Mar 10

MICHAEL JACKSON – “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”

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#596, 15th August 1987

In a piece I wrote last year for Zero Books’ The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson, I argued that the sense of self-conscious scale and event in 80s music came partly as an after-effect of Thriller’s colossal sales, which suggested an inflated reach for pop, an expansion in the limits of what was commercially possible. This was a fantasy – no record has come close to Thriller’s sales since – but it created a moment in which pop, and specifically Jackson, could sit at the centre of a celebrity universe.

Bad was the product of that moment and as such it’s probably the hardest of Jackson’s records to get a handle on, since it mostly exists as its endless parade of singles, a two-year processional ending in the pure decadence of “Liberian Girl”‘s celebrity-soaked video. In America, “I Just Can’t Stop..” was the first of five #1s in a row for him: in Britain, it’s the only Bad single to top the charts – his grip was beginning to slacken.

The odd thing is, it’s probably the least memorable of the “Bad” songs: within the album’s marketing life cycle it’s the polite cough and baton tap to signal that the show is about to begin. Thriller had kicked off with something similarly low-key musically, but “The Girl Is Mine” had the clout of McCartney’s involvement, an early sign of how inclusive he was aiming to be. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” has Siedah Garrett, who does a quiet job, goes uncredited on the sleeve, and makes it easy to forget this is a duet at all. (Wikipedia suggests her role was intended for Streisand or Whitney, which would have made for a higher-impact record though not necessarily a better one).

What about Jackson himself? He flutters around the verse delicately but inconsequentially, saving himself for the chorus, which has flashes of his typical urgency, his tic-fuelled ability to make it sound like something big is at stake in any song. But less here than before or after – there’s not the hunger of his earlier hits or the anger and anguish of his later ones. The thunderclap-driven power ballad format he’s trying here would stay part of the Jackson style – a lot of his 90s singles use it, including his most flummoxing and highest-selling number one. But “I Just Can’t Stop” never quite shakes off appetiser status.



  1. 1
    weej on 31 Mar 2010 #

    It’s very odd that this is the only Bad track that went to number one, especially as it seems to be pretty much the only one without a music video. Most likely it was just out at the right time – does anyone know what Bad and Smooth Criminal were up against?

  2. 2
    Tom on 31 Mar 2010 #

    The only other Bad track to get to #2 was “Leave Me Alone” – “Bad” got to #3, Smooth Crim only to #8.

  3. 3
    Richaod on 31 Mar 2010 #

    My first reaction was “…wait, THIS was a UK #1 and The Way You Make Me Feel” wasn’t?

    Musically, it suffers a little bit from the cloying sentimentality that ran through a lot of MJ’s lesser work – though interestingly he valued it enough to include on the This Is It setlist. As far both as MJ ballads and Siedah Garrett go, Man in the Mirror – which she co-wrote – obviously deserves far more credit.

    So does anyone recall WHY it went to number 1 without even a video – a case of anticipation winning out over the later, superior singles?

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Do you know, I haven’t heard this one for 23 years! I like it more now than I did then, when it just seemed like a generic slushy song to me, with the sotto vocce prologue sounding uncomfortably close. There seems to be an odd dynamic about it, as if its either about to break out into a gigantic bombast ballad, or flutter away into Human Nature-style andante honeyness, but doesn’t ever quite decide to do either.

  5. 5
    Tom on 31 Mar 2010 #

    I kind of can’t stand “Man In The Mirror”! (though I was still hoping it would get to #1 last summer)

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Number 2 Watch: A week of ‘Call Me’ by Spagna. Which is a bit better than ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’

  7. 7
    Steve Mannion on 31 Mar 2010 #

    So only Los Lobos stood in the way of the KOP knocking the QOP off the top.

    Really strange for this to have come up so close to the full-on comeback business of ‘Bad’ just a few weeks later. The variations in his chart positions for the rest of the 80s are quite baffling (e.g. Man In The Mirror’s poor performance compared to Dirty Diana many months later, his low key duet with Stevie Wonder appearing in the middle of the Bad singles run to hardly any interest, a jarring and worryingly “apt” re-appearance of ‘I Want You Back’).

