

Now tracks are typically divided into three categories: current hits, recent hits, and songs that might be hits in the near future. For the most part, all of the selections are generally upbeat. When Moskow pursued the politically charged Grammy winner "This Is America" by Childish Gambino, both he and the record label agreed that it was ultimately too potent and serious for the collection.

  1. There's a lot of thought put into the track order.

The jewel case for the U.S. version of Now That's What I Call Music! 4, which was released in July 2000.
The jewel case for the U.S. version of Now That's What I Call Music! 4, which was released in July 2000.
Christo Drummkopf, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Curating a Now release is more than just selecting a bunch of songs. Moskow spends a significant amount of time putting the chosen songs in a precise order. Faster and more upbeat tracks typically start the albums, with slower ballads in the middle. If a country song is included, it's usually on the back end (such as Jason Aldean's "You Make It Easy" as track 16 of 17 on 2018's Now 66. Now also tends to minimize any pauses between songs so it feels like a continuous stream of music. Most songs begin on what would have been the next beat of the one that just ended.

"Anyone who's ever made a mix tape or really worked on a playlist knows what that art is," Moskow told TIME. "It's trying to make the music make sense, taking a bunch of different types of music and a bunch of artists and putting it in an order, a sonic tapestry, that makes sense for the listener."

  1. Now is still selling strong thanks to cars.

In an era of streaming music, it's hard to imagine people reaching for physical media. Yet Now continues to sell CDs on both sides of the pond, and there's a good reason why. Many cars are still equipped with CD players, making a Now disc an appealing option as a driving soundtrack. A physical disc is also an impulse purchase and easy to grab when a person is in need of a quick gift.

  1. Now That's What I Call Music! once thought of doing away with the numbers.

With Now celebrating more than 100 installments in the UK (Now 102, which features two recent hits by Ariana Grande, comes out in April 2019) and 69 in the U.S., it seems unthinkable that the brand would have ever wanted to move away from the numbering system. But early on, there was concern labeling a record "21" or "40" might lead consumers to believe it was something outdated. The numbers actually became an asset, and people now identify their first Now purchase with a number. To date, the series' most impressive figure is 250 million, the total number of albums sold worldwide since its launch in 1983. In the U.S., Now has sold more than 100 million copies. Not bad for a bunch of mixtapes.

If You’ve Always Wanted to Learn to Play the Guitar or Ukulele, Fender Is Offering Free Online Lessons

"Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" this man might shout to his entire neighborhood from the balcony of his apartment.
"Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" this man might shout to his entire neighborhood from the balcony of his apartment.
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Self-isolation might be the perfect opportunity for you to finally become the guitar-shredding rock star you’ve always dreamed of being. To help you get there, Fender is offering three months of free online lessons.

People reports that the deal is open to the first 100,000 users who create a new account on Fender Play, the online learning platform available to use on phones, tablets, and computers. You’ll get to choose from lessons for acoustic, electric, or bass guitars—or even the ukulele—but it does depend on what you already have (or are able to buy), since all users must provide their own instruments.

The lessons are organized into bite-sized, high-quality videos featuring instructors who have graduated from world-class music programs at places like Berklee College of Music. Not only will you learn from the best, you’ll also get to practice some of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. If you put in a little time each day, you’ll probably be able to strum an impressive rendition of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” before long (which you can—and should—show off to all your friends during your next video chat).

The three-month deal is a big step up from Fender Play’s customary 14-day free trial for new users, and it might even be enough to convince you to stick with your subscription even after your free lessons are finished; the monthly subscription costs $10, or you can buy a full year for $90 (which will save you $30).

Set up an account and claim your free lessons here.

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[h/t People]

The Stories Behind 6 Classic Stephen Sondheim Songs

Composer Stephen Sondheim speaks at the Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars annual gala hosted by The Dramatists Guild Fund on October 21, 2013 in New York City.
Composer Stephen Sondheim speaks at the Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars annual gala hosted by The Dramatists Guild Fund on October 21, 2013 in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Dramatists Guild Fund

Composer, lyricist, and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930. Celebrate with a look back at a few of the many iconic songs he has written in his career.

1. “Maria” // West Side Story (1957)

Though Sondheim enjoys composing music much more than writing lyrics, he came on board Arthur Laurents’ Romeo and Juliet update to write lyrics for music composed by Leonard Bernstein. The song “Maria” happens when Maria and Tony— sister of the leader of a Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks and a former member of a rival gang called the Jets, respectively—meet at a school dance. There, they exchange a few words, dance, and fall in love.

