Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Pop Culture Serotonin, COVID-19 edition: “I Want You Back”

Sean Decatur
March 20, 2020

As I have written in the past, a liberal arts education has often provided me essential context to understand and navigate complex situations. In times of crisis, I find myself wading into the troubled waters — the texts, music, works of art and ways of understanding the world that have been a wellspring for humanity for generations. 

But, I also have written about my need for “pop culture serotonin” (with thanks to Pop Culture Happy Hour, co-hosted by Margaret Willison ’07, for that perfect phrase): those doses of escapism that distract me from the troubles of the world and give me some space to recover and restore my energy. March 2020 has already been a long month, even with an “extra week of spring break” (yes, those are ironic quotes). As the beginning of remote teaching and learning looms, I am certainly in need of some pop culture serotonin this weekend. My guess is that, no matter where you are, you may be as well.

So, at the risk of letting down those who are hungry for more detailed campus updates, my thoughts on how CRISPR tools may offer alternatives for coronavirus testing, or ruminations on how our current situation can help us better understand our culture, I offer you the pop culture serotonin I have planned for the weekend: An all “I Want You Back” playlist.  

Many try to debate the question, “What is the greatest pop song of the 20th century?” And while I respect a good debate, in my view there is only one answer: the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” A song you can recognize from the single starting bass guitar note. A song where the emotional longing of the lyrics contrasts with the joyous, youthful voice of an 11-year-old Michael Jackson to generate powerful electricity. A song that inevitably makes me want to scream out the lyrics as loudly as possible. Yes, this week, I needed “I Want You Back.”

But, “I Want You Back” has been covered, deconstructed, reconstructed by many other artists, and their versions are worth a listen as well. I am a big fan of the slow, jazzy feel that Lake Street Dive builds. Anything Janelle Monáe performs is worth a listen, so her version should make the list. The Taylor Swift version is, well, interesting; but if I’m in the mood for the acoustic-guitar, singer-songwriter vibe, I prefer The Civil Wars’ version. If you like Japanese pop, try the Finger 5 cover. Or, if you like K-pop, there is a version by TWICE. An electrified chamber music version performed by guys in 18th-century coats and wigs — we’ve got that too. There is an “I Want You Back” for almost every genre and mood (and I’ve listened to many, many of them — even pop punk, by Abandoned By Bears).

Suppose you do want to take up the debate on the standing of “I Want You Back” in the pantheon of American pop culture. Well, University of Virginia Professor of American Studies Jack Hamilton has asserted that not only is this the best pop culture record ever made “by such a wide margin that I can barely entertain a conversation,” he makes a compelling case that the three-minute song is an intriguing window into understanding the nature of the “American Dream.”

Or, suppose you listen to “I Want You Back,” and you determine what you really want is a public radio conversation that does a deep dive into the song, complete with reference to historical context and contemporary controversy. Well, you can find that too, in this piece by Studio 360 from back in October.

Finally, let’s say that what you really want is to watch an animated baby tree voiced by Vin Diesel dance to “I Want You Back.” Luckily, you can find that in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” 

The best escapist pop culture not only gives us joy, it serves as a launching pad for creativity and new inspiration as well as endless conversation. And, indeed, while a favorite or comfortable song may provide a much-needed respite, please do not underestimate the regenerative power of letting your mind run free, pondering topics and ideas that may seem light, trivial, too frothy for this time of serious things. Our minds not only need this escape, they need the creative exercise that comes from following a light topic down a twisting rabbit hole, looking at something a million different ways and reminding ourselves of the sheer joy and excitement that comes from discovering something new within something familiar. We need this energy and mental agility in our work, and we can exercise it in our play.

So, my advice for the weekend: Find your own special escapist entertainment and go, let your mind be free; rest and restore yourself for the challenges to come. Be safe, be well and, as always, take care of one another.