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Mar 14

WILL SMITH – “Men In Black”

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#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. 1
    punctum on 17 Mar 2014 #

    The second number one in just over a year to reference Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” – how come the original only managed number eight? – Smith does his by now customary I’m-too-cool-to-be-impressed-or-scared (-or-moved) routine to sell this rather clumsily constructed movie theme/potential franchise jingle with its key variants and somewhat unconvincing outer space effects. MiB was Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for kids with a little watered down Prisoner element (the “Neutralizer” which is used to erase possibly damaging memories of agents resigning from the shadowy galaxy-spanning cabal) and more than a touch of The Blues Brothers in Smith and Jones’ matching shades and suits. As with the single, it’s harmless enough entertainment – that is, if you can wilfully ignore couplets like “We’re your first, last and only line of defence/Against the worst scum of the universe,” a proclamation of which Dubya would have been proud – Smith knowing that, for him at least, it’s enough just to be present for the product to sell. A cut above “Turtle Power,” then, but not even the best children’s number one single of its year; I note in passing that “Men In Black,” apposite in title if nowhere else, was the number one single on 31 August 1997.

  2. 2
    Tom on 17 Mar 2014 #

    Turtle Power! Damn, so much for that Man From Laramie observation.

  3. 3
    Izzy on 17 Mar 2014 #

    Good song; it’s catchy and a lot of fun, and impossible to get sick of. If Will Smith ever made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. (7)

  4. 4
    mapman132 on 17 Mar 2014 #

    It was pretty predictable that a movie about aliens starring Will Smith would have a Will Smith tie-in record to go with it. It was equally predictable that it wouldn’t be released as a single in the US to bump up soundtrack sales, but it did hit number one on the airplay chart for four weeks. Will wouldn’t get his first Hot 100 #1 proper until the following spring. Tom’s review pretty much echoes my opinion of MIB the single: enjoyable as a film tie-in, not especially memorable otherwise. 5/10 sounds right.

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 17 Mar 2014 #

    What’s good about the ‘song’ is Patrice Rushen’s original melody. Other than that I struggle to remember the rest of it. Will Smith seems like an amiable fellow but this is product placement for a so-so movie.

  6. 6
    Chelovek na lune on 17 Mar 2014 #

    Likeable fluff, film music from a movie aimed at kids entirely devoid of pretence or ambition: at least up to the standard of Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” or the original Ghostbusters theme. No more, no less. From then on, for a couple of years, at least, Will Smith seemed to be on a bit of a roll on taking obvious samples or tunes and doing something only very slightly different with them (and probably introducing those tunes to a new generation)- generally all likeable, none earth-shaking. Still waiting for the time when the capital of the Republic of Niger gets to use a very slightly rewritten version of his “Miami” to soundtrack its tourism campaign. Tolerable.

  7. 7
    swanstep on 17 Mar 2014 #

    The kids won’t care but this is pretty lazy (efficient?) stuff from Mr Smith. ’80s Rushen-influenced, shit-happy-meal-pop-franchise-tie-ins like ‘Ghostbusters’ (thanks Chelovek, 6) or ‘One Night In Bangkok’ (compare Smith’s final verse ‘let me tell you this in closing’ with Murray Head’s ‘thank god I’m only watching the game, controlling it…’) seem like masterpieces of invention compared to this. I never saw the movie (or either of its sequels) so perhaps that explains my lack of affection for ‘MIB’:
    3

  8. 8
    Another Pete on 17 Mar 2014 #

    ‘It’s just pick and mix for the eyes’ as a mate once said of the film, substitute eyes for ears and that pretty much sums up the song.

  9. 9
    Jet Simian on 17 Mar 2014 #

    Assuredly catchy, even on the strength of a reworked tagline – throw in the video and I’d give it a 6. Indeed, you might imagine that with its reach this song could for a while have been put to use as a soundtrack as the NZ rugby team entered the stadium, and you’d be right. But for me this is a two-nails-in-the-coffin deal: first the movie which appropriates much of the best stuff from the still in development hell Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, and secondly (for me) the willingness of Mr Smith to lean rather heavily on past standards for future singles – e.g. his Clash-inspired millennial single just a few years further on.

