Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Real Boy: The Jackson 5: "I Want You Back"

When I was a pre-schooler, probably still in nursery school, I was taken to see a movie. (This was before DVDs, before videos, when the only ways to see a movie were on tv or in a movie theatre; only rich cinephiles had home movie theatres, then.) My father’s job was as an animator, so of course he would take me to see animated movies, Fantasia being one that was (as was Disney’s wont) re-released for a new generation to enjoy. I got through that one just fine.

But Pinocchio? Like my mother, as I much later found out, I could not take it. I began crying – I forget at which part, it’s a distressing movie and so there could be many – and would not stop. My father, always respectful of the audience, led me out of the theatre, and we went home. If the part that started me crying had been one of suspense – something I’m not good at dealing with, in life or cinema – then that would make sense. But maybe I was more horrified at the idea of a little boy being made of wood, period. That, my crying, shocked self would have explained, if I’d been able to speak, is the worst thing. Death-in-life; a life given to others completely, who can do what they like with you, including throw you in a trunk if you don’t behave…how can he be real and not real at the same time? What horrors does he have to endure just to be a real boy?

Both of these were 1940 Disney classics, and I wonder if Michael Jackson saw either of them at the time – or perhaps as a superstar, he had other things to do. I was all of four when I saw it; Michael, had his parents taken him to see it, would have been thirteen. The very edge of adolescence, when the rigors of school, the absence or presence of any crushes, the whole bildungsroman of life starts out. Teenagers are supposed to be dumb, arrogant, passionate creatures that make mistakes. Even if you spent most of your adolescence either in school or at home doing homework, otherwise preoccupied with music and pop culture, that is more than enough to figure out a whole lot of things; add in friends, dances, movies, trips, and so on, and some kind of path will present itself, even one that says that staying true to yourself is not going to be easy, but that life (whatever it is) is a living death, as easy as it is for others to follow. It’s not yours, and no one is going to reward you with becoming ‘real’ at the end; you already are real, and it’s your main job to stay that way. (Michael, as you may already know, wasn't really allowed to make mistakes.)

But if you show signs of being gifted, then adults – the whopping majority of whom are talented perhaps but not ‘gifted’ – will treat you differently, with a kind of awe on one hand and impatience on the other. I was never regarded as ‘gifted’ myself; I and a few others got to skip Grade 4 as we were tested and judged able to do so, and we were a happy little flock the day we got our letters and told the good news. We still went to school just as usual, but had a year taken off, to stifle boredom, more than anything else. (In Grade 6 I wanted to know how to spell déjà vu and my teacher, Mrs. Myers, dutifully went to the classroom where the gifted children were being taught to find out. A year later I was in junior high, reading a learn-as-you-go book of French wishing I could take a class in it, and maybe wishing I was gifted.)

Michael Jackson’s gift was his voice, though; and as it was part of his body it was available to improve upon day and night. He had no chance to skip a year, to want to study something just because it was pleasurable, in and of itself. The voice is there, something that dominates a singer’s life, which they have to protect and train as best they can. Control over the voice becomes a big thing, using it to surprise others, to surprise yourself. But if you are a child and your gift is your voice, then you’re going to have adults – parents, coaches, any other interested parties – wanting you to become ready, skilled, and adept. In Jackson’s case he had a whole family to please, from his father on down, and multiply that awe and impatience several times and there’s Michael, having to learn fast, learn from his mistakes, to work hard and be the star of the Jackson 5, out there gigging and trying to get someone’s attention, and then being signed and groomed by Motown in 1968.

A child has some control over himself, but is still the ward of his parents; a gifted child is monitored hourly and as the gifts are honed and refined, possibilities become realities and what was first hailed as near-miraculous now has to be produced on a regular basis. I don’t know how much of this song could be called improvised or spontaneous, on the part of the performers or the songwriters (who went by the retrospectively kinda-creepy name The Corporation). Motown prided itself on being like a factory, the musicians working long hours, songwriters ditto, the whole thing very professional and demanding. So of course they would want these kids to rehearse and polish and rehearse some more, until they were ready and could do this complex song so easily, it sounds as if it just came to them, more or less.

That the whole thing kicks the 70s off is the least of the surprises – the backwards piano like curtains being flung open, the window opened to this most welcome dawn chorus, Michael leading the way, his four brothers harmonizing behind him, as he tells this story of love, which sounds awfully mature for someone who is only eleven. “When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around” is adolescent arrogance, and his admitting he was wrong to dismiss her, blind to let her go. So many pretty girls, so little time, already. Trying to live without her is unbearable, and he wants to show her that “I know wrong from right.” (Even here Michael has to show that he is good and worthy, and his voice is as loud and insistent as a robin*.)

The song stops and starts and leaps all over the place, piano and strings in front, the song constructed so it has hope and determination and freshness built right in, along with anxiety and flat-out fear. Will he get her back? Can he convince her he’s changed? There is no resolution, just yelping and screaming of Michael at the end, after he climbs up the word “go” as if he is swooping up to the top of the tree, a feat that is astonishing in anyone so young and afterwards disconcerting. How did he learn about how to do this? What is he calling upon – beyond sheer talent – to get that desperate? His “hah” towards the end is more a signal that he has done what he wanted to get done singing than any real confidence that he can get the girl back. Because he hasn’t had time for even the most childish of romances, this song can’t help but feel premature, unbelievable – he sees his girl in another man’s arms? This is not playground love, hopscotching and jump-rope rhymes (though the music makes it seem that way) but adult stuff, or at least adolescent, but what can Michael know of this?

I don’t know, but day-in day-out rehearsing and training can make anything happen, can make a voice – obviously young, haplessly able to dominate, even if he doesn’t want to – do anything, if only for the time it takes to sing a song. (How many songs sound convincing that were sung with no real passion and in some cases utter dislike?) The care and consideration undertaken in launching the group with this song (which took a long time to write – well over a year) meant they could not fail, they could only succeed; and they did, taking over pop and launching Michael out like a satellite (he had his first #1 US hit in 1972 with a song about a boy’s love for a rat – who thought this was a good idea, exactly?) and yet keeping him close, still that gifted student who has to be hot housed on the one hand and forced to prove his worth on the other.

The pressures on Michael pushed him towards life faster than he could assimilate it, towards the 70s before they had even begun; this fresh breeze of a song knocks the late 60s out like a cartoon character, as if to say “I’m the 70s, get out of my way!” That a child who has been all but exploited is leading the way should give anyone pause, but cuteness and naiveté are disarming things, to say the least. Michael Jackson was five when his gift was apparent, and by now he’s a pro at twelve. How can he keep up this momentum without something going wrong? Will he ever get to be a real boy?

“A bird mostly sings to hold a territory, and most birds hold a territory only in spring when they breed; at other times of the year they adopt a different strategy. But the robin’s game plan is to hold a territory throughout the year: a place where he, or she, can feed and stay safe, and survive throughout the hard weather.” (A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion, Simon Barnes, 2005.) It may seem odd to compare a child to a bird, but why else would he do “Rockin’ Robin”? Michael had to hold his territory all the time.


David Belbin said...

Great post on one of my favourite all time singles. Funny, I'm exactly the same age as MJ (would have been) but, even when this was a hit, he seemed much younger, still a kid, as it were. The same went double for 'I'll Be There', another classic that he was too young to sing. Yet, obviously, the mismatch between singer and song never mattered. Always hated 'Ben', mind, where that doesn't apply.

Martin F. said...

That's a smashing post.

Lena said...

Thanks! I have a lot more to post on Michael, but that won't be until the near end of the 70s, alas...