The Partridge Family — a real (fake) musical act with a real (fake) tour bus — had an actual hit record in 1970 with I Think I Love You, and fifty one years later this song has broken my brain.
I am humming it as I do the dishes, belting it out in the shower. Surprising my children by locking eyes with them and saying, “Hey!” and waiting a beat for them to ask, “What?” before I launch into, “I think I love you!” How did I get to the point where I hear David Cassidy’s voice over and over again like a skipping record in my head, haunting my every waking moment?
I primarily blame my condition on the mind-numbingness of being in our second year of quarantine. Holed up in a house with two children all day every day has a way of turning your darling kids into the most annoying group of people you could ever love. It’s like being on a never-ending field trip with no actual destination in sight (the only goal: to stay healthy and alive). I have an elementary school in the dining room, a middle-school in the kids’ bedroom, and a corporate headquarters in my bedroom. I have leaned on a lot of television as a babysitter for them as I try to do one of the thousands of things I have to do from home besides the thousands of other things I usually do from home anyway. There’s chores and work, “assistant teaching” with remote school, trying not to dissolve into a miserable heap of exhausted nerves, and maybe showering before 11am. Then one day I heard this song come on while the kids were watching something and it zapped right into my subconscious.
The next day, it had taken over my entire brain. I found it impossible to finish an email for work as I tried to remember the lyrics to the second verse without actually listening to the song.
The song is an earworm. The song is a jam. I had to dive deep to get it out of my brain.
I Think I Love You is a love song, a horror song, a baroque-revival, a confessional, a pre-couples therapy session (“it worries me to say that I’ve never felt this way”), a display track for the harpsichord, a bop. I Think I Love You has 500% more music in it than 100% of any other song recorded by a fictional band, ever. Even if we’re including The Chipmunks and their amazingly long list of albums, compilations, singles, etc., I Think I Love You outshines their discography. Measured another way against those rodents – did Perry Como, a man who sang for over 50 years and covered seemingly every band from every era, ever cover a Chipmunks song? No. But he did cover The Partridge Family.
Teen heartthrob David Cassidy sings in I Think I Love You about the confusion – and fear of – the feelings conjured up by a crush which are both mentally and physically tormenting. Not just scary in a “new things are scary” way; actually-freaked-out fear:
Before I go insane
I hold my pillow to my head
And spring up in my bed
Screaming out the words I dread
I think I love you
The opening bars give us an ascension into horror which is so shocking to hear at the beginning of a Partridge Family love song, it stunned me for a minute. I had totally forgotten about this intro, and was lulled into some false memory of how this song started by the imitation vanilla extract family on the cover art, knowing what I know or sensed about 1970s television & pop music. I was literally accosted by the intense minor-key intro, which could double as the doorbell chime for a haunted house. Menacing “Bah bah bah bah, bah-bah bah-bah bah”s sung like ghouls marching from the grave. It’s mind blowing!
A horror-show intro to a love song, why? I went looking for information about the songwriter, Tony Romeo, to see if the other songs in his career were so bizarre. He wrote songs for Paul Anka, Peaches and Herb — Count On Me which is like a Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass track about love, which is to say it’s cheesy and “Latin” — The Everly Brothers, Debbie Reynolds, and 15 songs for a band I’d never heard of called The Trout. That’s where I struck gold.
The Trout’s song Worse Day I’ve Been To is, frankly, bizarre. Firstly: it’s “worse” not “worst” which is… a choice. Secondly, it has a similarly eerie intro like I Think I Love You; vocalist Cassandra Morgan’s soprano “ah ah ah”s coupled with a flute concern you. Is this a balletic work from a rock musician? A ritualistic chant that’s going to lead me down someone’s (Tony Romeo’s) bad trip? Then an interruption from a snare and a cymbal, some boozy horns, and we’ve got Cassandra singing opera with a lounge band backing track. She’s had a lousy Monday with a bad phone call and she wants to go right back to bed. And then, stuck right after the first chorus, she’s doing more “ah ah ah”s and if her voice wasn’t so pure of tone and strength, it would be tragic. These are musical hiccups.
Plus, the way she sings “worse” is just like how Curly from The Three Stooges says it — woise.
After hearing Worse…, which came out two years before I Think I Love You, I decided for myself that the spooky, jolting intro business was just a thing Romeo did with these tunes. This sub-genre of “baroque pop” that was booming in the late 1960’s brought many kinds of witchy, gothic undertones to “groovy” music, which is where I Think I Love You fits. Baroque pop is broody, dreary, and usually serious. It seeps in like a fog, a fifth dimension of emotional unease, when you listen to songs like Monday, Monday, In My Life, She’s Not There, Helplessly Hoping. But melancholy existentialism paired with The Partridge Family? I guess a songwriter had to really reach to bridge network television and the musical genre of The Mamas and the Papas.
And so Tony Romeo gave us an introductio horribilis worthy of Bach. The “bah bah bah”s sung by David Cassidy and company could easily be replaced by a church organ and pumped into a cathedral. And in the first verse, with lyrics bemoaning the mental unrest of love harmonized with a frantically strummed mandolin and coupled with a harpsichord, we’re plopped in the middle of 17th Century Europe, velvet pantsuit, feathered hair and all.
Then after the first chorus, we get a harpsichord solo.
A FUCKING HARPSICHORD SOLO.
It’s a mind-bender! A complex and smooth harpsichord riff just absolutely working up and down the keyboard, nailing all the musical themes of the late 1960s. I don’t know which of The Wrecking Crew’s keyboardists came up with this solo — Mike Melovin or Larry Knechtel— but whoever, it is pure genius. It shatters all expectations. I mean who brings a harpsichord into a 1970s recording studio and expects that kind of brain melting grooviness?
