Michael Jackson wouldn’t become known as the “King of Pop” until the eighties, but the amount of talent he had was clear even at the beginning of his career as a child star fronting The Jackson 5 alongside his brothers Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, and Marlon. The five boys, who were being managed by their father Joe, originated from Gary, Indiana and soon caught the attention of some high profile names, including the head of the Motown Label, Berry Gordy. After with working with Gordy and his team of writer/producers known as “The Corporation” at a studio in Los Angeles, the Jackson 5’s first album Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 was released in December of 1969 (Ross didn’t discover the band, but did promote them heavily as part of Motown’s marketing plan).
The Jackson 5’s first four singles all hit #1 in 1970, making them the first band to ever accomplish that. “I Want You Back” was the first of those singles, and is clearly the best. When it was selected as the first (and only) single from their debut album, it quickly went to #1 during the week of January 31st, 1970. The song is commonly mentioned as one of the best written and produced songs of the era, and for good reason, even nearly fifty years later, the song still pops as well as any other song out there. It’s almost too easy to plainly say that “I Want You Back” is an absurdly catchy pop song, because with just one or two listens, you’ll be able to make that conclusion yourself.
However, careful listening reveals a true masterpiece of the era – a work of art that any pop writer, producer, or performer would love to recreate, if only they could. Every instrument on the track is meticulously crafted and layered expertly on top of each other to give the joyous “bubblegum soul” groove space to work – little flourishes of bongo, strings, tambourine, piano, and bass alongside the ringing guitar add so much to the track even though each instrument doesn’t do anything spectacular individually. Lyrically, “I Want You Back” is about a lost-love who Michael desires to “give me [him] one more chance,” a theme which ultimately resonated with most who listened, but it’s happy-go-lucky rhythm, melodic progression, and most importantly timing and spacing are what gives this track so much “umph.”
I’ve spent a good amount of time listening to “I Want You Back” over and over again (because I love it), each time making it a point to follow one instrument the entire time and how they work together in tandem so well. Listen to how the tambourine and cymbal crashes add bits of flare to the groove during the chorus, how the glissando piano at the beginning of the track that gets the whole thing on a roll, how the bass line grounds the song but also provides a dynamic jumping off point for all the other instruments, or the call-and-response vocals between Michael and his brothers towards the end. I guarantee that listening for these individual moments (and countless others) will make you appreciate the song more on the whole.
It turns out that this listening exercise is pretty fucking hard to do when you have the late great Michael Jackson belting out notes like no tomorrow over all of it, and even at the ripe old age of 11, Michael was a talent unlike any other, and rightly people took notice. Michael’s cute looks combined with his unbelievable stage presence created a visual treat that caught the eye, while his strong pitch-perfect vocal performances were candy to the masses. Even on something small like the way he rolls through the start-stop enunciation on “won’t. you. please. let. me…back in your heart,” Michael arguably added more to the song than any other experienced vocalist could.
“I Want You Back” is a textbook example of the right way to make a pop song. You’d be hard pressed to find a three minute song in all of popular music that outshines this one.