Originally considered for Gladys Knight & the Pips and later for Diana Ross, as "I Wanna Be Free", "I Want You Back" explores the theme of a lover who decides that he was too hasty in dropping his partner. An unusual aspect about "I Want You Back" was that its main lead vocal was performed by a tween, Michael Jackson.
Although Gladys Knight had been the first to mention the Jacksons to Berry Gordy, and Bobby Taylor brought the Jackson brothers to Motown, Motown credited Diana Ross with discovering them. This was done not only to help promote the Jackson 5, but also to help ease Ross' transition into a solo career, which she began in 1970 soon after the Jackson 5 became a success.
The Jackson 5 performed "I Want You Back" during all of their world tours, either as a full song or as a part of the Jackson 5 Medley in concerts (which also included "ABC" and "Mama's Pearl", later on switched with "The Love You Save" in 1973). During their second-ever television appearance (in an episode of The Hollywood Palace hosted by Diana Ross & the Supremes), the Jackson 5 performed "I Want You Back" along with Sly & the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song," The Delfonics' "Can You Remember," and James Brown's "There Was a Time".
Michael Jackson performed the song as part of the "Jackson 5 Medley" (which also included the songs "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There") during all of his world tours - the Bad World Tour, the Dangerous World Tour and the HIStory World Tour. The song was to be performed at Jackson's This Is It comeback concerts in London, which were cancelled due to his death. The song was performed live for the last time at the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special in 2001, in which Jackson reunited with his brothers on stage for the first time since 1984.
In 2006, Pitchfork Media named it the second best song of the 1960s, adding that the chorus contains "possibly the best chord progression in pop music history." A June 2009 article by The Daily Telegraph called it "arguably the greatest pop record of all time".