But after that rollicking venture, we are brought into a bridge with David singing a decidedly weak-ass soliloquy:
I don’t know what I’m up against
I don’t know what it’s all about
I got so much to think about
Compounded tragedies! The dude has never been in love before… and he’s got a research project to turn in. “I don’t know what I’m up against. I don’t know what it’s all about.” Well David, have you tried your local library?
This is the beauty of I Think I Love You, and another part of why the song supplanted my higher-functioning cognition for about two weeks of my life. The lyrics are simplistic, and yet they hit on complex feelings — a person frustrated with the prospect of succumbing to love. The tune is layered with the work of the absolute finest musicians of the time making intricate melodies and harmonies and bass lines as if they were water springing up from the ground — a miracle of natural beauty. The entire song plows a made-for-television band into a genre of music that heretofore had been the broody chateau of the deepest, most popular bands of the era. Not to mention the “vertical integration” of this Screen Gems production — bringing teenagers from the television to the radio and back again. Genius.
When I’m confronted with all the ways this song works, I look at the art I’ve made in my life and think, can I do that? Just once I would like the gift of an idea that can bridge genius with universality. Surely that can’t be too much to ask.
I laugh and weep at my brain’s ability to be broken by this pop record.
When you strike gold with a song, people will choose to sit with it for hours. This is the strength of good music; the listening that it can absorb. How many times did I listen to Groove Is In The Heart by Deee-Lite when it came out? Countless. How many times did I listen to my cassette single copy of Freedom 90/Too Funky by George Michael? How many times did I listen to every single song Sarah Vaughan sang? My parents gave me headphones once I reached the age of appreciating music; it must have saved their sanity.
The repeated joy of listening to a good song is euphoria. It’s a way to touch heaven and fall to the ground at the same time.
And what good music brings, besides euphoria and joy, is also covers. I Think I Love You has been covered by a wide assortment of artists including Tenacious D, a band called Voice of The Beehive with their 1991 version, a dance cover by Kaci Battaglia made in 2002 that is very, very 2002. And as mentioned above, the original easy listening chart-topper Perry Como made a cover version which – yes – also broke my brain.
For starters, the intro to I Think I Love You of Perry Como belongs in a monster movie. Where The Partridge Family gave us mock-horror “bah bah”s, Perry’s version gives us Godzilla stomping on Los Angeles. The vocals have been replaced with horns of terror. And where we had a spooky little mandolin and harpsichord with David, here we are affronted with strings and drums. Bach has left us for Bacharach.
Then Perry jumps in, slurring in place of slanging. Just a square peg in a groovy hole. “I’m sleepin’ an’ right in th’ middle of a good dream, like all at once I wake up…” Let me tell you when I heard him say “like,” that was the first, jarring time I noticed that word in that verse. He enunciates it so clearly, it’s painful. Perry, you can’t use that word, that word is the word my friends use, you don’t know how to use it right!
Como’s harpsichord solo is very dignified with only a short amount of frilly arpeggios. And then he totally BAILS on the bridge. It’s just overly starched backup singers doing the librarian questions, and Perry swings in at the last minute with a slurred, “Hhheeeyyyyy!” We are reminded that this is an easy listening version. No more chianti bottles being used as candle holders. No more berets and bellbottoms. This is a polyester slacks and tan loafers tune.
Como recorded his version two months after The Partridge Family’s version was released, recorded live at a hotel in Las Vegas, with Hollywood composer Nick Perito. Remember how I talked about desiring that magic of simplicity and complexity in my own art? The capturing of natural beauty with the ear and deft hands of a seasoned professional? There’s also this kind of capturing — sensing the magic in something and packaging it up for your kind of audience. The kind who wouldn’t walk into a record store looking for a David Cassidy album, but would buy the new Perry Como to play at cocktails with the Murphy’s and Thompson’s after work. Como’s entire album was centered around his own hit single It’s Impossible, and the rest of the LP is cover tracks. It made it up to 22 on the Billboard charts of 1971, the same year that The Partridge Family’s album topped at 16. It pays to know your audience.
And, to borrow a word from David and Perry, like for a baroque pop hit sung by a fictional family band in 1970 about a guy who can’t sleep because he has never been in love before and thinks he’s going out of his mind, I Think I Love You has fucking endured. The song is on the soundtrack of The Croods: A New Age (2020). That’s probably where I picked up on it this month, come to think of it!
As the kids watched tv and I was just trying to go about my business and not lose my mind while I clean the same dishes after making the same lunches over and over, again and again, I heard David singing about being afraid of going insane, sitting up in bed, screaming into his pillow.
I GET YOU, DAVID.
So what, that he was singing about romantic love!? He could just as well have been singing about the love someone has for their family. The family I’ve been with for hundreds and thousands of unbroken hours in the past year. Or, the family and friends I’ve been unable to hug for over 365 days in a row out of fear that we could kill each other with a deadly virus.
I think I love you!
Isn’t that what life is made of?
If my mind can be taken over by this haunted, treacly love song from 1970 in the year 2021, then I have hope for the things I create, the things my kids will create, the work we are all doing now, that they can bridge through to the future and reverberate on and on for generations to come. People can find joy and meaning in something we send out into the world.
Like, this planet is a groovy place.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Marissa Maciel is a humorist and illustrator with works in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Points in Case, Weekly Humorist and more. See more of her work at marissamaciel.com.