Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And all this summer, NPR has been exploring the American Dream. We've been asking people what one song represents the dream for them. This morning, we hear from music writer Jack Hamilton who picks a song from one of the biggest pop groups of the '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

JACK HAMILTON: I've never known exactly what the American Dream is. For all its talk of universal opportunity and exceptional potential, it's so haunted by rebuttals and contradictions that any song that embodies it would need to have, well, everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always make you stand out in a crowd...

HAMILTON: I consider the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" to be the pop record ever made, period, end of conversation. It was released in 1969 by Motown Records, the integrationist label whose famous slogan, The Sound of Young America, was its own American Dream - not white America, not black America - young America.

"I Want You Back" is that sound, crystallized in a voice unlike any the world had heard. Michael Jackson was 10 when he recorded "I Want You Back" and it's a stunning and utterly insane performance; a pre-pubescent kid singing a desperate love song with such full-throated urgency we believe every word of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

JACKSON: (Singing) ...back to your heart. Oh darling, I was blind to let you go. Let you go, baby. But now since I see you in his arms...

HAMILTON: And then the song fades into all that came after it. While Motown continued to enjoy success its luster began to dim, and the Sound of Young America became the sound of a graying nostalgia. But perhaps the thorniest history embedded in "I Want You Back" is Michael Jackson's own.

The next 40 years saw him achieve unprecedented success, only to suffer a long, public deterioration. He would come to see the music industry that raised him as little more than a den of greed and exploitation, and he might have been right: the reason no 10-year-old kid ever sang like that is that 10-year-old kids probably aren't supposed to.

"I Want You Back" sounds like the American Dream because it's both pristine and debased, corrupt ambition realized as flawless art. It's too good to be true, and when it ends we're left to ponder that impossibility. And then, if you're anything like me, you listen to it again as soon as you can.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

MONTAGNE: Music writer Jack Hamilton teaches at Harvard University. You can hear more American Dream Songs at NPRMusic.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: