’90s Song of the Week: Mary J. Blige’s “Sweet Thing”

You’re my heat, you are my fire. You’re not mine, I can’t deny it. -Tony Maiden, Chaka Khan

On the cusp of the gangster '90s?

On the cusp of the gangster ’90s?

“Sweet Thing” was originally a hit for Rufus and Chaka Khan in 1975. Mary J. Blige released her version of the song in 1993 as a single off her What’s the 411? album which dropped the year before. It was the first time I had heard of both the singer and the song. It is the only Mary J. Blige song on my iTunes playlist, though I admit I do enjoy screaming “I’m going dowwwwwwwwwwn… cause you ain’t around!” from time to time. My ears will also perk up if I come across a few bars of “Real Love.” That’s it. In a strange way, I’ve always equated this song with Extreme’s “More Than Words.” It’s probably a function of timing; both songs became popular a little over a year apart. More than that, though, the intros to both songs are  unmistakable to humans of a certain age. Those instrumentals build to the point where singing the first lines of either song feels like it should be immediately followed by raucous applause like hits on MTV’s Unplugged series. Go ahead, try to hear them in your head. See what I mean?

I applied the five-finger discount to the cassette single at Tower Records and played the song frequently on a CD/cassette/radio that I used to drag into the bathroom whenever I took a shower. In time, the power cord became so unstable that I could only use the radio if I propped the cord up against the mirror. Good times. Well, you know, until I had to rewind the cassette so I could listen to it again.

Downtown Seattle.

Downtown Seattle.

Olympic National Park.

Olympic National Park.

The song always reminds me of my first real adult vacation of any kind, and it happened with Lynnette. Way back in 2004 when we had been going out for just over a year, Lynnette suggested we take a trip together. My family didn’t travel much when I was a child and I generally only took the Hawaiian Airlines shuttle back and forth between HNL and LAX for school. I was nervous about this. Lynnette had no such reservations. Having traveled frequently as a child and while attending college, Lynnette took care of all the logistics that I still struggle with a full decade later. It was a wonderful trip and one of the many times Lynnette carefully pulled me out of my tiny box of comfort, assured me everything was going to be OK, then proved it. She’s always been great at that.

We missed John Mayer (touring in support of Heavier Things) by a day. We did, however, manage to catch something called the Bite of Seattle. It was a food festival. Before the day we took a bunch of bites out of Seattle, I had no idea Lynnette was such a devoted foodie. It seemed curious to me that she should want to stand in line for 6 different single-serving-sized items instead of getting a complete meal. “I want to try a little bit of everything,” she said. It became a line I would hear a billion times in the following ten years.

As we sat and ate our food, an R&B band with a female singer was performing on the main stage. I didn’t recognize them and they were doing covers, so I assumed they were simply a group of local musicians. “It would be pretty awesome if they played ‘Sweet Thing’,” I said. “They’re not going to play that.” Lynnette said. In the lull between the end of the last song and the beginning of the next, the singer spoke a few words. I don’t remember any of them. I do remember hearing the guitarist strumming his guitar. It was part of the intro to “Sweet Thing.” “They’re going to play it!” I said. The guitarist stared the intro in earnest. “No way,” Lynnette said. “I told you, I’m psychic!” I said. I have footage of this performance somewhere on a HI-8 video cassette. Note: I do not believe I am psychic. OK, maybe a little. I can’t predict things, but it’s just that coincidences like this have happened around me for my entire life and Lynnette is the only person who has been around me long and frequently enough to see it happen more than once. To this day, she’ll throw out an unprovoked “Because Daddy is psychic, Madison!” and scoff it off. But I know she says it because she’s seen my trivial prognostications for herself.

I spent my postadolescence wallowing in unrequited love by choice. For reasons I can’t explain, I was always attracted to women I couldn’t be with – because they didn’t like me or because they liked someone else. As such, the lyrics at the top of this entry have always spoken to me. Based on the way Mary J. sings the song, I always thought that the thing she couldn’t deny was her own unrequited love. She was in love with a man who she could not call her own. As a teenager, I could relate to that. Experience, however, made me believe that Mary J. was confessing that she couldn’t deny any of it: the fact that she loved him; the fact that her insides raged for him; the fact that she thought about him constantly. When she screams “love me now or I’ll go crazy,” later in the song, she’s probably being more literal than figurative.

I was awkward in my interaction with girls growing up. I could never directly tell them how I felt about them so I would try for humor and subtlety, but you know how girls can be: they’ll pretend not to know even if they know you know they know. Whenever I did tell one of them how I felt, I could only do so after hours of agonizing paranoid analysis of the potential outcomes. I spent more time parsing the things I would say to someone I was interested in than I ever did during the process of writing the numerous essays that garnered an English degree.  It was always clumsy and often ill-timed, in most cases simply too late. My success rate is abysmal. But all of those failures taught me a valuable lesson. I realized that if I ever found myself in that situation again, I would just have to say how I felt. The falling action, I concluded, is what it is. In the spring of 2003, I realized that I loved Lynnette anyway, even if she could not stay. So one night at Zippy’s, I told her.

She is the last of the women I couldn’t be with.

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