Dedicated to those songs that I can’t stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included New Order’s “Age of Consent,” Sleater-Kinney’s “Rollercoaster,” and Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer.”
Here is an interesting question concerning your perception of the world and history: Do you consider The Jackson 5 to be part of Michael Jackson‘s career? That is to say when you think of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, do you put “ABC” in the mix along with “Beat It” and “Rock With You”? I suppose it would be like “Imagine” being labeled a Beatles‘ song, but I feel the question is apt because it gives credit to the Jackson 5 that I feel has been sorely lacking. Not only that, it puts the entire Michael Jackson puzzle into a new weird light, and as I play “I Want You Back” over and over again, I have to remind myself that the kid singing not only grew into the biggest star in the world, but then went crazy and may or may not still have a face.
I was in a bar a short while ago, as I often am. We’d come to the end of our night and we grabbed our stuff as that famous opening piano trill for “I Want You Back” came on over the jukebox. An immediate and instinctual bounce rose from within me and I smiled the whole way to the door. But that’s not anything noteworthy; what is noteworthy was the fact that every table and booth in the bar had at least one person having the same reaction to the song. It was one of those perfect moments when harmony finds my life and I become aware I am in the midst of a universally accepted and loved song. I can name only a few songs that fit this description, very few of which are out and out pop songs and even fewer come close to the level of audio smiling as “I Want You Back” (still fewer can get a Los Feliz hipster bar sincerely bouncing).
This goes to prove that you should never underestimate the power of music — it can bring down governments and make you forget about pedophilia allegations.
“I Want You Back” feels like the feelings of delight, joy and happiness manifested into sound, making it the pop song pinnacle. Dance-ability, catchy chorus, slick-yet-natural production, just different enough to be fresh, but just repetitive enough to be inviting. It’s even a perfect pop song length — three minutes of beauty.
It’s a simple song that seems full of “This is the best part” parts, but that simplicity is deceptive. One might focus on the classic Motown background strings, or even those closing “Ow!” shouts from Michael during the fade out. But today, the best “This is the best part” is the bass line. According to Allmusic, the song was written to follow Motown standards, but then got tailored to fit by label president Berry Gordy, who had just discovered the Jacksons. Think of how perfectly everything aligns in this song: on one hand you have fresh, young, hungry talent ready to perform an energetic song, and on the other you have the peak craftsmen of one of our country’s sturdiest music machines. This means the song was written by Motown hit-making royalty and performed by some of the greatest studio musicians of the 1960s. This means Wilton Felder.
I don’t know a thing about bass (I know it’s a “dad guitar,” and Sting plays one and sings, which is supposedly uncommon, but that’s about it), but I know what I hate. And I don’t hate this. Just like the qualities of great pop music, the bass line of “I Want You Back” is innovative enough to serve the song, without being so innovative that it gives you — in the words of Amadeus — too many notes. In remembering the song before giving it extensive study, I thought the bass basically carried the melody. In reality, the bass line is as irreplaceable as sound waves. After delivering that unforgettable intro in sync with the guitar and strings, it breaks off (as do all the instruments) on the second pass to reach for what some consider heaven. During the first verse, the bass gives a mild version of the intro that you think (and I seem to have misremembered) will carry through to the chorus.
This is not the case, and any attempt to articulate a four-string miracle such as this would only build my word count. In simple terms, Felder gets mildly funky, grabbing everyone’s feet and tapping their toes for them. We get the clearest, cleanest example of such incredible booty shaking in the breakdown at the two-minute mark. Things get a little quiet for a moment before the bass reminds us that our true calling in the world (of this song) is to dance. We need only oblige.
“I Want You Back” may not be an important song, but it remains an unequivocally great one, dolling out pop brilliance with ease and cool. Too much so: Every part of this song seems so natural and easy that a case could be made against it for our subsequent years of suffering in pop land. For every “I Want You Back” there were probably a million “But I’m Forgiving”. Through the weird brainwashing I have subjected myself to, I’ve almost forgotten who I was listening to. Heard in historical context, I suppose I can understand how Michael became the star of the group, but to say he rises above “I Want You Back” would be a grievous lie. Make no mistake: he was as lucky to be there as we are to have it recorded.
Inevitable Video Note: That opening paragraph notwithstanding, apparently people do think of the 80s-superstar version of Michael Jackson in the same light as the little-Jackson-5 version of Michael.