Gotta Leave That Nine to Five Up On the Shelf

Joie:  So ever since our blog post about Michael’s sex appeal, I’ve been thinking a lot about Off the Wall and what a truly amazing album it is. I think I mentioned back during the sex appeal post that this particular album is very special to me because it was released just as I was hitting puberty, and it really transformed the way I thought about Michael Jackson. I always loved him, even as a very small child. But that album really changed everything for me. It was like my ‘coming of age’ moment. And I’m not just speaking in the traditional sense although, I shared with you how it brought about my sexual awakening, so to speak. But I mean in other ways as well. For instance, that’s when I really discovered my love of music.

Music was always a part of my childhood. Growing up, I remember music as being a constant, comforting presence in our household – almost like another family member. The radio or the stereo was always on. Both my parents were huge music lovers, all of my siblings loved music, and they were all older than me so, I was never in control of what we listened to. So, as a result, I grew up with sort of an eclectic mix of genres floating around in my head. We listened to everything it seemed – Blues, Motown, country, rock, funk, disco, pop, old school rap – even gospel. And to this day, I still have really vast and varied musical tastes. But when Off the Wall came out, it was like an epiphany for me. Even though I owned a million Jackson 5 albums and every Jacksons album, when Off the Wall came out, it was like I finally understood that music was essential to my well-being and that Michael Jackson in particular was like healing water for me; he was like my lifeline or my sanity.

I’m sure this isn’t coming out at all like I want it to and I probably sound crazy but, it was a very significant moment in my life and Off the Wall had everything to do with that. But interestingly, it wasn’t until years and years later, after I had gained more emotional maturity and really felt grounded in both my love for and my knowledge of music, that I began to really take in what this record had to offer and began to appreciate this album on its own merits and not just on my childhood sentimental attachments to it. And what I discovered is that this album is truly wonderful from start to finish.

Willa:  Joie, that doesn’t sound crazy at all. It really helps me understand the emotional feeling you get when listening to this album, and I think you’re zeroing in on something really important that’s often overlooked, which is the emotional power of Michael Jackson’s work.

It’s interesting – I approached this album from the opposite direction you did, but ended up in a similar place. When you suggested we write about Off the Wall, I went back and started listening to the album as a whole, which honestly, I haven’t done in quite a while. I usually listen to a shuffle of Michael Jackson’s songs, so while I’m listening to the Off the Wall songs quite a bit, I’m not listening to them as an album.

Joie:  That’s really funny because I do the exact same thing.

Willa:  It’s interesting how technology has changed the way we listen to music, isn’t it? To me, it felt really good to go back and listen to these songs as an album, the way he intended when he was putting it together. But while you went back and listened to it through the memories of what it meant to you as a teenage girl, I was very aware that I was listening to it as a middle-aged woman. And, Joie, I am so middle-aged I can hardly believe it. Somehow I’ve turned into the classic can’t-find-my-glasses, can’t-remember-what-I-went-downstairs-to-get, can’t-remember-what-day-it-is middle-aged person. Seriously, I shock myself daily. I started to put on my glasses this morning and discovered I was already wearing glasses. Heavens.

Joie:  Willa, you crack me up sometimes!

Willa:  Anyway, enough about my foggy old brain. I just have to say that going back and listening to this album this week was an absolute blast. I’m 50 years old, but this album plunged me into the psychic space of a 20-year-old, and that was so much fun for me. It’s such an exuberant album, for one thing, with that incredible energy and confidence of 20-year-olds, but it also captures that unsettling feeling that everything you do and every decision you make is so momentous. He’s really tackling some big subjects on this album – work and play, sex and romance, thinking about the future and enjoying the present moment – and those are the very subjects that tend to dominate the mind of a 20-year-old. Who am I going to be? What kind of person am I going to be? What kind of future do I want to have?

For me, listening to this album just immersed me in that whole experience of being 20, which is such a time of exploration and high energy and high drama. Things are much calmer for me now, and I’m glad, but it’s fun to mentally time travel back and remember that life phase sometimes.

