Breathless ’90s life filtered through cameras fuels Semisonic’s “Secret Smile”

A love story told through confusion, celluloid, and frantically flirty playfulness

As a ’90s kid, sometimes I can’t help but reminisce fondly on the decade of my childhood, in all its glimmer, gleam, and glory. There was a certain energy, creativity, genuineness, and desperation that defined the decade, and resulted in such songs as “Secret Smile,” a catchy pop hit from 1998 that I recently stumbled across on a No Doubt Spotify radio mix, and, that I’ve been listening to obsessively since. Because I’m cool like that. Heartbreakingly angsty, confessional, a little over-the-top, but only in the service of creating what is, in the end, a really catchy and memorable song, it’s one I for some reason am a bit embarrassed to confess that I love.

Apparently, the story goes that the melody for the song came to songwriter Dan Wilson in a dream…Seriously? Does that even happen to anyone, anymore? But it makes sense. “Secret Smile” has lyrics that shrug off bashfulness, cynicism, and indecision. They are drenched in only the most up-front, heartfelt and optimistic sentimentalism, a brave willingness to put one’s heart in a song, ignore the risk to one’s pride promised by potential rejection, and to hold tight to one’s emotions and impulses and just run with them.  When paired with a breathless video of Wilson and his wife running through a series of sets for films, cobbling together a music video on handheld camcorders and hijacked film equipment, the song really earns its wings.

It takes a certain confidence and comfort with personal vulnerability to be that way: honest and open, sharing your feelings, with your heart on your sleeve and a camera in your hand. It’s the kind music to inspire you to impromptu dance parties, karaoke confessionals, and dancing-in-your-seat roadtrip balladry the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed since high school.

As for the video, there’s definitely a reoccurring theme involving self-recording and the visual medium laced into it. From the opening shot of the camcorder lying upside down on Wilson’s apartment floor, to image of him and his wife singing love songs to each other, eventually fleeing paparazzi through a series of what appear to be a series of television studios and film sets, and even at one point filmed by a news helicopter from overhead. For me, the video brings to mind a frustration with the world over-saturated by obsessive self exposure, and a breathless pursuit of the genuine that can only be captured, by this couple, in brief moments of flirtation, sly hand-holding, playfulness, and giggling escapism.

My only prior experience with Semisonic was, of course, “Closing Time,” the quintessential last song at any and every youthful dance, homecoming, or prom. But I’ve been listening to some more of their catalog lately though, and enjoying what I hear, far more than I could have expected. So if you are craving a break from the trials and tortures of our still-only-teenage millennium, with its particular brand of shrillness and media saturation, take this video as a time machine, and flee like I have to a, quote, “simpler time.” Enjoy!

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