The 100 Greatest Songs of the Rock Era: #86: I'll Be There


The Jackson 5 from Third Album (1970)

“You know what’s interesting?” Peggy said. “This is the second artist on your list already who had his first hits as an adolescent and continued deep into adulthood.”

“You find that interesting?”

“You don’t? How often does it ever happen? You have Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. How many more can you name?”

“Okay, good point.”

Peggy paused. I noticed that she tended to pause when she said something I wouldn’t have observed myself. I wasn’t sure if this was to let me consider it or to have me stew in the fact that she was smarter than me.

“Do you think Michael Jackson had any idea what he was singing about when the Jackson 5 recorded this song?” she said.

“Given his public persona throughout his life, I’m guessing the answer to that question is ‘no.’”

“But even if that weren’t the case, how could any twelve-year-old sing a song this romantic convincingly?”

“And yet he did.”

“Yes. He absolutely did. How does that happen? This isn’t Justin Bieber singing ‘baby, baby, baby.’ This is a mature love song that sounds entirely believable coming from a middle-schooler.”

She had me there. What Jackson was doing wasn’t mimicry. It wasn’t a producer in a studio telling him to whisper here and get soulful there. It was a twelve-year-old singing like a man and making adults all over the planet believe it. “I’ll Be There” had been a massive hit across a wide demographic, and at this point it definitely wasn’t because little Michael looked cute fronting a band of his brothers. That might have been the case with “ABC,” but it certainly wasn’t the case with “I’ll Be There.”

“He was tapping into something,” I said. “Maybe he really was an alien. Maybe he’d lived multiple lifetimes on other planes before adopting this form. Maybe he’d loved and lost repeatedly in those other lifetimes.”

“I was going to say that he was a skilled student of human interaction, even if he didn’t turn out to be much of a participant.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a better theory.”

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