Listening to this album as a whole also made me realize how unified it is. A common criticism that’s lodged against his albums is that they’re too eclectic – just a random mix of songs without a unifying theme or style holding them together. And it’s true he liked to experiment with different genres of music, different rhythms and syncopated beats, different sounds, including found sounds. But there’s a psychological and emotional unity to his albums that’s very evocative and compelling to me.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. I’ve always been so puzzled by that criticism that Michael’s albums are too random because, to me, all anyone has to do is simply listen. But you can’t just listen with your ears; you also have to listen with your heart. And, if you do that, the unifying themes that most critics want to see in an album are all right there. And they’re never buried; it’s not like you have to go searching for it. It’s all right there just below the surface if they would only listen.

Willa:  I love the way you put that, Joie – “you also have to listen with your heart.” I really believe that’s true, on several levels. To really experience his music, you have to open yourself up to it emotionally. His music can really take you places, if you let it, but you have to be willing to let it take you there. And to begin to understand the full power of his music, I think we have to try to understand what it’s doing emotionally.

You know, we spent the month of October looking back at the Invincible album, which was released at a time when the public was turning against him and refusing to listen to what he had to say. And the painful emotions of that moment in his life completely suffuse that album. In song after song, the narrator is trying to reach out and create a relationship with a woman, or repair a relationship that’s broken or in crisis, but she won’t listen to him, won’t give him a chance. And so he finds himself inarticulate and unable to make things right – “I just can’t find the right thing to say,” as he sings in “Don’t Walk Away.” We see this same scenario repeated over and over again on this album, from the thundering “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” to the achingly beautiful “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens.” And that not only creates a mood of sorrow and loss on this album – of miscommunication and missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams – it also creates a kind of mind-meld where we as listeners are immersed in his emotional space for a while, and actually experience his emotional suffering to some degree.

I see a similar type of psychological and emotional unity in Off the Wall, and feel that same sense of being immersed in his emotional space for a while. But in this album, he’s a young man poised at the edge of adulthood, and he perfectly captures that mix of exhilaration and confusion we feel at that time.

Joie:  I agree, and there’s also a certain level of exuberance and cockiness on this album as well, which are other traits that most twenty-somethings have in common. They are standing at the brink with their lives stretched out in front of them and the possibilities are endless! The sky is the limit and that’s the feeling you get when you listen to this album. It’s young and fresh and happy and unencumbered by the stresses of life.

He sounds like he’s having the best time recording these songs. I love the way he laughs near the end of “Get on the Floor.”

Willa:  I do too!

Joie:  It’s as if he just cannot contain his joy and it is priceless! This album puts a smile on my face, from the opening beats of “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” to the closing chords of “Burn This Disco Out.” I love the romantic imagery of “Girlfriend,” I love the carefree message of “Off the Wall,” I love the sensual melody of “I Can’t Help It.” I even love the palpable heartbreak of “She’s Out of My Life.”

Even “Working Day and Night,” which is about a man who’s working his butt off every single day to try and keep his girl happy, is just so much fun to listen to. You get the sense that even though he’s complaining about it, he really doesn’t mind all that much.

Willa:  You know, I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve been thinking a lot about “Working Day and Night.” It’s one of three songs he wrote for this album, and it’s really interesting, especially these lyrics:

You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
And I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you
I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be

The narrator is a young man “working day and night” just to please his girlfriend, but then he’s so busy he doesn’t get to spend time with her. So he’s caught in this ironic situation, and he’s frustrated and complaining about it, as you say.