  10. 10
    Tom on 18 Mar 2014 #

    I was about to mention “Will 2K”! I find most of Will Smith’s solo work much of a muchness – 5 or 6 all round – but “Will 2K” really tickled me, and is easily my favourite thing in his non-Fresh Prince catalogue. I actually bought it off iTunes in the run up to this single and found I still enjoyed it, though it’s more bittersweet now that the new millennium (yo, scuse me, Willennium) has not turned out to be a carefree pop-rap party.

  11. 11
    Tom on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #6/7 – My knee jerk reaction here is “Nooo! Ghostbusters is GREAT” but I think it’s that I was bang in the right age range.

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Will Smith, the go-to guy for high concept, lightweight action-comedies: Men In Black, Wild Wild West and Independence Day. With the exception of the latter, Smith got chart action with the tie-in songs. After all, he was the rapper before the actor. Not a bad way to make a living I s’pose. But we’ve established before that Smith is the entertainer first, actor second and rapper third. The song? Well, it’s Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” with Smith rapping adequately over it. There’s little wrong with it, but there’s nothing special about it either.

  13. 13
    chelovek na lune on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #11 I think I was a terrible cultural snob, in some ways, as a kid, in the 80s (well as much as a kid on a council estate in Essex could be, anyway), and was a bit stand-offish towards stuff too obviously aimed at my age-group and heavily promoted, like either of the Ghostbusters themes…whereas by the time this was released, I was obviously not the target audience, and so felt able to appreciate it for what it was, with no chance of being seduced by the marketeers….although I still prefer ‘Gettin’ Jiggy With It’ – which, as here, and UNLIKE PUFF DADDY, demonstrates good taste in the tune/sample-lifting department.

  14. 14

    I’m genuinely at a loss why ppl are being dismissive of the film, which is one of my favourites, and great — it has a visual fizz and wit, great comedy performances from all the main characters AND a host of minor characters (beating any Asimov hollow there obviously), a much smarter take on “the truth is out there (also aliens)” than the X-Files or (say) Independence Day, and I’d say combines a smarter take also on the hard-to-sidestep fact of the existence of bureaucracies of modern multiculturalism with an affectionate generosity towards the chaotic difficulties of same… I love its games with scale and its reversals — much more deftly realised on-screen than any version of Hitchhiker has managed, presumably bcz not having to be carefully reverential towards the sainted Douglas A (whose gags work best on the page anyway); and I love its undisguised love of polyglot New York, too.

  15. 15

    MiB >>> Ghostbusters* >>>>>> Independence Day** >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Wild Wild West***

    *which has loads of slack stuff in between the good (Bill Murray/Staypufft Man) moments
    **which is just colossally boring and sententious
    ***unfortunately: I’d love to love WWW the way I do MiB, but it just won’t let you

  16. 16
    Doctor Casino on 18 Mar 2014 #

    5 is right – this isn’t fantastic, but it’s hard to imagine it getting much better for what it is, and it could have been so much worse – c.f. the sequel’s Smith theme, “Nod Ya Head (Black Suits Comin’)” in which he attempts to emphasize his toughness, a bad move. Credit to Will on this one – the delivery here has a few little surprises and the lyrics rise above simply recapping the movie for a few memorable flourishes, mostly in the first verse: Walk in shadow, move in silence, guard against extraterrestrial violence is good, also But yo, we ain’t on no government list / we straight don’t exist, no names and no fingerprints. Unfortunately, his much, much better soundtrack hit, “Wild Wild West” (a #1 in the US) won’t trouble us here as it peaked at number two, and his biggest non-soundtrack party hit of the era, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” stalled at #3.

  17. 17

    All of them are better than the Matrix, obviously.