  8. 8
    Matt DC on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Leave Me Alone wasn’t on the original version of Bad, as far as I can remember, which might have explained its high chart position. I think they tacked it on the end after Moonwalker came out.

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 31 Mar 2010 #

    the strange thing for me about this one is that when I’ve been watching the video on youtube I’ve been reasonably engaged with the melody and MJs vocal tics, yet as soon as it stops I can barely remember anything about it.
    The performance seems very inward looking as though he’s forgotten there’s an audience beyond himself. If as Tom suggests Streisand and/or Whitney declined to take part (as Prince had done with the song ‘Bad’) perhaps it was because they detected this lack of engagement.

  10. 10
    Izzy on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Recent film This Is It boasts a superb, epic version of this tune. If I recall correctly, Michael was supposed to be saving his vocal chords, but couldn’t help having a real go at it – then chastising all present for allowing him to go against orders. Like anyone would’ve stopped him!

  11. 11
    will on 31 Mar 2010 #

    I always felt a bit sorry for Seidah Garrett. She probably assumed that a duet with Jacko on his first new single since biggest selling album of all time would be her passport to the big time. Instead she ended up as the second best known singer in the Brand New Heavies.

    Considering that 9 (NINE!) singles were released from Bad it still seems curious that they selected this one as the first. It never quite gets going, that spoken word introduction is just embarrassing and the whole thing is a bit ho-hum. The Way You Make Me Feel would have made a far superior ‘I’m Back!’ statement.

  12. 12
    Erithian on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Funnily enough, in my contemporaneous chart log, Siedah Garrett DOES get a co-credit, which suggests she was given due respect at the time. This is a pretty little song, where MJ goes easy on the vocal tics, and consequently I find it much more listenable than most, even if the “One Day In Your Life”-esque vulnerability veers close to being overdone in the opening verse. Not one of his most hyped pieces of work, and all the better for it. Give me this rather than “Man in the Mirror” any day!

  13. 13

    “Leave Me Alone” is indeed not on the LP version.

  14. 14
    AndyPandy on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Richard @3 – well I don’t really see how could it not have got to Number 1? as has been said it was the keenly anticipated lead off single of the follow up album to the biggest seller of all time. ‘Bad’AFAIK incidentally sold even more copies than ‘Thriller’ in the UK.

    It was a genuine event when this was released – even though due to the song it was a bit of an anti-climax.

    Erithian @12: Siedah Garrett was still slightly known for ‘Don’t Look Any Further’ the duet she’d done with Dennis Edwards 2 or 3 years before and which although not a massive pop hit had been on the turntables constantly for months on both the pirates and the dance shows on Radio London (which at that time besides the talk shows only played dance/black music in the mid-80s)etc.

    And ‘Don’t Look Any Further’ was pretty inescapable around London around the time it was a hit – as with a lot of black music (which only became minor pop hits nationally) in the London area they were far more generally known and pervasive in shops, coming out of cars, on estates etc than many of the bigger national pop hits were.

  15. 15
    MBI on 31 Mar 2010 #

    Even if you had no suspicions about Michael Jackson’s sexuality at the time or ever, I can’t imagine how the whispered words at the beginning of the song can strike as anything but super-fucking-creepy-times. “Your mouth is so sweet… a lot of people misunderstand me… I just want to touch you…” Jesus H. Christ does he sound unsettling there. Far scarier than any lyric in “Thriller.”

    The song itself isn’t so bad, though hardly quickening the pulse; I do like the point that leads into chorus (“if I can’t BE WITH YOU – (squeal)!”) I legitimately did not notice the point where Siedah Garrett comes in — she sounds a lot like Michael.