But maybe it’s not his girlfriend’s fault. Maybe he just thinks that’s what she wants because he’s been told “that working is what a man’s supposed to do.” Interestingly, he returns to this same situation 22 years later in “Whatever Happens,” but in this later song he looks at the situation from her perspective as well as his. And this time he makes it clear that this couple really doesn’t understand each other very well:

He’s working day and night, thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had…
She tries to explain, “It’s you that makes me happy”
Whatever, whatever, whatever

So this actually describes a pretty complicated situation – one that’s especially important to a 20-year-old with a long career stretched out before him. A lot of people get trapped by this:  they’re working incredibly hard so they can afford the good things in life, but then they don’t have time to enjoy life and enjoy those good things. I get the sense that he’s using these scenes between a man and a woman as a metaphor to dramatize and try to understand that dynamic and avoid getting caught up in the rat race. As he sings in “Working Day and Night,” “You say that working / Is what a man’s supposed to do / And I say it ain’t right.”  

Joie:  Willa, I love the way you’ve compared “Working Day and Night” to “Whatever Happens.” It’s really interesting. And the funny thing is that I also found myself comparing “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” to his later work as well. I just love these lyrics:

Lovely, is the feelin’ now
Fever, temperatures risin’ now…
So get closer (closer now) to my body now
Just love me, ’til you don’t know  how…  
Touch me, and I feel on fire
Ain’t nothin,’ like a love desire
I’m melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax
Sensation (ah sensation) lovely where we’re at

Willa:  Joie, that’s wicked! Truly wicked.

Joie:  I’m sorry; I don’t mean to torture you! I’m just trying to make a point here. You know, “Don’t Stop” is another one of the three songs he wrote on this album and, to me, these lyrics suggest that this song is, once again, all about the joy of sex and sexual desire. And, as we pointed out a few weeks ago in our discussion of “In the Closet,” it’s a theme he would return to several years later. And what strikes me most about “Don’t Stop” is that Michael was always accused of being somewhat “soft” in comparison to the raunchy personas and lyrical content of other popular artists. But yet, he could write a song that’s very clearly all about sex and deliver it in such a subtle manner that it feels romantic and sensual and classy instead of raunchy and sleazy. He still gets the point across and he does it in a respectful, sexy way.

Willa:  I’d say he gets the point across! “I’m melting like hot candle wax” – wow. I may be 50, but that line still makes me blush – especially when people go springing it on me unexpectedly. And then he comes in with that low voice – “I’m melting now” – and … oh my. It definitely creates a mood….

Joie:  Willa, you blush so easily. Just like Michael. And it’s fascinating to me that a man who could write such passionate lyrics could be so bashful. That trait only made him sexier!

But seriously, I personally think that his knack for writing such sensual material and doing it in such a subtle way is a real testament to his ability and acumen as a songwriter – which is something else he’s never really been given proper credit for. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The point is, when I listen to this album, I get the feeling that Off the Wall wasn’t just my ‘coming of age’ moment; it was Michael’s coming of age moment as well. In many ways it was sort of his big debut to the world, even though he had already been entertaining us for many years before this album’s release. This was his big moment to show the world that he wasn’t that cute little kid with the chubby cheeks anymore; he was all grown up and fully prepared to show us all exactly what he could do. He was discovering his skills as a songwriter and stretching his skills as a dancer and really coming into his own. And because of all that, Off the Wall is one of the greatest gems in his vast catalog of work.

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on February 2, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Great blog as usual. I fully understand you Willa, as I am 60 + going on 16 thanks to Michael and my discovery of him only after he had died unfortunately, but girl am I making up for lost time! Until last week when I made my 1st compilation of ballads to massage my clients to, I had still listened to each album as a whole before moving on the next. I also don’t understand how anyone can see them as a random mix, especially bearing in mind how much time and trouble Michael took to make the album a flowing ‘whole’. Am finding Joe Vogel’s book so helpful to understand this even more, and really recommend others to read each chapter, each song write-uo and then listen to the song – really enlightening. Plus of course reading the relevant chapter in your book Willa and then watching the short film as well – really wonderful experience and creates so much insight into the music and lyrics. Oh this wonderful man!!!

    • “I am 60 + going on 16 thanks to Michael”

      It’s amazing, isn’t it? Better than a tonic … As Joie said so beautifully, he’s like “healing water,” and I appreciate that more and more the older I get.

