The Number Ones

September 19, 1987

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (Feat. Siedah Garrett)

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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All through the mid-’80s, Michael Jackson was an absent overlord. In 1983, Jackson had changed the course of popular music. Thriller, released at the end of 1982, was not just a hit album. It was a realignment of the poles. Thriller sold in absurd, baffling numbers, and it utterly changed the math on what a record could do. The album’s success granted Michael Jackson a centrality to popular culture that only a couple of musicians — maybe the Beatles, maybe Elvis Presley — had ever reached. By 1984, Jackson might’ve been the most famous person on the planet, or he might’ve been second only to one of his acquaintances, fellow cloistered celebrity Ronald Reagan.

You couldn’t follow Thriller. It wasn’t possible. For years, Jackson didn’t. Jackson mostly stayed away from the pop-music grind for a long time. When Jackson would resurface, it was a big deal. It was a big deal, of course, when Jackson co-wrote and sang on “We Are The World” in 1985. But it was also a big deal when Jackson did his old label boss Berry Gordy a favor and sang uncredited but instantly identifiable backup vocals on “Somebody’s Watching Me,” a song from Gordy’s son Rockwell. (“Somebody’s Watching Me” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)

Jackson’s reticence from the spotlight wasn’t just over the success of Thriller. In those years, Jackson had a lot going on. After intense pressure from his family, Jackson had consented to reunite with his brothers for the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory album and its surrounding tour. Victory went double platinum, and its lead single, the Michael/Mick Jagger duet “State Of Shock,” peaked at #3. (It’s a 6.) For Michael Jackson, those were flop numbers. The attendant stadium tour drew huge backlash for its high ticket prices, and when Michael was shooting one of the commercials for the Pepsi ad campaign attached to the tour, an errant pyro display set his hair on fire. He needed immediate plastic surgery to hide the scars.

Jackson was getting a lot of plastic surgery in those years. He was also using pancake makeup to hide his vitiligo, which led to a whole lot of people assuming that he was trying to bleach his skin and erase his Black identity. Outlandish tabloid rumors swirled, and some of those reports were true. Jackson, for instance, was starting to collect things — like animals, and like other artists’ publishing catalogs.

Jackson, acting on Paul McCartney’s advice, bought up the songbooks of artists like Sly & The Family Stone and Dion. Then, in a move that pissed off McCartney and caused another backlash, he also bought the Beatles’ songbook. This was an almighty flex and a smart business decision, but it was also a PR catastrophe. Jackson’s other big move at the time was to star in Captain EO, a big-budget 3D sci-fi short film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas. Captain EO wasn’t for theaters or for home video. It was a Disneyland attraction. That shit is nuts.

Between Thriller and Bad, five years went by. CBS Records boss Yetnikoff was livid at all the waiting, and he reportedly threatened to sue Jackson over the songs he’d recorded for Captain EO. Jackson was still in the studio, working with Quincy Jones again and endlessly tinkering. He thought the next album had to be bigger than Thriller, which is frankly just not a reasonable expectation.

In a 1987 SPIN cover story, an unnamed source told the writer Quincy Troupe that Jackson was “afraid to finish the record. The closer he gets to completing it, the more terrified he becomes of that confrontation with the public. Quincy Jones could only keep him protected from it for so long, then he leaves the studio and it’s there. He’s reminded that everyone is waiting for this record, and he goes into a shell. He is frightened.” (Jackson was still such a big deal that SPIN put him on the cover without a single quote from the artist.)

Finally, sometime in 1987, Bad was ready to go. Bad is a hard, sharp, polished piece of work — a Thriller-sized album, rendered in the sleek and synthed-out shape of late-’80s pop. When the moment to pick a first single arrived, Jackson had a lot to work with. Every song on Bad sounded like a single, and most of them ultimately got singles pushes. There are 11 songs on Bad, and eight of them became singles. (In the UK, it was nine.)

For understandable reasons, Jackson and Quincy Jones decided to adapt the same rollout that they’d used for Thriller. Before he’d come out with “Billie Jean,” Jackson had launched Thriller with the Paul McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine,” a soft and approachable adult-contempo track. (“The Girl Is Mine” peaked at #2. It’s a 3.) “The Girl Is Mine” was a big deal because it was a Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney duet, not because the song itself staked out any new ground. The song itself was reassuring fluff.

In 1987, another Paul McCartney collaboration was obviously not an option. But Jackson had written a shimmery, hesitant love song called “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and he wanted it to be a duet. Jackson’s first choice for the song was Barbra Streisand, who turned it down because she didn’t like it. He also offered it to Whitney Houston, and that one didn’t work out, either. It’s very weird to think about how Jackson could’ve coexisted with either of those overpowering singers, especially on a song as small and internal as “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Ultimately, Jackson made a fascinating and possibly-narcissistic choice. He sang “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” with a singer who sounded a whole lot like him.

