A year ago today, the world lost Michael Jackson, undoubtedly the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century (sorry Elvis!). The ascendance of the King of Pop during the early 1980’s represents quite possibly the most mindboggling, immense shift the American (or World) pop cultural landscape has ever seen. At one point in time Thriller was literally selling a million copies a week; music videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and of course “Thriller” were first-of-their-kind media events, ushering in an MTV-led, visual era in the music industry that we are just now starting to see come to a close. Arguably most importantly though were the racial barriers Michael quite literally shattered. No black artist had ever achieved anything that even approached the kind of crossover success Michael enjoyed with Thriller. The world would never be the same.
Of course, the most successful artist of all time also faced the harshest, most-widespread backlash in the history of popular music as well. And so we could spend all day ruminating over the brutal treatment of Michael Jackson during his life, his strange behavior, or the morbid fascination with his death and sheer opportunism we’ve witnessed since his passing. But I’d rather talk about the music. That is the man’s truly lasting legacy; everything else is really just scenery.
So on the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson, my aim is to move beyond the myths and the scandals by focusing on an album unfettered by the weight of MJ’s incredible celebrity or incredulous detractors; Michael Jackson’s seminal 1979 album, Off The Wall.
First track and first single “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is unquestionably among the greatest pop songs ever made. When Michael let’s out that world famous “Whoooooo!” and those sublime strings make their entrance at the start of the track, it’s like the dawn of a new era. It’s an incredible, almost indescribable moment sonically; unbridled joy, raw sexuality, and smooth sophistication all at once. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is a fantastic composition, propelled by MJ’s gorgeous falsetto vocals, an infectious, undoubtedly funky disco beat, and a stuttering, out-of-breath chorus that mimics the “whatever you do, don’t stop dancing” ethos Jackson is impressing upon the listener. This song is pure genius.
But what makes Off The Wall so exhilarating is that it never loses this momentum; a must for any successful dance-pop album. “Rock With You,” has a late night, laid-back vibe that is irresistible, and it remains one of Jackson’s most indelible hits. And tracks like “Working Day and Night,” “Get On The Floor,” and “Off The Wall” are among Michael’s funkiest work. Crucially though is how Jackson and producer Quincy Jones sweeten the proceedings by anchoring these songs in funk, while tossing in heavy doses of disco (obviously) and unabashed pop, fashioning an album that is edgy yet catchy and incredibly accessible.
It’s a balancing act you can hear in almost every song, and it is precisely what is missing from Thriller; The genius of Thriller is that is sacrifices cohesion in order to ensure that each song appeals to a different demographic. There is rock (“Beat It”), deep funk (“Billie Jean”), schmaltzy pop (“The Girl Is Mine”), and lush balladry (“Human Nature”). Off The Wall doesn’t try for this “something for everyone” appeal, and it makes for a far more immersive experience, although it explains why it would be with Thriller that Michael Jackson officially took over the Earth, and not Off The Wall.
The production throughout Off The Wall is lush and spotless, thanks to the brilliant Quincy Jones. Everything here sounds amazing, like it was laid down yesterday. But of course, nothing could overshadow Michael’s vocal performances. Just moving into his twenties, Michael Jackson was unmatched as a vocalist when Off The Wall was released, capable of tearing through the glossy, polished production to transmit raw emotion with ease. The ballads here are absolutely beautiful, particularly the classic “She’s Out of My Life,” with its legendary vocal performance, in which Michael whimpers and seems to break down as the song comes to a close. It’s an awe-inspiring moment of incredible intimacy and emotional immediacy, and a moment the likes of which we would never again experience on Jackson’s subsequent albums.
If Michael Jackson never released another album after Off The Wall, this collection of songs would still be enough to cement his status as a world class entertainer and songwriter. Thriller, released three years later, took things to another level entirely however, and deserves all of the fanfare and acclaim that it receives. But before Thriller there was Off The Wall, the coming out party for an ambitious teen idol that wanted to take over the world, one song at a time.
Jackson may have made more successful albums, but he never bettered this one.