  2. Great post, as always that is…and I am very glad that you are “guiding” your readers back to basics. ‘Cause to me “Off the wall” is going back to basics, meaning that it’s essential for an MJ fan (or just the average music fan) to really “study” this album so as to conceive what Michael’s art and music is all about.

    I agree with you, we can say that “Off the wall” is a unified album and if I’d have to give a title to its concept, that would be “A celebration of life”. Michael was 21 years old when this album was out and I guess he was in a rush to step out of the band’s and his father’s “shadow”. It’s obvious that he wants to make a statement….artistically and personally. The first steps towards independence had been made a couple of years ago, when despite his father’s disapproval, he took part in the “Wiz” project, where he met Quincy Jones.

    In “Off the wall” Michael , to me, is like a kid who’s been set free into a toy store with the freedom to play and take any toy he likes. That’s what he’s doing: “playing”,experimenting, testing his artistic talents and while being very focused, he’s enjoying every moment of it.

    As for the criticism about his next albums, that they are “random”, people and music critics often were distracted by Michael Jackson, the persona and could not focus on Michael Jackson, the artist

  3. Wonderful post and really takes me back to younger times! I love every song on Off the Wall, truly spectacular, and so obvious Michael was enjoying making his own song choices. As for the “random” criticism of later work, while I don’t in my own opinion find that to be so, what would be wrong if an album were “random”? I’ve read someone close to him refer to Michael as being “out of the box” (a very welcome description of the ultimate artist) so what’s to criticize if he chose thematically different songs for one album? Music critics never did cut Michael a total break, and if random is the best they could muster, well, isn’t it always something?

    This is such a great blog and I eagerly look forward to your next post.

  4. As usual, great post. Over the past month or so I was reading Vogel’s Man in the Music. And I would read each ‘era’ and then listen to the songs/album for about a week – just letting it all sink in. It was a wonderful way of re-experiencing Michael’s music. The major thing that I got from that, especially with something like OTW, was that the songs Michael wrote are really timeless. How easy it would be to release a song like Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough or Workin’ Day and Night today, 2012, and it still would sound fresh and new, nothing dated (although some of the songs not written by Michael do sound that way).

    @Joie – your description would only sound crazy to someone who has never been moved by great art.

    @Willa – thanks for the description of Invincible. I’ve always had a hard time with that album, but your description brings some clarity for me.

    For me personally, the OTW era, which for me includes Destiny and Triumph, is a really special time. I was still just a young kid, but was at the age where I could start to have likes and dislikes, especially with music. I , like Joie, grew up in a house filled with music, and by this time I was already studying piano and a couple of other instruments. I can remember going to Tower Records on Sunset (we lived in Los Angeles at that time) with my father and wandering around this warehouse filled with bins of records. Michael was a constant from that point on. I guess I was just 8 or 9. Wow, what wonderful memories! Off to listen to OTW…

    • Hi Destiny. Thanks for your kind words about my childhood memories. I really did fret over what I wanted to say. It just wasn’t coming out the way I felt it so, I’m glad you understood where I was coming from.

      About the Invincible album – you mentioned you’ve always had a hard time with it and now I’m curious to know in what way, if you don’t mind me asking? If you haven’t done so already, you should go back and read our posts on Invincible. It’s all Willa and I talked about during the month of October.

      • Hey Joie – I’m am certainly going to go back and read the post from October. A friend turned me on to your site, but that was in late December. As for Invincible, for me it comes off as disjointed and not very “Michael”. By that I mean that there seems to be so many people involved with the writing and production and several different ‘teams’ within the production, that no one’s true essence stands out – especially not Michael. Again, this is just my opinion of the album. As I’m learning more about what was going on in his life at that point (actually by this time I just stuck to the music and totally tuned out the press with regards to Michael) I am starting to better understand why this album sounds so discounted – because that is how he was feeling at the time. It goes back to the point about listening to Michael with your heart. I TOTALLY get that with Michael.

