A Taste of Honey’s “I Love You” (1979), co-written by founding member bassist/vocalist Janice Marie Johnson with guitarist/vocalist Hazel Payne, is an album track in polar opposition to the hedonistic frivolity of the band’s inaugural hit “Boogie Oogie Oogie” (1978). That track’s playground hymnody of erotic pulsation became one of many kitsch talismans for those bent on degrading Disco as a valid musical genre.
But “I Love You” is no obsequious revision of the band’s self-numbing dance floor origins. Deep in its grooved construction is the formulaic vacillation of much African-American sexual soul, wherein relational commitment and the heady loss to physicality are fatefully entwined. On the surface, the song is a ballad signifier of its time: falsetto choral lines, light funk guitar strumming, tinkling Fender Rhodes, slick bass, light airy drums. And flutes.
Flutes carry heavy baggage on their breathy lines of flight. Symbolizing the social, they evoke a pan-utopian dimension, fluttering like butterflies skirting Grecian youth frolicking in gardens of freedom. Symbolizing the individual, the flute is mostly aligned with a mythology of the feminine: of her breath, the closeness of her lips, the heat of her pheromones tantalizing the skin. Amidst these flutes, Marie Johnson and Hazel Payne’s voices coalesce into a monophonic line like fleshy female dancers sharing the one pole. Yet they coo “ I Love You”. Like swirling sirens, their purpose is to lure the listener into a connubial dimension. The saccharine use of flutes is thus a bluff: they subliminally invite a sexual merger of the self into sound.
This would be a theoretical reading if it weren’t for the extended coda of the song. Suddenly we shift from the major into the minor – from the white keys of Bach’s dogmatic programming of beauty into the black keys of the slippages embedded in the Western Diatonic Scale and all its well-intentioned temperance. The song is now clearly funk; its soul had disappeared into the silent mouths of Johnson and Payne. The bass slaps louder, with a more fractured counter-rhythm of high notes. The drums shed their 4/4 meter to enact a focussed disco kick into which a one-in-four off-beat floor tom rings loudly with an engorged tone. And a string section cascades up and down in chromatic arcs like fingers deftly exciting the pubic region.
This second section is dark. It quivers with the danger of night and all the excitement of sex at its most casual. And unlike the song’s first part, it locks into a looped groove integral to the impulse of funk. It traps you in a twilight zone of de-temporal experience: how long have we been listening, dancing, clutching, fucking? Notably, the song fades out, never to return to the social contract announced by its lyrics and their acrid sweetness. The statement of love has been swallowed by the sound of music.
If I’m guilty of proposing that the semiotic complexity of this seemingly innocuous instance of disco music is more engaging than the last half-century of experimental charades and their insistence that ‘noise’ is still a radical notion – feel free to execute me without a trial.