2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
In the late 1990s, Will Smith was one of entertainment’s biggest stars. A string of hit songs as the Fresh Prince alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff paved the way to a beloved, multi-season sitcom, which in turn gave Smith the weight to shift gears into back-to-back, instant classic blockbusters. He had the fame and universal public adoration to do pretty much whatever the hell he wanted. And yet, he opted for this:
That’s right, “Men in Black,” the single for an upcoming buddy-cop sci-fi comedy co-starring Tommy Lee Jones. Released roughly a month before the film of the same name, audiences heard and witnessed the Fresh Prince’s four-minute return to his musical roots (sans, for the first time, DJ Jazzy Jeff), during which he extolled the coolness of “galaxy defenders” who “walk in shadow, move in silence” and “guard against extraterrestrial violence.”
The song’s accompanying music video, anchored by a lyrically butchered sample of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots,” culminated in a lengthy, poorly choreographed group dance sequence comprised of head bobs and side shuffles alongside a garbage-tier CGI alien lip-syncing Coko’s R&B backup vocals for shits and giggles.
And yet, “Men in Black” was an incomprehensibly massive hit, reaching number one on at least 15 weekly music charts across the world — notably more successful than, say, the other song from that very same year sampling “Forget Me Nots,” The Beatnuts’ “Give Me Tha Ass.” Even scrawny, Jewish seven-year-old me learned the dance sequence by heart alongside the millions of other children who dragged their parents that summer into the politely PG-13, highest grossing film of 1997. Once the intergalactic dust settled the following February, the official Men in Black soundtrack would go on to be certified triple platinum. Smith took home his first solo Grammy for “Best Rap Song,” and the track ranked within the top 10 most popular songs of that year in seven separate countries.
The surreal thing is that “Men in Black,” the tune and its music video, weren’t seen as creative gambles in 1997. Despite a tight turnaround schedule — four days of filming, three weeks of post-production — Warner Bros. reportedly threw $1 million into the project. “My intention was to create a darker, more underground version of the MiB crew that had been portrayed in the movie, present a kind of behind-the-scenes version of the MiB world created by [film director Barry] Sonnenfeld,” “Men in Black” music video director Robert Caruso told The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of the single’s 20th anniversary. “This darker tone would then be up-ended by the surprise appearance of the dancing alien— which was just insanely fun and unexpected.”
Peak 1990s energy is never doubting for a second that Will Smith should channel his perfectly balanced cool guy charisma and goofball energy into a novelty song about aliens, conspiracy theories and Ray-Ban sunglasses.
The MiB-related success was so gargantuan that no one batted an eye at the proposition that Smith do it all over again two years later on “Wild Wild West,” the ideological twin for “Men in Black.” Similarly self-titled and similarly choreographed, the music video for “Wild Wild West” even roped in Stevie Wonder to desecrate “I Wish” alongside Kool Mo Dee and Dru Hill. Of course, despite yet another (albeit lesser) financial success, Wild Wild West’s now infamous cautionary tale had very little effect on its own novelty single’s domination of television and radio waves that summer.
“Remember when Will Smith was better known as a rapper? That seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?” reminisced former Billboard editor Larry Flick back in 1997, declaring upon its release that Smith had returned to music “in excellent form” with “Men in Black.” “Smith has never been a hardcore lyricist, but he also [has] never been less than clever, charming and shrewdly aware of what the masses will dig.” Flick went on to deem the single a guaranteed “outta-da-box smasheroo.”
Flick’s declaration says it all. Clever, charming and shrewdly aware of what the masses will dig was exactly the essence of Will Smith’s creative moves in the 1990s. Similarly vacuous novelty songs have come close to achieving the success of “Men in Black,” but nothing has ever eclipsed it. Because other than perhaps Tom Hanks, no one else has ever reached the level of ubiquitous audience appeal as 1990s Will Smith and his palpable, twentysomething family-friendly cool. “I guess the moral of the story is, if you want to top the box office, be seen spending $1 million on the music video, and also have Will Smith,” The Ringer’s Micah Peters explained a few years ago.
It’s impossible to imagine what cosmic bodies would need to align for such a gleefully absurdist, post-Will Smith movie tie-in novelty single to reach “Song of Summer” status in 2022. Calculated oddities occasionally break through our now collective cynicism — e.g., “Old Town Road” allowed Lil Nas X to graduate from TikTok creator to global pop star. But even then, the proudly queer, genre-blending bop has far more wit and purpose than Will Smith warning listeners not to not let his “noisy cricket get wicked on ya.”
I’d still argue, though, that there’s a wider market for goofy-ass absurdism than there’s ever been — we’re just consuming it every single goddamn day instead of annually during summer blockbuster season. We’re living in an era of Peak Pop Culture Absurdism, a house populated by countless memelords churning out content while TikTok influencers dance across the floorboards constructed by Will Smith.
Instead of singing alongside aliens, today’s hitmakers embody the E.T.s of their youth and craft entire careers out of it. We may never see the likes of a novelty tie-in song go multi-platinum again, but judging from today’s cultural landscape, the effects of Will Smith’s “Men in Black” can’t be forgotten with the flash of a neuralizer.