Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jermaine Stewart: "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" (Arista 1986)

I recall with much fondness the day I watched both Tarkovsky's STALKER and George Cukor's IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU. STALKER was fine enough. But Tarkovsky was nattering at me, getting all up in my grill. I didn't even finish it. IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU, by contrast, seemed so porous, so spongelike, allowing me to worm in and out of its myriad crevices. Cukor may or may not be a genius. But he certainly wasn't authoritative (at least not in this instance). That is to say, he wasn't handing me a vision from on high; he was handing off a sack of Legos for this little mouse to toy with.

Pop music works in the same fashion. Much of the best of it doesn't speak authoritatively. Intentions often miss their destinations. Take "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off." If there's any authority on display here, it's in Jermaine's hope that his pretty gross come on line backfires. "I'm going to tell you that we don't have to take our clothes off in the hopes that my sensitive admonitions will wind up getting your clothes off anyway." Depeche Mode was pulling a similar trick around the same time. "I'm too depressed to fuck which makes me all the more fuckable." Same with The Cure. "Aw fuck it, let's go to bed." Clever blokes, them.

But of course, there's always the possibility Jermaine means what he sings (oh lordy!). In which case, the joke is on him. What's the main reason he gives for why he and his girl should keep their clothes on? The fact that they are young (so is the night). And yet he suggests some cherry wine in the chorus! Oh so a nay for skinny dipping but a yay for underage alcohol consumption? A rather shaky moral platform there, Jer. Now the husband suggests that "cherry wine" means "non-alcoholic." And Dave Gurney adds that "young" can mean "21." But a quick Google search reveals that "cherry wine" can fuck you up. And 21, 15 or 45, the wine will lead right back to skinny dipping anyway. Which in turn will lead to babies making babies.

But the most damning evidence against his moral superiority is that the song sounds like a SUCCESSFUL mack. Compare that opening twinkle twinkle little melody with its counterpart in Debbie Deb's 1983 freestyle fantasia "When I Hear Music." The night is so young in the latter track too. But along with a panoply of sound effects meant to evoke the sensory overload of a disco, the melody clearly dazzles Deb to the point of self-obliteration. An explosion goes off immediately after the line "the guys looked really fine/they almost blew my mind." The guys literally DID blow her mind. Indeed, Deb disappears so absolutely that a robot finishes the verse and even then, "he" only repeats her last line. There's no scheming here; only a wide-eyed sense of amazement rendered frighteningly precarious by the singer's vulnerability. This is clearly Deb's first time at the club and you worry she'll run into someone like Jermaine.

In Jermaine's hands, the "When I Hear Music" melody is capped by a synth revving its engine suggesting a second act, a destination. During the verses, the mix gives him plenty of space to plot things out - only drums and synth bass under his vocals. "Why you wanna move so fast?" he asks in the pre-chorus but by then, the tempo is moving so fast. And the chorus is sheer conquest, a wonder of nature that shot the song to number two with a bullet. This ejaculation explains why everyone sings along and dances to it as if we DO have to take our clothes off to have a good time, oh yeah! Or at best, we don't have to take our clothes off to have a good time but it would sure help. Heck, I bet this song provided the soundtrack to many a naked dance party.

So where the entirety of "When I Hear Music" is frozen over in disco dust, "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" marks some real progression towards The P. And that's simply not what the lyrics are after (in one register). One could chalk up this disconnect to the fact that this was really Narada Michael Walden's baby and not Jermaine Stewart's. But Walden is perfectly capable of matching sound to lyric. The cluttered, tacky production and whistling guitars of "So Emotional" suit Whitney Houston's shock and awe emotionality. Even "Freeway of Love" sounds like veritable interstate romance. But "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" seems the richer song. It gives us the authority to play along with Jermaine's game. Or we could just humor him and head out with Debbie Deb for a snack after bar close.


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