“The First Time”

’90s No. 1s Revisited: “The First Time”

The twenty-ninth No. 1 song of the 1990s was “The First Time” by Surface. This was the trio’s first and only No. 1 hit, although they were quite popular on R&B radio in the ’80s. Prior to “The First Time,” they had four Hot 100 entries, the most successful being 1989’s “Shower Me With Your Love,” which reached No. 5. After “The First Time,” Surface would chart only once more, later in 1991 with “Never Gonna Let You Down,” which peaked at No. 17.

Nothing embodies the mainstream popularity of Adult Contemporary in 1990-1991 better than this song. Because of that, this type of music was the hardest hit by the rise of Grunge and Gangsta Rap in 1992. “The First Time” would have been totally ignored had it been released 18 months later.

Let’s listen to “The First Time”:

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re a sucker for this type of music. It’s in the camp of other No. 1 singles we have already celebrated, such as “I Don’t Have The Heart” and “Because I Love You (The Postman Song).” Back in 1991, you see, normal everyday people enjoyed music that had stuff like melodies and pleasant accompaniment. That said, the lyrics of “The First Time” are a bit syrupy. They’re not necessarily bad lyrics, per se. Vulnerability and sincerity are positive traits in a man. But when heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics about holding hands and crying are delivered with such tenderly sweet vocals over light-as-a-feather Soft Rock instrumentals, and on top of that the singer is an innocent-looking bespectacled man wearing a shirt that’s buttoned all the way up, it’s just … it’s a lot, dude.

This song was widely considered lovely, but even by 1991 standards it was a bit wussy. It might have been doper had it been performed by, say, Michael Jackson, rather than Bernard Jackson, Surface’s lead singer (no relation).

Does it hold up? True story — we originally hypothesized that the only appropriate modern setting for this song might be a wedding, and when we Googled “Where is Bernard Jackson,” the top result was this video. So our unfounded generalization has at least one supporting data point. But you get the idea. Outside a romantic and sentimental context, “The First Time” is just too gentle for modern ears.

Dopeness: 3 out of 5 Birkenstocks


“The First Time”
2 weeks at No. 1, starting Jan. 26, 1991
Preceded by: “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” Janet Jackson
Followed by: “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” C+C Music Factory f/ Freedom Williams

’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?

  • John

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