  16. 16
    thefatgit on 31 Mar 2010 #

    So this is MJ’s first post-Pepsi #1 and the beginning of an uncomfortable period. Press intrusion into his lifestyle is mounting and we’re hearing stories of oxygen tanks and shrines to Elizabeth Taylor, which seem in retrospect, the thin end of the wedge. We could allow MJ his eccentricities considering his fortune and his mega-celebrity status. Bad in many ways was his most consistent album, but I tend to agree with everyone else that IJCSLY lacked something compared to the other singles off the album. It’s not gamefaced enough. With the title track and Smooth Criminal, MJ is back in the realm of “event releases” but this just feels like an hors doeuvre before we get to the meal itself.

    And a pleasant little hors doeuvre it is. If MJ is coasting here, then he’s streets ahead of Madonna in the same mode. It feels effortless, yet polished and accomplished, artist-at-the-top-of-his-game stuff. Siedah Garrett sounds a little too upstaged to make this a convincing duet, but look who she’s up against. A wilting sapling in the shadow of a mighty oak. Still despite all this, it’s a fine listen. A strong argument for the whole album if this could be considered as filler, but compared to Bad or Smooth Criminal, well you couldn’t consider it as anything else.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 31 Mar 2010 #

    I don’t have much to add to Tom’s essay or the comments so far. I actually don’t remember this song at all, whereas the single ‘Bad”s release was a huge event with a big Scorsese-directed vid. that had cost a mint, yadda yadda yadda, which was a trainwreck for all concerned. (It’s a relief that Popular won’t be touching on it – I mean, no matter what the charts say, in my view you’ve hit rock-bottom when even Phil freaking Collins can pretty effectively rip on your videos.)

    Musically speaking, ICSTLY reminds me of excellent album tracks I Can’t Help It from Off the Wall and The Lady In My Life from Thriller (and which had provided a formula for Janet’s nice album-closers from this period) but it’s inferior to either. Still, hearing MJ stretch out a little over some Stevie Wonderish chords isn’t too unpleasant, so, yeah:

  18. 18
    TomLane on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Can a single sound good, but not be all that great? That’s what I always thought of this song. It sounds good. Quincy Jones dresses up the whole thing in his Q sound. And you can sing along to the hook, but it just kind of sits there. And as the first single from Bad, it was indeed a letdown. It went #1 in the States. And unlike in England, 4 other songs from this album went #1, including some better singles like “The Way You Make Me Feel”, and “Man In the Mirror”.

  19. 19
    anto on 1 Apr 2010 #

    I recall Tom pointed out in a previous review about MJ that his UK number ones are not always the most obvious songs and this is clearly the point here.
    I hadn’t heard this in a long time either and remembered it as being kinda sappy but sweet enough. My memory was deceiving me. That intro is as several people have already pointed out really creepy.
    The melody on the verses is treacly and poor Siedah Garrett might as well not even be there. The chours is ok but like so much of Bad it sounds as though he’s going to crack open a can of Pepsi at any moment.
    Admittedly I’m not a fan. The whole thing of releasing 375 singles off the same album is one of several poor habits Michael Jackson had picked up and fair play to the British public for not being totally ripped off by it.
    I can never really understand why Quincy Jones is regarded as the ultimate quality Producer as I find his stuff coldly professional and more effective than affecting. I get the impression I Just Can’t Stop Loving You was written simply because the album was short of a love song.

  20. 20
    MikeMCSG on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Like Anto above I’m not an MJ fan so can someone tell me whether his post-Bad LPs always had a ballad on them ? It seemed to me he was trying to maintain a thread back to his teenage solo career on Motown.
    I only really remember the chorus hook of this one but in the Baby Jump stakes I think Bucks Fizz still have the edge.

    N.B. I am guessing that for most of us who have commented thus far the Nineties are going to be littered with Baby Jump’s.

  21. 21
    CPB on 1 Apr 2010 #

    It’s probably because I’m exactly the right age, but I do very strongly associate this with hearing it in the car on our summer holiday in 1987. And Bad was the first CD we ever had (complete with ‘Leave me Alone’), bought from Our Price Brent Cross on the way home from getting the player itself.

    This song’s a bit ho-hum though.

  22. 22
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 1 Apr 2010 #

    I have never knowingly heard this song in my life.

