The year 1986 holds a lot of special meaning for me. I turned 13 in May 1986. I got confirmed, I graduated 8th grade (finishing off my time at the school I had attended since first grade), and began high school. It was a time of big transitions in my life, a time I remember quite fondly.
I remember 1986 also being a strong year for pop music. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was an artistically great year. In many ways the most memorable songs that year were masters of genre and convention. There were a lot of catchy songs, though, a diverse set of “one hit wonders” and signature songs from performers who helped define the decade.
Jermaine Stewart falls into the former category. Born in 1957, Stewart and his family moved to Chicago when he was 15. There, he became friends with Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel while all three worked as dancers on the show “Soul Train.” When host Don Cornelius decided to create the group Shalamar in the mid-70s, Watley and her dance partner Daniel famously made the cut while Stewart did not. Instead, he ended up as a back up dancer for Shalamar but (apparently with the help of Culture Club’s Mikey Craig) his dreams of being a singer came to fruition when he signed with Arista records in the early 80s.
“We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” was the first single off Stewart’s second album, Frantic Romantic (1986). It would also be the singer’s biggest hit, peaking at #5 in the US. The Wikipedia entry for the song says it was featured in an episode of Miami Vice, which was something of a hit maker in its early days. I don’t particularly remember that but I do remember hearing the song everywhere that year. Everywhere.
The song is almost artfully safe. It makes use of so many pop/dance conventions of the time, but does so in a very likable and almost “perfect” way. The “na-na-na’s” that accompany the lyrics, the synthetic/electric percussion, the obligatory horns, the catchy keyboard melody, and the rhythmic guitar riff—they’re like a laundry list of 80’s pop conventions. But Stewart and crew enlist those pieces well. I always thought the “climb” of the song (“So come on baby won’t you show some class/Why you wanna move so fast”) as one of the meatiest examples of the “classic” 80s sound you could find.
The song was also lyrically safe—literally! In the AIDS-era of safe sex and the Moral Majority-era of strict abstinence, the song was an R&B articulation of wider social fears, concerns, and conservativisms. (Perhaps even those within urban communities of color.)
Like much of the 80s, the song holds a particularly powerful alternate meaning as well, although not I’m not sure it was intentional at the time. Stewart was gay. I’m fairly certain it was not publicly “known” at the time but—with his soft-spoken demeanor and classically effeminate mannerisms—I also don’t think it would have been a surprise to anyone who saw Stewart in interviews. In any case, he sadly died of AIDS-related causes in 1997, at the age of 39.
His queerness gives the song a sweet and, maybe, sad additional meaning, but not for the moralistic irony (a singer preaches sexual abstinence but dies of a sexually-transmitted disease). I think it can potentially transform his desire for a slow and intimate relationship, instead of a quickie, into a critique of a particular version of gay life in the 80s, one marked by profound homophobia and accompanying sexual secrecy. The song communicates the desire for a “traditional” relationship, which can be both conservative (since it reifies the standards of heteronormativity) and radical (since it longs for the stability and “natural” pace afforded by being socially accepted rather than relegated to the sexual margins and underground). The song can be a gay desire to experience love the same way as every heterosexual person can, something of a political “climb” to the present-day refrain of marriage equality.
Like I said, I don’t think this is intentional in the song, although I’m also sure that Stewart and others would have at least considered the possibile multiple meanings of a gay man singing a song like this. Sadly, that story may be forever lost.