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Mar 14

WILL SMITH – “Men In Black”

Popular49 comments • 3,616 views

#772, 16th August 1997

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.

5

Comments

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  1. 26
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Bizarrely, Pitbull did the theme tune to the third film. Even more bizarrely, it’s good. “I agree with p^nk” about the quality of the film – I rate Ghostbusters highly as well, but they are different New Yorks.

  2. 27
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Did Will Smith catch any stick for the “Government is the biggest gang” vibe of some of this, from either side? I don’t know that he was welcome in Compton at the best of times, just something that I was wondering.

  3. 28
    MBI on 18 Mar 2014 #

    That Pitbull song is an inconceivable abomination. Awful lyrics, terrible chorus, terrible dubstep breakdown, awful abuse of sample in the exact opposite way Big Will successfully capitalized on his, and a terrible promotional tool for its movie especially. A big steaming pile of NUMBA TWOOOOOOOOOOOO indeed.

  4. 29
    nixon on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #23 Kevin Smith’s ill-conceived “Jersey Girl” actually features that phenomenon – the silent, seemingly sudden transition of Will Smith from “the guy who was in Fresh Prince years ago” to “beloved A-lister” – as a major plot-driving point.

    5 or 6 for me. I agree with Tom’s points about this hitting the exact spot for its intended audience, and also with the comment saying this is actually superior to the record it’s built on – it’s an adaptation of Forget Me Nots rather than a straight cover, and the second number one in quick succession to have successfully identified a great earworm hook in an otherwise slightly dull and meandering song and effectively liberated it. Pop music still gets this stuff right sometimes, even as a quick money film tie in.

  5. 30
    Rory on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Men in Black the movie was enjoyable enough, but I couldn’t relate to why it became such a phenomenon, with sequels and tie-in TV series and all. I wasn’t the target demographic by then, though. Similarly, this song wasn’t really my kind of thing; I preferred “Ghostbusters”, and even that would only have been a 6 for me at the time (I didn’t buy it). But I like the bit at 2:15 in the MIB video where Smith raps “so don’t fear us, cheer us, if you ever get near us, don’t jeer us, we’re fearless” – that’s worth an extra point right there. So, 5.

  6. 31
    thefatgit on 18 Mar 2014 #

    “Tubthumping” might yet be our own “Alabama Song” if anyone was brave enough to cover it.

  7. 32
    Kat but logged out innit on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Films weren’t good or bad, just something you went to the cinema to see. Me and my mates saw pretty much every blockbuster that was playing at the Harrow Warner Village until we were old enough to start getting served in pubs. So I don’t remember thinking MIB was any better or worse than Independence Day or the Fifth Element, I only remember disliking (INCOMING UNAVOIDABLE BUNNY RELATED FILM) because it was so chuffing looooooong and I’d eaten all my popcorn in the first 5 minutes of trailers, but somehow enjoying the hamminess of Tomorrow Never Dies despite (because of?) Teri Hatcher being awful.

  8. 33
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 18 Mar 2014 #

    5th Element >>> MiB >>> Ghostbusters* >>>>>> Independence Day** >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Wild Wild West***

    mooltipass!

  9. 34
    nixon on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Oh bloody hell, Fifth Element… Hard to imagine a Popular-troubling tie in hit, but my everyday conversation is still peppered with Leelooisms and other quotes to this day. (She knows it’s a multipass. SHE KNOWS IT’S A MULTIPASS. Auto wash. Goood chickan. And so on.) So, in short, yes. But what do the asterisks mean?

  10. 35
    Ed on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Will Smith deserves every bit of his fame and fortune, IMO, if only for ‘Summertime’, the greatest pop-rap in the history of pop-rap, and an infallible mood lifter.

    And actually, you can hear all the charm and wit that made him a megastar right there. I incline more to the “meh” view of MiB, but I can see he is integral to its success.

    Imagine that film with, say, Keanu Reeves in the Smith role….

  11. 36
    wichitalineman on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Having never seen MiB, and generally thinking of Will Smith as a good egg capable of making enjoyable super-mainstream hip hop (BStR, Miami, Summertime, Getting Jiggy), this sounds very dull to my ears. Ghostbusters was also product placement but it had a lot more originality, as if it was a genuine advertising jingle for Ghostbusters the company (with a bit of M’s Pop Muzik thrown in for listener/customer familiarity).

    One man’s meandering is another man’s subtlety. Patrice Rushen may reminisce dreamily in the verses of Forget Me Nots, but the crispness of the chorus benefits from her sweet, pleading vocal, the general emptiness of the production, and the breathy backing on the verses (I could live without the sax break, but then I always can).

    Re 31: Bowie covering Tubthumping in his dotage (with another remake/update of Space Oddity on the flip) is a nourishing thought.

