The ‘Greys’ – those spindly, abducting, UFO-piloting scamps – were the iconic early 90s monster. They’d bounced around pop culture through the Cold War but enjoyed a final, late heyday when that conflict ended, bringing a whole bestiary with them – the hypnotic MIBs included. Indeed, they made sense as a Cold War epilogue – a goodbye to the age of spies and spymasters and dreadful international secrets, a way for its tropes (conspiracies, disappearances, and brainwashing) to seem romantic and exciting again one last time.
Except it was hard to build an awful lot of excitement around them – looking at X-Files fans from the outside (I never believed), their story was one of slow-burn disappointment. All you can do with a mystery is solve it or extend it. Say there’s a spaceship crashed in the desert – then what? Reveal too many secrets and your story becomes something else entirely – reveal too few and people drift away. Men In Black takes a cathartic approach – it’s all true, now let’s have fun with it.
If I didn’t know what Men In Black was about, this whole single is helpfully devoted to explaining its premise to me. It was sometimes said of the crooners that they could sing the phone directory and it would sound good – and here’s Will Smith rapping a press release while his backing vocalists coo about “galaxy defenders”. It’s the kind of deadpan nonsense Wikipedia would sniff at for being written in an “in-universe” style, and it makes for a strange Number One – you have to go back to things like “The Man From Laramie” to find records with such a subservient relationship to the film they’re selling. The song barely pretends to have a life independent of the movie – its breakdown (the “bounce with me” part) is pure time-wasting on record, and the best gag of the video.
But, like those telephone directories, it still sounds pretty good. Obviously, a great deal of that is down to Patrice Rushen, whose “Forget-Me-Nots” shows up on a Number One for the second time in 18 months. The justification is the film’s gimmick – the Men In Black hypnotise witnesses into forgetting them – and below that surface there’s none of “Fastlove”’s thematic kick, purely a nudge to the ribs: remember that old song? Pretty good, huh? Well yes, it was.
It’s not just Rushen, though. The on-the-nose nature of “Men In Black” is obviously down to having your star make your lead single, but there are advantages to that. Smith’s friendly, straightforward style of MCing isn’t at all flashy but it’s well suited to exposition. “In-universe” it may be but he’s committed to this stuff, at least as much as he was committed to shaking the room. If you imagine the song’s main audience is 10 year olds who thought the film was awesome, this is a fine souvenir. Faint praise? Certainly – and 1997 is a year with more than its share of blatant advertorial at Number One. “Men In Black” does enough to make its sales pitch entertaining, even if it doesn’t go any further.