I WANT YOU BACK: POP PERFECTED


(Editor’s note: That whole “I’m done with MJ posts”? Ok, so that was premature. Sorry but the hits just keep on coming! This is from James Cavicchia, my favorite “music writer who is not professionally a music writer but better than many music writers who are” and a message board post he is allowing me to reprint. –O.W.)

The Jackson 5: I Want You Back
From Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (Motown, 1969)

    “When I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever been fully convinced by Michael Jackson, really. Not convinced by the squeaky-clean pre-teen singing about women troubles in every other song, not convinced by the timid good-timer of Off The Wall (though I always think of Michael dancing, I never ever think of him dancing with anyone—do you?), not convinced by the cuddly werewolf/virginal baby-daddy/china-fine gang-war mediator of Thriller, and on and on. He was never convincingly girl-weary as a young boy, and never convincingly romantic, aggressive, or sexual as an adult. He always seemed to be just outside of the real action. And while this made me feel very affectionate toward him—he was so clearly a kid, one of us, who had somehow fooled the right people and infiltrated the adult world—none of his music ever seemed to have any real place in any reality that I was familiar with. I managed to grow up loving his music without it actually meaning anything to me; it felt huge and important, but weightless. Like cartoons.

    I know that sounds pretty negative, but what it actually ends up meaning is that Michael Jackson’s music works on me with a purity matched by few. Because for all the levels on which it may be suspect—lyrics, persona, whatever—there is one level on which it always always convinces: the sound. Three certainties in life: You will definitely die, you will always pay taxes, and you will never ever say “Man, that Michael Jackson song doesn’t sound as good as I remember.” It will only ever sound better, I promise you. Whatever suspension of disbelief the songs may require, and however little connection they may have to anything outside their own miniature fantasias, their reign within the borders of their runtime is absolute. They are unalloyed pop-music-production genius galvanized by Michael’s voice, which is not always the most integral piece, but is always, finally, the most necessary one. At the same time their immense commercial success keeps them present and current within culture, their essential unreality and inhuman inner perfection allow them to operate outside of time. They often seem less like actual songs and more like ideas that we’re all having at the same time. To hear them is to think, “Well, yeah—of course.”

    And “I Want You Back” is the best Michael Jackson song. It’s not quite my favorite (“The Love You Save” narrowly edges it), but it’s the best, and is one of what I usually consider to be the two archetypal Perfect Pop Songs. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot (I know, right?): The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” divide the world between them—there is no third.

    It starts with that piano curlicue that doubles back on itself before it’s even gone and tagging the guitar at the turn, the two together sounding like they could flip the entire sun like a fucking flapjack. Then the strings come in and then the bongos and then and then and then, and it’s not harmonious, exactly—there’s crisp separation between each instrument, and everything’s in its own space, but the sheer mass of all the pieces gives it this beautiful kind of overfull clatter. There’s a quick sense that not only could there not possibly be anything better, there couldn’t possibly be anything else. Mike glides down in full whine, and from here on out the song stubbornly defies momentum—it stays stopping and starting, the drums jump in place (only on the choruses, though—no drums at all on the verses), and it’s the most glorious parade in the world, too generous, and stopping at every house. It should annoy, but the thing is that after every single stop, it somehow manages—incredibly—to sound even better when it starts back up. You don’t think it will, but it does, every single time. By the end, hearts and ears bulge at the seams from the undiminished return.

    And although the song never puts across the sense of loss that you’d assume from the title, it’s okay, because it’s not really trying to. The amiable bass and the daylight guitar and that plinky piano that get sprinkled in seem to understand Michael in a way that Michael doesn’t understand the song (and probably couldn’t, at his age): Despite the literal desperation of the lyrics, and even though he works overtime to sell us on it, it’s clear from Michael’s perfect, explosive vocal that he does not believe even for an instant that it won’t all work out, and the genius of the music is that it recognizes that this—the faith and the gold of youth—is the point of the song, not some girl, some…other. The point is the I, not the want. Just listen to the little vocal break before the last chorus: Mike’s trying to preach it on what would ostensibly be the climax of this love-lost song, but behind him is this springy guitar line cake-walking with some easter-bunny bassline. Like I said: There’s an understanding. Understanding that when Michael sings “Won’t you please let me / back in your heart?”, it isn’t actually a question.

    Was it ever, really?”

    -James Cavicchia

Bonus beat: Jackson 5: I Want You Back (Z-Trip Remix)
From Motown Remixed Vol 1 (Motown, 2005

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