  12. 37
    Cumbrian on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Well, I like the breakdown section of this record and don’t regard it as time wasting at all. Other than “here come the Men In Black, Galaxy defenders*” it’s the only bit I could sing along to – all the verses seem to have too many words and kind of trip over themselves – and seems like actual MCing, i.e. telling the crowd what dance moves they should do and all of those moves are do-able by children too. Nothing complicated here, just a good time. Will get in my year end selection.

    *Capitalisation of Galaxy intentional. This is about people preventing chocolate coming to harm right?

  13. 38
    Cumbrian on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Re: Tubthumping – I never got over my initial impression of it. I kept hearing it on the radio and also kept missing the DJ telling us who it was by. I just assumed it was another of those periodic chart grabs by Vic Reeves (that whisky, vodka, lager bit being the main part of it that I thought sounded like him – but also the chorus had all the hallmarks of his run throughs of Dizzy and I’m A Believer). Even now, when I hear it, I still think of Vic.

  14. 39
    iconoclast on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Essentially an advert for the film in musical form, this is really quite dull. FOUR.

  15. 40
    anto on 18 Mar 2014 #

    # 38 – Just hearing the name Chumbawamba on the chart rundown seemed bizarrely incongruous at the time.

  16. 41
    thefatgit on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Anyone who remembers “Sheep Farming In The Falklands” would KNOW it to be incongruous :)

  17. 42
    thefatgit on 18 Mar 2014 #

    ^^Ooops, that’s Crass but they were cut from the same cloth.

  18. 43
    Chelovek na lune on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #41, that’s very crass of you….

    ….ah, but the Chumbas were just so, so, overtly poppy – they’d long deserved that big hit. I was dragged along to a concert of theirs at ULU c. 1992 by a friend, who was into their political stances (in an intensely earnest manner), so I admit (having not heard anything of their music) I was expecting something rather, well, dull, and grey, to be honest. Of course their withdrawn album “Jesus H Christ” was, well, KLF-tastic, samples-wise, and much of what they did was pure, multi-coloured, multi-brightly-coloured pop.

    And they get knocked down….

  19. 44
    ciaran on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Another R and B or hip hop giant serving up another movie soundtrack and boring us in the process in Popular 97….

    ….Actually no I cant really object to this one at all especially after the 2 that came before it.

    As Tom points out this doesnt really have a point outside the film its trying to promote but Smith does his best not to completely overwhelm it and the sample is inspired. Love the ‘bounce with me’ dance in the video too.It’s more of a slight transition from the FPoBA days (goodbye to Air Jordan’s, baseball cap, and surfing shorts) but still reliant on that cheeky Fresh Prince charm, very important as that show ended a year earlier.7.

    I’d love if we it Miami under the spotlight as that was just smashing.The Wild Wild West just does nothing for me I’m afraid both in soundtrack or Movie.

    I watched MIB in the summer of 2000 and nothing really stood out except for the fate of Tommy Lee Jones (does the bunny put the foot down for film spoilers?) which I found strangely moving for a comedy.

    The imminent arrival of Austin Powers in the autumn of 1997 was what got my attention cinema wise that year.

  20. 45
    Kinitawowi on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #17: Will Smith famously turned down The Matrix in order to do Wild Wild West. The Matrix may well have been a very different movie with a soundtrack by a safe rapper rather than a long future agit-rock bunny.

    As for MiB… I sorta feel that rating the song also means rating the film, what with them being so intricately interlinked, so I’m going for an 8. Love the movie, love the song.

  21. 46
    DanH on 19 Mar 2014 #

    This particular track, as well as “Wild Wild West” and “Jiggy” started a mini-trope with me and my brother…finding other movies with Will Smith, and making up our own themes with overt R&B/disco samples. Best one by far was for Enemy of the State:

    (to the tune of “We Are Family”)
    He’s an e-ne-my!!! *what? what?*
    And frommmm the state he must FLEE *ha HA! ha HA!*

    :-)

  22. 47
    Mark M on 19 Mar 2014 #

    Re41/42etc: Far from interchangeable in my mind – having lived in Leeds, I hated Chumbawamba long before I heard them – they maintained a spectacularly unappealing presence in the local alternative media. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Crass song, even I know at least one huge fan. But I used to work with a former member of the collective, and so they are all right with me. Plus, I love the story of Penny Rimbaud and John Lennon on Ready Steady Go:

    http://dangerousminds.net/comments/when_crass_met_the_beatles_john_lennon_and_penny_rimbaud_on_ready_steady_go

  23. 48
    weej on 24 Mar 2014 #

    47 comments in and nobody’s posted this from Phoenix Nights?

  24. 49
    Patrick Mexico on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Well 48, my main recollection of this is the crestfallen look on our teacher’s face when someone in Year 8 Art class blurted out “We are the men on smack, heroin and cannabis.”

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