  18. 18
    James BC on 18 Mar 2014 #

    This is miles better than the original Forget Me Nots. Patrice Rushen’s chorus is good but the verses just drift around unmemorably and it goes on far too long. This version keeps the good bits but fills the dead space with hook after hook after hook – it plays perfectly to Will Smith’s strengths as a rapper. It’s true that there are a lot of the movie’s key phrases and plot crowbarred in, but the fact that Smith (or whoever else wrote it, I don’t know) manages to do that and still come out with a plausible, catchy, memorable rap is something that deserves a lot of credit.

    Also: is this the most 90s number 1 of the 90s?

  19. 19
    AMZ1981 on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #1 I’d hoped to be the first to point out that this was at number one during those fateful events in Paris.

    It’s worth noting that this was the first number one since Wannabe to manage a straight month at the summit – I’ll Be Missing You managed six weeks but in two runs of three. What surprises me is that nobody has mentioned the record that spent three weeks at number two behind it – Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.

  20. 20
    Jet Simian on 18 Mar 2014 #

    Gah – I’d forgotten WWW, another heavy-leaning-on-the-standards effort! No wonder Will 2k got me in such a grump…

    As for the movie, entertaining enough, but give me Ghostbusters any day. The irony that its title song also (arguably) relied on lifting from another artist’s past work is noted.

  21. 21
    swanstep on 18 Mar 2014 #

    This discussion of Will Smith’s filmography has me checking…and I haven’t paid to see a single WS film since Independence Day. I’ve caught most of I, Robot and I am Legend, and the big car chase from Bad Boys II on tv at various points, and that’s it. It’s probably a little unfair, but I think that after ID I pegged him as exactly the kind of safe, middle-brow, likable star who works with unexciting directors and scripts whose output I can skip without loss. Sandra Bullock has been the same way for me; working with Cuaron and making Gravity was the first time she’d worked with an auteur director and made a film I actually wanted to see since Speed.

  22. 22
    Mark M on 18 Mar 2014 #

    I’m going to second Mr Sinker’s comments – MIB is a smart, funny movie, pacey with lots of good gags, nice design and – first time round – a good star pairing.
    It is true that considering he has been one of the few consistent box-office draws of recent times, his filmography is underwhelming.

  23. 23
    anto on 18 Mar 2014 #

    I’m not even gonna try and be objective about Will Smith, I basically can’t stand him. By the late nineties his smug countenance appeared to be everywhere. BBC2 on Monday teatimes had finally relinquished the godawful ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ – Will chewing up and spitting out his dialogue, other characters lined up and mocked for being large in stature, short in stature or Valley Girl stereotypes and the noisiest, most easily pleased studio audience on television – and then you turned around to find the fresh prince was now a fully-fledged film star. There was also his music career of course – ‘Men In Black’ is bearable but rather unexciting but due to it’s association with one of the hit films of the season it was bound to go to number one, so here it is.

  24. 24
    mapman132 on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #19 Arggh, hadn’t realized this was the record that kept Tubthumping at bay! That’ll have to knock a point off my score for MIB. I was aware of Tubthumping’s existence at the time, again thanks to James Masterton’s chart writeups, but it didn’t reach American shores until October. I still remember the first time I heard it driving on the highway – what IS this awesome piece of music? I quickly learned it was in fact the mystery record that been UK#2 two months earlier. I was going through a rough patch at work at the time and it felt like a personal anthem of sorts for a time (minus the actual getting sloshed – I mainly identified with “I get knocked down, but I get up again…”). Anyway, would’ve gotten a 10 from me – my favorite song of 1997, even ahead of “Your Woman”.

  25. 25
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Mar 2014 #

    #19: There’s actually an article I have open in another tab about them at Jacobin Magazine, which opens with:

    “Tubthumping became known to some purely as a drinking song. Which is fair enough, because, if nothing else, it didn’t belong to an elite group of musicians—it belonged to people. People at football matches, people singing along to the radio as they drove, people at parties drinking too much whiskey and tripping over the kitchen chairs. People like me. And because it helped beggar the notion that Chumbawamba were boring zealots on a mission from Planet Anarchy.”

    — Boff Whalley, founding member of Chumbawamba

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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