It is easy to forget that Michael Jackson used to be that boy who danced and sang beyond his years with a level of artistry that inspired generations of musicians. But it is impossible to forget the music that this Mozart of popular music produced in his time with The Jackson 5.
"I Want You Back" introduced the world to Michael Jackson and his brothers that made up the group, The Jackson 5. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, saw the potential of in The Jackson 5 to reach beyond the African-American population to mainstream America. Gordy was a marketing genius who understood how to meld different genres of music to appeal to masses while maintaining a high level of musical artistry. He got together with three other composers to write and produce songs for The Jackson 5 as “The Corporation” to create the music that would catapult these five brothers into an international sensation.
"I Want You Back" is an intricate arrangement of musical colors that inspires child-like wonder in sonic world that it creates. It all begins with the piano glissando that falls like a rock splashing into a lack. Then right at the end of glissando there is cymbal hit that splashes like a bucket of water against a window. Other instruments enter the musical landscape as it comes into focus like water falling off a window clarifying what is seen beyond the glass.
The bass line immediately draws in the listener refusing to simply be a traditional bass line. The first note of the bass starts and is followed by space, then it rushes ahead, then there is more space. It pushes ahead again and finally we get a steady sense of the beat. This baseline almost seems to stutters before it becomes steady playing with our expectations and creates sonic space for us to listen to other instruments as they enter.
The rhythm guitar fills out the harmony while a rhythmic groove with the bongo drums before the drum set enters. Then the first verse begins and drums drop out. The Corporation chose to not use the drum set in the verse so that when it did enter during the choruses it not only provided a refreshing musical color but also kicked the chorus into high gear with a feeling of arrival. Other guitar lines and string orchestra countermelodies add other colors to this song, never overshadowing other instruments.
In this entire song, one can hear each individual instrument in the overall texture. This is because the different instruments are occupying different musical space. For example, the piano and bass play the same notes in the beginning of the song but because piano is playing it in a higher register while the bass in playing in a lower registers they are both audible. One can hear the slower rhythms in the bass line against the faster patterns of the guitar because they are playing at different times. Each instruments has a purpose and space that it occupies that works like an assembly line doing different things all at the same time to create a single amazing product.
The other Jackson brothers are not the typical back-up vocalists. They provide harmony but also countermelody, rhythmic energy and Michael’s inner dialogue. Let me show you what I mean. Here are the lyrics of the chorus. The text in the parentheses is what the back-up singer’s lines.
Oh baby give me one more chance
(show you that I love you)
Won't you please let me
(back in your heart)
Oh darlin' I was blind to let you go
(let you go baby)
But now since I see you in his arms
(I want you back)
Yes I do now
(I want you back)
Ooh ooh baby
(I want you back)
Ya ya ya ya
(I want you back)
Na na na na
It’s like Michael is trying to tell this girl what he means but he can’t quite get it out. The back-up singers are like his friends goading him on to really say what he means. The only time you hear Michael sing the words “I Want You Back” is in the fadeout during the last ten seconds of the song. He never gets across to his girl what he really wants. It’s a charming and almost comical scene to picture reflecting the optimism and naivety of young love.
The most musically inspired sections in this song are the transitions. At about 1 minute and 10 seconds, the section that leads back into the verse is like a musical black hole. None of the instruments play patterns that are on the beat. The feeling of the groups of four beats that the composers organized this song in seems lost and then the verse comes in two beats earlier then we expect. This propels us out of this black hole suddenly and unexpectedly into the second verse with a great sense of motion and arrival. Other transitions also play with our sense of rhythmic stability to draw attention to not only where the music is going but also how it gets there.
Michael Jackson’s voice as an 11-year-old boy is an astounding music artifact. It is a child singing with incredible singing technique and expression emulating the master soul singers in Motown that he grew up listening to and actively worked with. Michael is able to bring forth a level of intensity and sincerity in the verses while during the choruses his voice sails with a sense of pure joy and freedom.
Meaning in music comes from the artists, from our lives and sometimes it is something that changes over time. The high level of musical invention and artistry in "I Want You Back" communicates certain emotions but there is something much deeper in my own life that has made this song hold personal meaning.
There are moments in our lives when we realize we are growing up. For some of us, it’s that moment we see our parents make a mistake, for others it’s a traumatic moment like a family member dying. One of those moments in my life was realizing that Michael Jackson was fallible and that there was a possibility, even a small one in my mind that Michael could be guilty of one of the most insidious crimes in our society. This was all the more powerful because we have a snapshot of that innocence in Michael that we all lose growing up in that 11-year-old boy singing about a lost love.
In young Michael Jackson, I see the things that I would like to remember of my childhood. And in the later life of Michael Jackson, I see the harsh reality of life, how people can hurt each other and themselves. However, Michael Jackson gives me hope. I know the child who sang "I Want You Back" is still in him and I know that myself as a child is still inside me.
Whenever I listen to this song, the sun just seems to shine a little brighter. "I Want You Back" is about the optimism and the innocence that even we have lost never cease to inspire us in our lives to hope as Michael does in "I Want You Back" to fix our mistakes and work for a brighter tomorrow.