If elegy is the transformation of grief into talisman, what is “I Want You Back”?
First, the joyful banality of the sentiment, the callousness of an affection diminished by the presence of pretty faces and revived by jealousy, this banality cut through by the actual breaking (2:12) of the preternatural smoothness of the surface of the voice, the voice of an eleven-year-old child, a breaking somehow no less real for being a mimicry of grown-up pain, a breaking that seems to ask, aren’t we all callow fakes performing our brokenness, and nonetheless really broken?
(1:58) Jermaine sings the baseline. This was the part my first boyfriend, who wore a Lloyd Dobler-inspired trench coat, sang in the arrangement performed by our high school’s boys acapella group in the spring of 1994, when he was no longer my boyfriend and we hadn’t spoken in two years. He stood in the back, hands in pockets, unsmiling (but eyebrows raised, a look he’d perfected) only stepping forward for those few seconds, the scar he’d gotten on the lower right side of his mouth and chin the summer we were in eighth grade faded considerably but still visible.
A song about wanting that is the celebration of itself and thus of no longer wanting. The dissolution of desire in its own virtuosic expression. A turning away from the beloved in the consolation of making, which is a consolidation of the self and its powers. Be forever dead in Eurydice.
Years later my worldliest college friend, Joy, asked who the best-looking member of any band was. Lead singer? I offered, lamely.
That it is a child performing this paradox doubles the stakes, ratchets up this joy that is the better prize, this opening in the wake of wanting that returns the power of childhood. The words say, I want you back. The trill says, I am a cosmos unto myself.
Bass player, she corrected.