It’s impossible to separate my love for Sharice’s “I Love Your Smile” from the nostalgia it evokes.
They’re one and the same.
“I Love Your Smile” is a slice of such a specific time and place for me. It is a perfect encapsulation of the pure, twinkling, late-80s R&B birthed by Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, complete with a woozy saxophone riff by Branford Marsalis.
Produced by Grammy-winning drummer-turned-hitmaker Narada Michael Walden, it’s an updated R&B version of the mall pop from The Jets and Debbie Gibson, free from rock crossover elements that would come with songs like En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” or samples that would come to dominate 90s Hip Hop by the middle of the decade.
It’s so sweet and plaintive. Almost oppressively sweet. The lyrics are about Sharice daydreaming through class and work, her mind fixated on the simplicity of a cute boy’s smile. The chorus is literally just her repeating “I love your smile” over the scatted vocal riff that opens and closes the song.
Sitting in my class, just drifting away
Staring into the windows of the world, yeah
I can’t hear the teacher, his books don’t call me at all
I don’t see the bad boys tryin’ to catch some play
‘Cause I love your smile
I love your smile
Looking at all of those elements one by one, it seems impossible that this song is good at all. My love for it must be pure nostalgia, right?
Taken altogether, the elements speak to a specific sense of teenage innocence in music that hasn’t returned to the top of the pop charts in force since then. Songs that start with “sitting in class” stopped being Billboard smashes unless the line was delivered with irony and retrospect.
The wistful simplicity of “I Love Your Smile” isn’t so different than how Britney’s loneliness was killing her in “Hit Me Baby (One More Time.” Yet, the late-90s teen pop resurgence heralded by Britney and Christina was threaded with self-awareness and sexual liberation that didn’t exist for Sharice.
There was no double entendre of being “rubbed the right way” in “I Love Your Smile.” It wears its heart on its sleeve, and Sharice’s biggest worries are putting a little black dress on a credit card and “thunder clouds of doubt” about if her love will be returned.
When I hear “I Love Your Smile,” I hear sunshine – which is ironic, since it peaked on the charts over Christmas break at the end of 1991. However, that means it was still in regular rotation in the spring of 1992. That makes sense with how it summons sunshine and pure innocence for me. That was my final year of schoolyard simplicity, existing right at the precipice of I realizing the darker themes that surrounded me in my Born Again Christian education.
Sharice’s innocence and my innocence were one and the same. That might be why this song will always work for me, even if it falls flat for a modern listener – although, I maintain that it’s hard to resist that scatted hook.