The life of a song originally intended for Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.”
The story of how a song came to be and who defined it is always fascinating to me, and I Can’t Help It was particularly interesting to learn about because it could’ve gone to one of two legends in pop music: Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. It wasn’t a single, it didn’t make or break Michael’s career and probably wouldn’t have been a single or difference maker for Stevie either. Up beat music was what was en vogue in 1980, and I Can’t Help It was too mellow to make it. What it has done is have a long life of play rotation and covers by other artists, and whole new generations discovering its lovely arrangement.
Musical artists can’t help but repeat certain themes and phrases in their songs, they can’t help it. The Michael Jackson song I Can’t Help It most people would find hard to believe has been sampled more times than any other song in the Michael Jackson catalog. Although never released as a single, the Off the Wall track is one of those earworm songs that you never get sick of hearing.
Off the Wall was the springboard album that helped Thriller be the record-breaker that it is to this day. Spike Lee’s documentary on the album (which premiered last January) drove the point home that without Off the Wall there would be no Thriller. The documentary compelled me to dig deeper into I Can’t Help It because of a sequence of interviews on the song that revealed it was co-penned and composed by Stevie Wonder.
Striving To Be Great
To be great Michael Jackson studied the greats. He would sit in on the recording sessions of other artists and musical groups to learn as much as possible from them.
In 1979 at the age of 21 he made a pact with himself to essentially become the greatest entertainer of all time.
“MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally [sic] different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or] “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one. I “must” have the most incredible training system. To dig and dig and dig until I find.
I will study and look back on the whole world of Entertainment and perfect it. Take it steps further from where the greats left off.”
The “manifesto” as it was called in a 2013 60 Minutes piece was found amongst many personal items in a storage warehouse. By all accounts Michael Jackson accomplished his goals.
The Stevie Wonder Connection
If you listen to this clip from the 2016 Spike Lee documentary, you’ll hear Stevie Wonder reveal that I Can’t Help It was intended for his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life and how it became included on Off the Wall instead.
“That was supposed to be one of the songs on Songs in the Key of Life-My sister Renée had been hearing me play this cassette, she and Michael were friends, and she took it over to let Michael hear it.”
This is the demo of Stevie singing I Can’t Help It.
Co-written with a former member of The Supremes, Susaye Greene, I Can’t Help It was one those songs that’s inception was quick. It harkens back to a Motown single Stevie Wonder did back in 1964 when he was 14 years old called, Pretty Little Angel. The lyric “you are an angel in disguise” is the most obvious reference to Wonder’s Pretty Little Angel.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
One of the things Off the Wall did was showcase Michael Jackson’s maturity it also marked the shedding of his child-star cocoon and the emergence of Michael the adult artist. When asked in a 1980 interview with 20/20 correspondent Sylvia Chase, after Off the Wall came out, if he wanted to stop performing, Jackson answered “No way! Don’t stop till you get enough.” When you find something you love to do it’s hard to stop, and to me I Can’t Help It encapsulates Michael Jackson completely: ethereal, rousing and aspirational.
I think what we can tell from the quality of a star’s lesser known works is a great deal about they themselves as a person. And that is why I found I Can’t Help It so mesmerizing. I don’t think Michael was talking about a young woman in the song, I think in many ways he was talking about finding himself and surprising himself in having crafted the image he wanted for himself. Therefore I would venture to say that I Can’t Help It was a precursor to Man in the Mirror, which was the legacy song Michael wanted to leave the world with (and also one of his favorite songs). When you hear the two songs side by side you hear the difference time and experience make, and the evolution of the artist known as Michael Jackson. So I ask you, how can you not help but be be blown away by that?