Song 318: James Brown, “I Got Ants In My Pants” (1972)

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Even though “I Got Ants In My Pants” isn’t James Brown’s most famous song, it could be his thesis statement, his overarching life message that would have made a perfect memoir title. He was perhaps the best all-around entertainer we’ve ever had, and he couldn’t keep still, physically or creatively. James Brown indeed had ants in his pants. Many of them, at all times.

The song is also a perfect representation of Brown’s musical abilities. Not only does it feature his trademarks “ow!”s and “good God!”s,  it has his trademark clockwork funk band clicking away, punctuating his messages with horn blasts and climbing basslines. Then there’s that chorus, the out-of-nowhere “I need you, yes I do” refrain, which has an indelible melody despite being mostly spoken.

That chorus, in fact, is what I love most about “I Got Ants In My Pants.” Brown really didn’t need it—the song is a hell of a jam without it—but it pops up anyway, adding shade, color, and a little melodic satisfaction on top of the punchy energy. It’s perfect.

Brown’s big songs are famous for a reason. From “I Got You (I Feel Good)” to “Sex Machine,” you can’t argue with what the public found most appealing. They’re masterworks. But it’s  “I Got Ants In My Pants” that makes me smile most, because it’s James Brown in a three-minute nutshell. When I watch my two-year-old dance around while the song plays, it’s a reminder that good music—especially when it has this much goddamn funk—is apparent to everybody.

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