In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
I liked American Idol. I liked it enough that I spent years recapping it. During a period when it seemed like pop music was losing its place in the cultural firmament, here was this show, this absolute TV-ratings juggernaut, that foregrounded pop music. The show went deep on the idea of selling a song, using it to tell a story. Its idea of pop music was pretty far removed from my own — and from what was actually happening in pop music during that time — but it was still good for a couple of truly surprising performances per season.
But something about American Idol always bothered the fuck out of me: singers who would sing sad songs while smiling. To me, that was always the worst — a beauty-pageant affectation, a clear sign that the singers weren’t really thinking about the words that were coming out of their mouths. But that’s what Diana Ross basically did throughout the early ’60s, and she made pop-music magic with it.
I’ve already written about “Baby Love,” a song that I heard about a million times before realizing it was about heartbreak. Something similar is happening on “Come See About Me,” the single that the Supremes released right after “Baby Love” and the third of five consecutive #1 singles for the group. At least on paper, “Come See About Me” is a song about romantic desperation and devastation: “I’ve given up my friends just for you / My friends are gone and you have too / No peace shall I find / Until you come back and be mine.” And yet Ross delivers those lines with a flirty wink. She’s not taking the song’s words too seriously, and she’s letting you know that you don’t have to take them that way, either.
The part of “Come See About Me” that really resonates is the chorus, with Ross gently cooing the song’s title as the other Supremes playfully echo her. It’s a happy invitation, not a wounded plea. But I don’t think this is a case of a singer who hasn’t really thought about what she’s singing. I think it’s a case of Ross artfully deploying the idea that she’s desperate. She’s not baring her soul. She’s trying out a flirting technique. And maybe she’s having fun doing it.
“Come See About Me” is also a clear sign of a Motown machine that was just hitting its stride. It’s a mathematically perfect song, building to that hook with machinelike precision. All its elements work together in beautiful harmony: The driving handclaps, the low sax rumbles, the dramatic flourish of a drum intro. And the voices of Ross and her fellow Supremes just dance over this gleaming engine of a song, throwing light in every direction. It’s a delightful little marvel of a song, a testament to the idea that sometimes smiling through a sad song is the right call.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Afghan Whigs’ video for their wracked, intense 1992 cover of “Come See About Me”: