Here’s a slinky hit from my teenage years, with a video that felt uncomfortable, sexy, and powerful. I was 14 when it appeared on MTV, unable to appreciate what was happening. It was unshakable anyway.
Check out Toni Braxton’s 1996 single, You’re Makin’ Me High.
I loved the trippy, futuristic imagery right away: the meat of the video is framed by shots of Toni clad in a white vinyl catsuit, fooling around on a neon podium in some giant speaker-festooned egg. It’s pretty normal, as far as peak-weirdness mainstream 90s music videos go. The story kicks off when Toni gets an email, saying “Yo Toni! Tonight’s the night > The game is at your place this time! Call us>>” and her friends show up in a mirrored elevator.
This scene is what always stuck in my head: we’re seeing a group of confident, gorgeous black women in control, coolly judging a series of peacocking men as they appear in the elevator doorway. Some of the guys throw cash around, some show off six pack abs, and others pose and blow kisses. It’s bulging with sexy imagery, but the catsuit was a red herring; the women aren’t on display here. Instead, the men are completely objectified by Braxton and friends, played by Erika Alexander, Vivica A. Fox, and Tisha Campbell-Martin. They’re standing around, hoping to be chosen, each conforming to a cliched vision of what men should be. It probably made my 14 year old brain recoil in confusion, but the whole scenario never left my mind.
Seeing it now, it’s a simple satirical role reversal, a commentary on gender politics that I was only hazily aware of, if at all, at the time. To me, it was something primal, vital, and new. I was decoding one of the ways the world works, and I didn’t even know it. I was learning something that I wasn’t ready to put into words. I was experiencing feminism at a time when it seemed to be a punchline on sitcoms and AM radio.
What about the song itself? It’s a perfect funky earworm of a pop tune, regardless of the video. Braxton was known for her deep vocal fireworks, and the hooky bassline comes courtesy of Babyface’s clean, percussive production.
As a kid, I pretended that I didn’t like glossy R&B like this. It wasn’t cool in my insular, suburban Michigan crowd, at least not for insecure white boys. But I secretly loved it, singing loudly when it came on the radio in my car. Because of my mindset, I wasn’t able to openly and honestly enjoy songs like this. It’s kind of a revelation to revisit songs like this from my adolescence from a new perspective, appreciating it on whole new levels. Oftentimes I feel like culture has matured along with me,
I just decided that this has to be on my New Years Eve party playlist. If you’re coming, you’re going to hear this soon.