The year was 1991. Hair was high, pants were pegged, and shoulder pads were everywhere.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed my love for New Jack Swing, which was also everywhere, especially amongst younger and/or more urban artists. For the younger audiences, ‘safe’ rap like Biz Markie and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince were there if you wanted them, Eurodance and house music had its niche, and the power ballad a la Whitney/Mariah/Michael Bolton was inescapable. But no song could possibly better represent adult contemporary/Middle of the Road R&B lite-pop, the music of the masses, more than this one.
Back in the day, I remember thinking that this was a really pretty song. And it is – the melody is simple and straight-forward, nothing too complicated harmonically. Production-wise it’s fairly vapid, reverbed snares being pushed way up in the mix, which is just a wash of generic synthesizer ‘strings’ and keyboards and a barely-there bass. But I also remember thinking that it didn’t really mesh with other modern R&B and pop songs, an observation that sticks out even more to me now with twenty-odd years of hindsight. To show you just how different it is, let’s look at what some of the other big hits around this song’s release were.
This song made it to #1 on the R&B charts in January of 1991. In the weeks preceding its ascent, we had the heavily New Jack Swing-inspired, more hard-core Bell Biv Devoe; the brassy, ballsy ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ belted out by Whitney; the lighter, swingy ‘Sensivity’ by fellow New Edition-er Ralph Tresvant; the funky, more bass-driven swing of Tony! Toni! Toné; and the soulful sounds of Freddie Jackson’s ‘Love Me Down.’ Afterward, we get groups like En Vogue and club tracks by C&C Music Factory, some Babyface & Pebbles, and the inimitable Keith Sweat. It also hit #1 on the Billboard Top 100, surrounded by Janet Jackson and Madonna, and #1 on the adult contemporary chart, where it was bookended by the likes of Stevie B and Gloria Estefan.
Of this illustrious list, ‘The First Time’ is fairly closely aligned production-wise with the Freddie Jackson and Keith Sweat tracks, both of which feature the same type of synthed keyboards and treble-heavy percussion. The big difference is really in the sounds of the vocals. Freddie clearly comes out of the church, dropping ornaments and melismas confidently at every turn. Keith Sweat is gritty and sensually urban. In comparison, Surface is the complete opposite. The vocals are presented pretty clearly and straight-forwardly; Bernard Jackson sings in a vibrato-heavy high tenor with hardly any ornamentation, unlike practically every other R&B artist on the air at that time (see list above). In contrast to the Freddie-Keith-Ralph triumvirate, he sounds earnest in a chivalric, almost asexual manner.
So how can we understand a) why this song sounds so different from everything else on the R&B charts, and b) the song’s rampant popularity?
The first question is easily answered. Why doesn’t ‘The First Time’ sound like everything coming out of the studio in 1991?
Because it was written in 1986.
Yep, this song should have appeared on their first album, which was released back in 1987. Despite believing it was a hit single and going all out on the recording studio for it, it just …. didn’t get put on the record, for reasons that are completely unclear. It also failed to get onto the group’s second album, released in 1989. For whatever reason, the band kept this one tucked up their sleeve and, despite the fact that it sounded little like anything else happening at the time, decided to release it on their third album.
And kudos for them, because clearly they hit the jackpot. The song was their only hit to top all three charts (their second biggest hit, 1989’s ‘Shower Me With Your Love’ – which was the reason I even knew this group to begin with, having been featured in an episode of Days of Our Lives, but I digress – hit the top 5 on all three charts and #1 on R&B). Perhaps they hit a nerve in an adult listening population that was a bit tired of all that new-fangled Babyface/BBD production style, who didn’t want an overly sexualized growl in their ear, who wanted something that was, in style and substance, kind of a throwback to a more chaste and respectful time (whenever that may have been). Certainly that seems to be the case from a lyrical standpoint; the song is practically a courtly-love paean to the untouchable partner, the intimacy of the wife/partner being contrasted with the sterility of the lover/singer. The song carries on that late-Cosby-Show mentality about the virtues of Western education, high moral standards, and respectful pro-female attitudes. Singer Bernard Jackson even looks like the character Howard (you know, the smart one who was always quoting Ovid):
Or, perhaps the differences in style are more marked today than they were then, and this was considered by the older listening crowd to be just as modern a song as the others were. There are huge Venn diagrams of similarities between aspects of this song and many others on the charts, but taken as a whole, it just seems out of place, at least to me.
I wasn’t in the best of places to judge its effect on the masses, although that’s not to say I didn’t pay attention. It wasn’t the most popular song amongst my peer groups, but I don’t remember it being ridiculed. I kind of thought of it as being the sort of song that just didn’t offend anyone, and so everyone liked it enough, or just ignored it. I suppose the charts demonstrate that many more actually loved it. But seriously, those lyrics … I see what you were going for, there, Surface, but come on – even I, the young, impressionable fourteen-year-old, thought it was way cheesy to be talking about crying the first time you looked into your lover’s eyes and somehow that only being the first time you’re falling in love, and what exactly did that even mean? Was there a second or third time you fell in love, and if so, what happened then? You’ve already *cried* – how you gonna top that, hmm? Just a bit too sappy, even for my younger self, but I’m sure it made one heckuva wedding or anniversary song.