  23. 23
    Geoff on 2 Apr 2010 #

    Gosh, I’m susprised about the reactions to this one. This is really one of my favourite MJ singles, I think it builds fantastically from the rather controlled beginnings to the climax, and as others have said, it has far fewer of his annoying vocal tics than so many of his other singles.

  24. 24
    punctum on 7 Apr 2010 #

    It still tickles the cortex to think of Jackson and Quincy Jones working their way through the New Pop back catalogue in preparation for making Bad. There is more than a hint of the martial, harsh rhythmics of Propaganda’s “P. Machinery” in the unstoppable strut of the title track, and a nice if unintentional nose-snub to Rare Groove snobs via Jimmy Smith’s involvement in same, as well as some Art of Noise staccato speediness in the slalom jerks of “Smooth Criminal,” an if the record does not offer quite as total an assimilation or as drastic a remoulding of the innovations of Horn and Green as Jam and Lewis managed on little sister’s Control, it’s still a very fine record. “Liberian Girl” is as gorgeously opaque a ballad as “Human Nature” and the sunny confidence of “The Way You Make Me Feel” makes it a song which Jackie Wilson should have lived to sing. And there is “Man In The Mirror” of which I will perhaps say more later, in another time and another context. On the other hand, “Dirty Diana” is simply silly, and Jackson’s self-glorifying/self-annihilating tightrope encroaches with slowly rising intensity, particularly on the paranoid “Leave Me Alone.”

    Nevertheless, nine of its eleven tracks were released as singles and the album did healthy business. Most of the tracks continue to be revived periodically, with the sole exception of the only one to top the charts in Britain as a single. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was released ahead of the album, and Jackson’s hardcore fans, starved of any new material for nearly five years, sent it to number one for a fortnight out of loyalty. It’s as curious a choice for album trailer as “The Girl Is Mine” was for Thriller (although the latter also yielded only one UK chart-topping single), although its portentous introduction was doubtless intended as a sermon on the Neverland mount. In it Jackson speaks a hesitant monologue about wanting “to lay next to you for awhile” and explains that “a lot of people misunderstand me…that’s because they don’t know me at all.” His awkward endearments (“Your eyes are so lovely…your mouth is so sweet”) are spoken as though he is still twelve years old (in fact they sound uncannily like the young Donny Osmond). He does his “She’s Out Of My Life” sob as he pleads “God, I need you” (and probably meant it literally).

    All this occurs before the song begins in earnest. Such an introduction would require a song of exceptional transcendence, and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is very far from transcendent. Sung with a very subdued Siedah Garrett – so subdued that it is on occasion difficult to distinguish her from Michael – it is an extremely ordinary and unremarkable ballad. Note too how Jackson’s whoops and “Ee hee hee”s are now becoming a mannerism, since they are totally out of place in this sedate environment. The only real point of interest here is the direct lift from Anne Dudley’s string arrangement for “All Of My Heart” in the chorus. New Pop, New Pop – there was just no getting away from it.

  25. 25

    punctum — i have a feeling i asked this before but maybe i didn’t — d’you think there’s a direct listening link between the quincy-jackson project and the dollar-horn project (and bucks fizz fantasy offshoots); they seem more in sync with MJ’s neverland pathologies really… if MJ had been listening to propaganda this closely and carefully, wouldn’t he have learned (non-musical) things he seemingly didn’t learn?

    (easy answer: no, because you don’t really “learn things” from books or records, even if you can pick up moves or ideas — you learn from the world you’re embedded in, and MJ was already perilously embedded)

  26. 26
    punctum on 7 Apr 2010 #

    MJ was also pretty keen on Adam and the Ants, which makes perfect sense (see “They Don’t Care About Us” for instance), but QJ took the lead on matters Horn/ZTT-related (I think he already had New Order signed up to QWest in the States). The conspiracy, if there was one, was probably more to do with thrill-inducing sonic newness rather than digging particularly deep into what Propaganda etc. were saying or (more sinisterly) implying – which is why MJ should maybe really have done “Snobbery And Decay,” the great 1987 Horn/ZTT number one that never was (and of course Robbie Williams eventually DID do “S&D” last year with “Bodies”).

