Nothing says ’90s R&B like Boyz II Men. The clichéd turn of phrase, the idiosyncratic spelling, the romantic suggestion of manhood, all bring to mind images of a simpler time, a nostalgia fostered by the release of their very own 20th Century Masters – DVD Collection. The DVD features five music videos of their chart-topping hits, replete with beautiful women, beautiful harmonies, and plenty of tastefully romantic moments. Conspicuously absent, however, are the group’s funkier hits such as “Motownphilly”, tracks that showcase what little bad attitude and swagger the Boyz had. This watered down representation of the group establishes them as leaders in the light-pop genre, but also lends the impression that they were nothing but one-trick ponies. The result is a short, mediocre film representation that leaves out some of Boyz II Men’s finest moments, but makes a kitschy accompaniment to any social event or occasions of private sentimental musings.
True to Motown fashion, Boyz II Men perfected a formula that worked, and stuck to it. Like the repetition in their matching outfits, their song structures and melodies remain basically the same on every song featured on the DVD. Each song opens with a short verse that begins to tell their story of woe and heartache, which is usually accompanied in the video by a poorly acted emotional scene between one of the Boyz and a beautiful lady. The beats sounds as fake as the love-interest’s weave and seem vaguely reminiscent of the free demo that comes standard with any Casio keyboard. The chorus, though, is really where it’s at, and the Boyz make sure it comes up early and often. The only development in the course of the song is in the layers of melody. When the group really wants to bring it on home they just multitrack their voices a few extra times, and make sure no one forgets to come in on their 12-bar melisma.
Yet, the clichés exist for a reason: people love them. I have to admit, my heart melts every time they get down on bended knee, which is more than just in the song “On Bended Knee”. The overly enthusiastic homages to romantic love feel like old Valentines, the kinds with lots of ruffles and embossed lettering that make you feel tingly inside, but you sort of hope no one knows you really like them. While these tastefully candle-lit hand-holding sessions are a bit of a guilty pleasure, there’s no shame in adoring Boyz II Men for their catchy choruses and tight harmonies. This video collection rightly places the group in a long line of Motown acts that have taken pop music to the limit, always conscious of the chord patterns and hooks that get under the listener’s skin and make a lasting impact. For this, Boyz II Men truly deserve the label of 20th Century Masters.
However, while the songs are musically well-crafted, the videos often fall flat. The worst is video is for the song “One Sweet Day”, which features a young and innocent Mariah Carey. The song is textually about the death of a friend, but the video is all about the relationship between Mariah and the rest of the group. The scenes of the smiling Mariah and the Boyz goofing off in the studio and tossing around a toy poodle completely undermine the serious and touching tone of the song. Most of the time, however, the videos are just ridiculous. When they sing about rain, it conveniently begins to rain, yet somehow no one ever gets wet. When they sing about a woman (which is all the time) a woman appears, even in the desert as on the song “Water Runs Dry”. Yet, all literalism is eschewed by the perpetually fuzzy lens and swooping camera angles intended to add a romantic soap opera feel, but ends up being a bit disorienting. Perhaps as a member of the MTV generation I’m asking a bit much of the Boyz, but it is clear that the videos do little to enhance the appeal of the songs except perhaps as fodder for ironic commentary.
As a relatively limited collection of videos the 20th Century Masters – DVD Collection is something that would only appeal to the die-hard Boyz II Men fan (if such a creature exists). Not only are there better R&B music videos out there, this isn’t even the best collection of the music of Boyz II Men since it is limited to only their most corny ballads. For those of you who just cannot resist the joys of the guilty pleasure, of clichés, or have run out of films for MST3K-style social gatherings (if you can call that social), then go nuts. Besides, having this on your shelf might just improve your chances with that special lady in your life.