Brian McKnight Stages a Soulful Comeback at Chili's

The menu remix math feels less fuzzy than his original R&B hit

To promote its "3 for Me" menu, Chili's Grill and Bar tapped Mischief @ No Fixed Address to make the most of a Brian McKnight cameo. It paid off for us somewhat more than we expected.

There are so many celebrity walk-ons in Super Bowl ads that they all blur together, like a bunch of TV people wandering through your house in a fever dream. So it feels novel to get a post-Bowl celeb surprise. 

The "remix" opens with a date-night couple at Chili's, who are surprised to find their server is a dead ringer for McKnight. The latter's melancholy ballads probably closed out the majority of high school proms about 20 years ago—a figure that makes us grimace. Probably every generation laments the rapid passage of time, but millennials are the first to have the privilege of doing it via social media all day long, year on year, forever. Maybe it's for this reason that we love a throwback: It's the kind of wound that hurts so good.

"You think 16-time Grammy nominated R&B star Brian McKnight is a waiter at Chili's?" the waiter asks. 

"Well, your name is Brian," the woman retorts, noting the server's name-tag.

Our guy continues to demur with growing snippiness, so the couple moves on. "Do you know how the' 3 for Me Meal' works?" the waiter asks. When they say no, the ambiance goes all starry and he belts out an adaptation of his summer 1999 hit "Back at One." 

Except, you know, instead of describing the math of his emotions, it’s the math of "3 for Me."

That math is pretty simple, actually: It's just a combo meal involving a drink, appetizer and main course. Brian stops mid-song to let the stunned woman order, then triumphantly turns toward the guy and croons, "Four: Repeat steps one, two, three!"

Look. Some people might argue that an artist cashing in on their fame this flagrantly is pathetic, especially after so much time. Those same people probably jammed hard to the Big Game halftime show last year, featuring a bevy of nostalgic OGs who probably do less hair-swinging out of cars than hair-braiding for offspring these days. Case in point: Snoop, who in December released an album of self esteem-boosting kids songs titled Doggyland.

The point is, it's not about selling out. It's about cashing in, because we all have somewhat samey existential stakes—including the giant stack of bills—and a universal desire to feel like we still matter while paying the aforementioned bills doing something fun. 

This feels like it was fun for Brian McKnight to do. And hearing his remixed "Back at One" was the serotonin boost we never knew we needed. It managed to send us back to the adolescent slow-dance—thinking that cute guy actually cared that we could sing this song pitch-perfectly into his ear as we shuffled across the gym—while liberating us to laugh about the fact that we're all old now.

It was quite a thing, being a teenager with vibrating youth and potential while Brian was at the height of his Sinatradom. Now we're old, jiggly and sleepy all the time, and some parallel-universe version of McKnight might as well be working at Chili's.

Anyway, even after this quite obvious reveal of his true identity—and his gracious signing of a quick autograph—Brian goes on denying his identity to the very end. 

Word from the man himself: "I was thrilled to be able to collaborate with such an iconic brand like Chili's on this remake of one of my favorite hits—it truly felt like such a natural fit and a no-brainer," says McKnight. "The song is all about steps, much like Chili’s 3 for Me menu. As a foodie with a long-standing love for Chili's, I was even more excited to dedicate this 'Back at One' remix to food."

That quote is just as absurd as the rest of this, which only makes us miss the guy more. Beyond that, the ad does a perfectly adequate job of illustrating the surreal weirdness of Chili's "Southwest-inspired American cuisine" experience, and will probably get a lot more bang out of its buck for having ignored the Super Bowl entirely.

It's the brand's first ad in three years. A Super Bowl spot is, at times, a one-hit wonder, insufferable the second it's over. This is work they can run for awhile, and scale, without driving us all crazy.

The remix will appear on Chili's YouTube and social media channels. 

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Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

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