Siedah Garrett was not really a known quantity in 1987. Garrett, a Compton native, was a couple of years younger than Jackson, and she’d come up singing in nighclub acts as a teenager in the ’70s. (When Garrett was born, the #1 single in America was the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown.”) Garrett met Quincy Jones in 1984. Jones was producing the soundtrack for Fast Forward, a Sidney Poitier-directed dance movie, and he held auditions for singers. Garrett recorded a bunch of songs for that soundtrack, and Jones signed her to his Qwest label.

Siedah Garrett never became a big artist. (Her highest-charting single before “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was “Don’t Look Any Further,” a 1984 duet with former Temptations singer Dennis Edwards. It peaked at #72.) Instead, Garrett mostly sang on demos and did session backup-singer work; you can hear her voice on Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.” Garrett also wrote songs. One of those songs will eventually appear in this column.

One day, Garrett went into the studio to work with Quincy Jones on a song she’d written. Jones had also sent her a demo of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and told her to learn it. Garrett hadn’t realized it was a Michael Jackson song. (That’s what she says, anyway. I can’t believe she couldn’t recognize his voice on the demo, but maybe she just thought it was a demo singer trying to sound like Michael Jackson.) Jones asked Garrett to record the song, and when she went into the vocal booth, two mics were set up. Garrett didn’t realize she was about to record a duet with Michael Jackson, and she didn’t meet him until right before the two of them started singing. I love shit like that.

As it happens, Michael Jackson’s Bad is the first album I ever bought with my own money. I listened to that thing over and over as a kid, and I don’t think I ever realized that “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was a duet. Jackson and Garrett sing their parts in tremulous quavers, and I guess I just thought it was Jackson layering up his own voice. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” depends entirely on the raw vulnerability of Jackson’s performance, and it’s a real testament to Garrett’s skill that she could mirror that quality back at him.

But then, maybe I just never realized that “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was a duet because I never paid the song too much attention. In the context of Bad, it’s a deep cut, not one of the driving dance bangers that I loved. The intro of the song is straight-up off-putting. Jackson, speaking rather than singing, coos weird little come-ons: “Your eyes are so lovely. Your mouth is so sweet. A lot of people misunderstand me. That’s because they don’t know me at all.” (In later versions of Bad, including the one that’s now on streaming, that intro was mercifully deleted.) Jackson never got a chance to have any kind of healthy adult love life. Maybe that’s why “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” comes off as a love song written by someone who only ever learned about love from Disney movies.

But you can also hear “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” as a song about anxiety. (I could say the same, honestly, about virtually every song on Bad.) Most of the lyrics are generic love-song pablum: “Your love’s got me high/ I long to get by/ This time is forever/ Love is the answer.” But there are also expressions of fear on the song: “This thing can’t go wrong/ I can’t live my life without you.” There’s defiance in there, too: “This is my life, and I want to see you for always.” Jackson had distanced himself from his family and his religion. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses had forced Jackson to apologize for his “Thriller” video, and he left the church shortly thereafter.) What he had left was fantasy. Maybe “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is how that fantasy sounded.

In the context of Bad, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is a soft and spare song, a valley rather than a peak. By any reasonable metric, though, it’s still grand and sweeping. Quincy Jones recorded the song with his usual battalion of session-musician aces, including Toto’s David Paich and Steve Porcaro, who helped layer those synths. Musically, the song is the kind of misty gloop that I tend to ignore. But Jackson and Garrett’s vocal performances bring a real affecting sensitivity, and the crashing chorus adds a sense of drama that I like. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is nowhere near the best song on Bad, but it does its job.

If Jackson had sung “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” with Barbra Streisand or Whitney Houston, the song’s release would’ve been an event, and I think the song itself would’ve suffered. With Siedah Garrett, it’s more of a throat-clearing, a soft launch. Jackson didn’t even make a video. But “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was still a new Michael Jackson single, and that alone made it an event. The song topped the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts as well as the Hot 100. Jackson and Garrett also recorded a version in Spanish, and that one made it to #11 on Hot Latin Tracks.

“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” hasn’t endured the way so many other Michael Jackson hits have done, but Jackson liked the song enough to sing it live. Siedah Garrett wasn’t on Jackson’s Bad stadium tour. Instead, Jackson sang it with his backup singer Sheryl Crow. (Sheryl Crow’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “All I Wanna Do,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Years later, though, Jackson brought Garrett on his Dangerous tour, and they sang the song together every night.

“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was only the beginning. Bad didn’t outsell Thriller, the way Jackson wanted, but it did launch plenty of singles to #1. We’ll soon see a whole lot more Michael Jackson in this column.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gloria Estefan and James Ingram singing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” together at the 2011 CBS special that was taped at Madison Square Garden:

(James Ingram has been in this column once already, and he’ll be in it again. Gloria Estefan will appear in this column, too.)

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