“The problem here,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “was how to write a love song for two people who have just met. They have exchanged exactly 10 lines, but they have encountered each other in a surreal, dreamlike dance sequence, so that the audience believes that they have an intimate, even mystical, connection. Nevertheless, when the gymnasium set dissolves into the street outside Maria’s house and Tony is back in reality, he has to sing something real.” The only things Tony knows about Maria at this point are her name, and that she’s Puerto Rican—so, says Sondheim, the only thing he could think to make him sing rapturously about was her name.

There was another reason for “Maria,” too: Originally, Tony had been “a blond Polish Catholic, in order to contrast him as much as possible with the Puerto Ricans,” Sondheim writes. “This gave the name ‘Maria’ a religious resonance, which I pushed with the line ‘Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.’” The Polish-Catholic thing was eventually dropped, though, and Sondheim laments that now, the line “makes little sense and merely contributed a kind of overall wetness to the lyric—a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show, but which appealed to my collaborators and which may very well have contributed to the score’s popularity.”

2. “Rose’s Turn” // Gypsy (1959)

Though he was worried that writing lyrics would pigeonhole him as a lyricist, Sondheim picked up his pen again to write the lyrics for the Ethel Merman vehicle Gypsy, with a book by Laurents and music by Jule Styne. Sondheim called the musical, which was loosely based on the memoirs of famous burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Louise) and focusing on her domineering stage mother, Rose, “the show where I came of age—lyrically, at any rate.”

Originally, the scene featuring Rose’s breakdown wasn’t going to be a song at all, but “a surreal ballet, in which Rose would be confronted by all the people in her life,” according to Sondheim. But a week into the rehearsals, choreographer Jerome Robbins said he wouldn’t have time to teach Merman a ballet. So it would have to be a song. Styne had a prior engagement that night, so Sondheim sat down with Robbins to discuss what the number should be. “I suggested to Jerry that since he wanted all the people in the story to collide in a ballet, perhaps if Rose’s breakdown were to be sung rather than danced it could comprise fragments of all the songs associated with her and the people in her life; the songs we’d heard all evening, colliding in an extended surreal medley consisting of fragments of the score.” As Sondheim improvised on the piano, Robbins danced across the stage, “like a stripper, but a clumsy one: like Rose doing a strip,” Sondheim writes. “That was the beginning of three exhilarating hours of musical and choreographic improvisation, as we shaped and constructed the number to be a summary of the score. I even improvised lyrics, something which was anathema to me.”

The next day, Sondheim and Styne filled out the number, then played it for Merman at rehearsal. She was unsure: “It’s sorta more an aria than a song,” she said, but Sondheim was able to assure her that “it was merely a collage of songs that she had either sung or heard during the course of the show. That seemed to calm her.”

During previews, “Rose’s Turn” ended on a much different note. “I had persuaded Jule to end the number on a high, dissonant chord of eerie violin harmonics: a woman having a nervous breakdown would not wind up on a triumphant tonic chord,” Sondheim writes. But when his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, came to see the show, he suggested that the song end in a show-stopping climax. Otherwise, he argued, the audience would be waiting for the curtain call, when they could give Merman the ovation she deserved, instead of listening to the scene that followed the song, in which Rose and Louise reconciled and made the point that all children become their parents. “Gently chastened, I gave up and we affixed a big ending and a tonic chord to the song,” Sondheim writes. “Ethel got an enormous ovation and the audience listened to the last scene in rapt silence. Lesson learned.”

3. “Ladies Who Lunch” // company (1970)

Company’s Joanne—a cynical older woman who is friends with the show’s main character, Robert—was based on the legendary Elaine Stritch, “or at least on her acerbic delivery of self-assessment,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat.

The song “Ladies Who Lunch” marked the third time (after Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) that the lyricist/composer had to write music and lyrics for a specific personality playing a character. “The song fit her perfectly, the only problem occurring when, in all innocence, she asked me what kind of pastry ‘a piece of Mahler’s’ referred to.” Stritch would later recount how she thought Mahler’s was “a pastry shop on Broadway ... The ladies had lunch, they went to see a matinee, they saw a Pinter play, and then afterwards, they went around the corner and had a cup of tea and a piece of Mahler’s. Made perfect sense to me. When I brought it up to Stephen Sondheim, he said, ‘Elaine, I have to go to the bathroom.’” (Gustav Mahler was a Jewish composer.)

Sondheim had hoped that the number would be a showstopper, and the audience would actually stand up when Stritch said “Rise!” over and over and give the performer a standing ovation. “It was a showstopper, but not quite that big,” he wrote. “My hope was probably a holdover from my Hollywood fantasies in which one opening night's black-tied men and bejeweled women stood up at anything—much as they do nowadays, where standing ovations are a forgone conclusion, it being necessary for audiences to remind themselves that they’ve had a live experience by participating in it.”

