Digging In The Crates: Michael Jackson— Off The Wall
Posted in Digging In the Crates
Off the Wall and Onto the Throne: How Michael Jackson Became the King of Pop
Though it may shock many contemporary readers to discover this, there was once a time when Michael Jackson was an attractive young black man. Furthermore, there was once a time when Michael Jackson was an attractive young black man with an uncertain musical future. The year is 1979. Jackson is a 20-year-old former child star, four years removed from his last solo release which capped his career as a Motown artist, ending the relationship with the legendary studio Jackson had been with since the age of ten. While Jackson’s early solo efforts were extremely successful, they were never quite on the same level as what he had achieved as a younger artist or what he would achieve later as the biggest musical act of all time. I mean, before Off the Wall, Jackson’s solo career was highlighted by a song he had penned about his pet rat. Not a bad song, mind you, but not exactly the sort of stuff that makes you a demigod. While he was far from the gutter, things weren’t exactly going swimmingly for the once and future King of Pop. In reality, it could have been the end of the line for MJ, and surely would have been for many less talented artists. After all, this was a kid who had won over Sam & Dave, Gladys Knight, and a packed house at the Apollo before he had turned nine, who could really have blamed him if he had washed out before he turned twenty?
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity; Jackson landed a role in The Wiz. For the uninformed, The Wiz is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, but just replace the endless parade of white people with an endless parade of awesome black people; Dianna Ross is Dorothy, Richard Pryor is The Wiz, Lena Horne is the Good Witch, and Jackson is the Scarecrow. Seriously, Michael Jackson may have never been Michael Jackson if he hadn’t have landed a role in the black Wizard of Oz. Now The Wiz isn’t a particularly renowned film, but that’s beside the point; the point is who did the music for The Wiz, and the man who did the music for The Wiz was none other than Quincy Jones. For the uninformed, Quincy Jones is as revered a musician as ever has been, a man who has had as many Grammy nominations as he has had birthdays (deadlocked at 79 apiece), and a man with one hell of a gene pool. Jones would work with Jackson on Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad, and if you’re wondering which three Michael Jackson albums are the best the conversation pretty much starts and ends right there. It all began with The Wiz though, where their work alongside one another led to Off the Wall.
One of the things I like best about Off The Wall is how some of the best songs take their time. Before hip-hop taught us to wait until the beat dropped, Quincy and Michael were doing it to perfection in ’79. More than anything this is a sign of supreme confidence, not in the same vein as a rapper’s bravado or a country singer’s stoicism, but a confidence that can only be achieved when an artist knows they’re making a masterpiece. Listen to the opening track, “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” or “Workin’ Day and Night,” and neither track is rushed. They quickly yet patiently build to perfection and unleash an energy which defines the record. Thusly, listening to Side 1 of Off the Wall in particular is a solid test of whether or not you’re a sociopath; if your foot isn’t tapping or your head isn’t bobbing at the very least, it’s entirely possible that you may not have a soul.
“Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” isn’t just the beginning of Off the Wall, it is, in every conceivable way, the beginning of Michael Jackson: King of Pop. A seductive bass line is coupled with Jackson softly muttering something you can barely make out but easily get turned on by, and before you have time to ask yourself if this is the same kid from the Jackson 5 MJ unleashes a “Wooo!” and it’s on.
And that was pretty much the change; more than anything else, Michael got sexy. It’s hard for a lot of us youngsters to imagine now, but there was a period of time, before he got creepy and after he was a child, where Michael Jackson was sexy as shit. He dressed sharp, he could move like nobody else, he could sing like nobody else, and he seemed so genuinely nice you actually wanted to take him home to your momma…and I’m a heterosexual male. Every truly transcendent musical icon is coveted by the opposite sex; it’s what separates incredible musicians from the incredible musicians who shape pop culture. “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” is a tangible moment wherein a human being went from being one thing to being something entirely different, and what ‘little Michael’ became was Michael Jackson.
Off the Wall is invariably a pop album, but to reduce it to this singular genre would be to do a disservice to the worlds of funk and disco among others. The one thing it is above all else is a non-stop dance party. Nothing illustrates this more than Side 1, which, despite comprising of just four tracks, is as perfect a side of a record as there ever was. “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” starts the party, “Rock With You,” makes you wonder if it will ever end, “Workin’ Day and Night,” makes you realize it won’t, and “Get on the Floor,” wraps things up just in case you aren’t already up and dancing right where you ought to be.
If the album were to have a weak point it would have to be midway through Side 2. After opening with “Off the Wall,” and the Paul-McCartney-penned-specifically-for-Michael “Girlfriend,” the soft ballad “She’s Out of My Life,” seriously slows things down. Any good dance party has to have its slow jam, though, and I would sway with a sexy woman middle school style to this track any day of the week. I’d even be willing to bet Michael’s gentle crooning could coax a head on the shoulder out of her as well. The bass line in “I Can’t Help It” eases us out of our slumber, “It’s the Falling in Love,” gets us tapping our feet again, and by the time the record closes with “Burn This Disco Out,” you honestly couldn’t agree more.
What’s left when the record stops spinning is a brand new figure; not the child who could pull off anything Motown asked, or the teenager who fronted The Jacksons. Whereas Michael Jackson the man may have never matured into a fully functioning adult, forever stripped of the comforts of a normal childhood, Michael Jackson the artist became fully realized the minute the album was released in August 1979. Off the Wall was Michael’s launching pad from cute little kid to full blown sex symbol, from Justin Bieber to Mega-Usher (unfortunately for Justin Bieber this transition may never take place, as he seems doomed to forever resemble a lesbian). When you’re a child star it’s inevitable that you will one day cease to be a child. Whether or not you cease to be a star depends on your ability to reinvent yourself. Michael spent the four years between his split with Motown and the release of Off the Wall learning how to be Michael Jackson. Given the creative control Motown would never surrender while making new recordings at Epic Records with The Jacksons, freed to find his feet as a songwriter and mature into a young man beyond the strict control of his father, Michael Jackson became who he was always destined to be; the most incredible, jaw-dropping, successful and beloved singular performer in the history of mankind. And if you think that’s hyperbole…well never mind, you know it isn’t.