    Propaganda really were the Velvets of our age, weren’t they? Underappreciated and misunderstood at the time, and virtually every decent hit song of 2010 from GaGa on down owes pretty well everything to them, both in sonic and politicophilosophical terms.

  27. 27
    Mark G on 12 Apr 2010 #

    I remember a performance vid where they both sing together in a ‘romantic’ clinch, but as soon as the verse is over MJ goes immediately upstage as Siedeh retreats into the shadows, discarded as sure as David Hemmings discards Vanessa Redgrave in “Blow-Up”…

  28. 28
    thefatgit on 12 Apr 2010 #

    Punctum @26, Re: Propaganda. They certainly felt like something more than New Pop at the time. I have unsuccessfully tried to track down their cover/homage to Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline” in order to compare the two, but sometimes we have to accept what’s not to be, after learning Genesis P. Orridge suppressed it.

    The track “Dream Within A Dream” however, is a long standing favourite and the standout piece from “A Secret Wish”. I owned the cassette, and on there was the full 9min version produced by Horn/Lipson which contains the “missing” guitar solo. On CD, the solo is absent(not sure about the vinyl), which in my view takes the shine off the whole thing…well maybe that’s a bit strong, but Horn must have understood that the unmistakeably hard rock,(or prog rock) searing, screaming guitar is the launchpad for the remaining instrumental half of the song. It comes completely out of leftfield as we have been previously lulled into a trancelike state by the two-tone xylophone, the horn motif and Claudia Brucken’s spoken word recital. Then as soon as it has vented its spleen, it subsides with a couple of growls leading into the clattering drum solo, everyone getting a chance to display their chops until finally, that spectral trumpeter (it’s a fairlight, isn’t it? But one can imagine a session man with his horn wandering into Trevor’s studio) gets his turn to pour oil once again on choppy waters, inviting synths to pick up on the horn stylings and run with the ball to the end. DWAD, for me is the very pinnacle of New Pop. If Quincy Jones sat by his mixing desk listening to “A Secret Wish” (DWAD in particular), and phones MJ to tell him “Michael, we gotta raise our game for ‘Bad'”, it would not surprise me in the least.

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 12 Apr 2010 #

    That’s precisely how it did happen, according to the Trevor Horn interview in this month’s Word!

    He also describes the three different abandoned initial versions of Relax, and talks about writing and recording ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’

  30. 30
    Billy Smart on 12 Apr 2010 #

    Re: Propaganda:

    I was eleven in the summer of 1984 and thought that Frankie GTH were the best pop thing ever, I loved the conceptualism, the beats, the idea of a remix being like a massive expanded trip into an imagined world, the idea of pop being an important political statement. I think that I was scared of the adult sexuality that I didn’t quite understand, though.

    Even with that background, I didn’t really get ‘Dr. Mabuse’ at the time though. It did seem too brutal, too dark, too tuneless. It certainly wasn’t much played on ‘Now That’s What I Call Music 3’! I love it now, but that’s because I understand it.

    But move on to early 1985, and Duel was a single that I absolutely loved absolutely immediately. This was strange and grown-up, too – the words about cutting meant that it would be an enthusiasm that I’d hide from my parents – but also seductive and with a tune that stayed with you… for life, I now realise!

    I can see why Mabuse only really has an audience of people like us, but I wish that Duel was more widely known. Back in 1985, 12 and miserable, Duel, Welcome To The Pleasuredome and Close To The Edit were a lifeline of sorts… things that changed the way that I both listened and felt.

  31. 31
    thefatgit on 12 Apr 2010 #

    Ah, but if you watched the early(pre Jezza) Top Gear on BBC, then Duel would be extremely familiar as it was used for the theme to Top Gear’s Rally Reports, as well as the WRC coverage for a number of years.

  32. 32
    punctum on 11 Nov 2014 #

    TPL on Bad, and so many other matters

  33. 33
    Gareth Parker on 3 May 2021 #

    A 6/10 from me. I think Jackson and Garrett inject enough appeal and charm in to this single for it to work reasonably well.

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