4. “Send In The Clowns” // A Little Night Music (1973)

A Little Night Music, with lyrics and music by Sondheim, was based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. The song that appeared in this second act scene was supposed to belong to the male lead, Fredrick, a middle-aged lawyer in an unconsummated marriage with a much younger woman. He is tempted to reignite an affair with Desiree, an older actress, “since the action is his, the passive reaction being Desiree’s, and I started to write one,” Sondheim writes. But Desiree had only two songs in the first act, neither a solo, so director Hal Prince suggested that the scene might be the ideal place to give Desiree a solo, and that “he had directed it so that the thrust of the action came from her rather than from Fredrik. I went skeptically to see a rehearsal, and he had indeed accomplished what he had promised.”

Desiree was played by Glynis Johns, whose voice, Sondheim wrote, was “small but silvery, musically and smokily pure,” and whose biggest limitation was her inability to hold a note. “The solution was to write short breathy phrases for her, which suggested to me that they should be questions rather than statements,” Sondheim writes. “Once I’d reached that conclusion, the song wrote effortlessly … The song sat so well in Glynis’s voice that at the recording session, even though she’d been in a recording studio only once before (for the Disney movie of Mary Poppins), she did it perfectly in one take.”

“Send in the Clowns” was a huge hit for the composer/lyricist. “Why so many fine (and not so fine) singers have recorded ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a mystery to me,” he writes. “For two years after A Little Night Music opened, the only even faintly known vocalist who took an interest in it was Bobby Short, a singer and piano player who performed it in nightclubs, where it made no impression on even that tiny and dwindling audience. Then Judy Collins recorded it in England, where it incomprehensibly became a hit, after which Frank Sinatra’s recording made it an even bigger one, and soon enough virtually everybody in the pop field climbed on the bandwagon. … It even won a Grammy Award as Song of the Year in 1975, amid rock and pop contenders—a song from a musical, no less. (It’s the last one that did.)”

5. “On The Steps Of The Palace” // Into The Woods (1986)

After his first collaboration with book-writer James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim suggested that they “write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well.” Lapine combined all of the classic Grimm fairy tale characters and added a Baker and his Wife, who are unable to conceive, thanks to a curse put on his family by a Witch.

The story, of course, included Cinderella. “The story of Cinderella has always struck me as the most incomprehensible of all the moral fables known as fairy tales,” Sondheim writes in Look, I Made a Hat. “Here is a plain, depressed slave of a girl, beaten and maltreated by her [stepfamily who] … suddenly finds herself magically transformed into a radiant, opulently dressed beauty, sought after by the Prince of the Kingdom, who three times flees the palace where she is the belle of the ball to return to the hole in a corner of the house where she is a virtual prisoner. And she can’t decide which place to choose?”

Lapine came up with a twist that makes sense: The accident of leaving her slipper behind isn’t an accident at all; Cinderella chooses to leave it there. “She knows she’s an imposter and doesn’t want willingly to mislead the Prince (and the world),” Sondheim writes. “She figures that if the Prince really cares to see her again, he’ll follow the clue she has left.” Cinderella’s big song in Into the Woods, “On the Steps of the Palace,” shows the future princess coming to the decision to leave her shoe behind. Writes Sondheim, “No one, as far as I know, has ever made this observation, and if there were no other reason to write this book, the opportunity for me to point out James’s insight would be justification enough.”

6. “How I Saved Roosevelt” // Assassins (1990)

This musical—with a book by John Weidman, and based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.—featured all of the 13 people who have tried (or succeeded) to kill American Presidents. “How I Saved Roosevelt” is about a 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt, which occurred in Miami; instead of hitting the President-elect, unemployed brick layer Giuseppe Zangara, who fired six rounds, hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who later died from his wounds.

Sondheim painstakingly researched to write the song. “There were in fact five bystanders who claimed to take the actions described in the song, although no one deflected Zangara by pushing his arm in the air,” Sondheim writes. “He had the misfortune to be only five feet tall and had arrived too late at the arena to get a seat close to the front. Roosevelt’s speech was unusually brief, and, as he started to sit down, Zangara was hastening to shoot when the entire audience rose to its feet in applause and blocked his view, forcing him to stand on his seat, which wobbled just enough to ruin his aim. Thus Roosevelt was indeed saved.”

There was also a song about the time Teddy Roosevelt was shot, but it was cut. “The bullet would have pierced Roosevelt’s heart were it not for the steel eyeglass case and the fifty-page speech lodged in the breast pocket of his jacket,” Sondheim writes. “So one Roosevelt was saved by being long-winded and the other by being terse, a ripe opportunity for a song if I ever heard one.”

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