  5. Joie, I loved your descriptions of how you grew up with music and how it affected you, especially how Michael touched you at that young age when you heard OTW. MJ is indeed ‘healing water’–that is such a beautiful phrase!! I am now in my 60’s (can relate well to what Willa said about forgetfulness!)–I spent my early teenage years in Saginaw, Michigan–my parents weren’t into rock n roll, but I spent my free time with my ears glued to my transistor radio listening to Motown. This was in the 50’s. Later in the 60’s when I went to University, still in Michigan, we danced to the Motown sound. Recently, I have been listening to Marvin Gaye–his music is full of some of the same emotional quality as Michael’s–the screaming in love or pain, the woohh-wooohhh of emotion–this music had emotion pouring out of it (SOUL). We were then reacting to a repressive world where emotional expression was limited or not permitted–and this music was an amazing release of energy. (Did this music help to make the 60’s possible? Give people the ability to express their need to end the war in Vietnam?)

    I love some of the comments Armond White makes about MJ’s music–regarding ‘Ben” he writes that this song taught teenagers to ‘feel more deeply’ than they knew they could–and regarding MJ’s music as a whole, he writes, that MJ responded to ‘an unfeeling world with pure feeling.’

    I read a post from a person in India that people in remote villages loved MJ’s music even though they didn’t understand a word of what he was singing. I think there is the beat–never to be underestimated–but also the emotional quality of his singing and of the English language itself. English has 15 different vowel sounds–this makes it an expressive language for poetry and song. People sometimes underestimate the power and versatility of these vowel sounds–for example, when MJ sings, “lovely”–(and I always thought he was saying “Love me”)–we listen to the aaahhh sound in ‘love’ and the long E sound (eeee) in ‘me.’ Even if you don’t know what the words mean, you can feel the power in the sounds and in MJ’s beautiful high tenor notes.

    I will have to go back to your October posts about Invincible–I love this album and listen to it all the time–so many great songs–and it’s amazing to me that it got such bad reviews when it came out. But it is true that they were reviewing his false media-created persona and not the music.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • “MJ responded to ‘an unfeeling world with pure feeling.'”
      What a beautiful statement. And I love the way you describe the feeling of language – wonderful!

  6. here i am again, but I just have to say that Invincible has been my favorite since I discovered it, and over any album I have bought since, though I love them all of course, but Invincible is the one I play most and have 2 copies of!! Your blogs in October really helped me understand it more of course, but always felt it was full of richness and played it most instinctively. LIsten up folks and enjoy a truly amazing album. Oh how I wished Michael had been able to do more short fillms from it – just imagine how beautiful Butterflies could have been.

  7. Hi again, reading Caro Attwell’s comment about Invincible, I can’t help but add my two cents. I bought it post 2009; it accompanies me to work and back every day. This album truly shows a more mature Michael in songs utilizing every vocal range. It’s no wonder the Glee production used no songs from Invincible, as no one but Michael could hit all those notes. Because Michael is no longer with us, Heaven Can Wait still gives me chills. I wish I would have become interested in Invincible pre-2009, as there’s no question his pain and anguish comes through loud and clear in some songs, and it is so sad that the only short film to come from the album was Rock My World. There was so much greater imagery available from Invincible.

  8. I’m always amazed of how you guys discusses Michael’s work it’s really amazing. When OTW was released I was a young kid didn’t really understand what it was all about but, the moment I listened to the album I felt soooo good by the music and by MJ’ performance on each song I fell in love with his voice. Working day and night and Whatever happens both songs are great in their scenario. Let’s go back to Michael’s childhood. He learned that the man should be a real hard worker from his father’s job. No doubt Joseph was a hard worker and that’s why I think Michael took it from his father so he really became workaholic in all aspects and in all type of his interests for every field of art. That’s why I think when he was writing both songs he wrote those lines knowing that work hard leads only to success.

  9. Willa and Joie,
    Thanks for all of your amazing posts. I think your discussions are so fascinating and informative. I read all of them even though I don’t always comment. I just had to tell you how much I appreciated this discussion about “Off the Wall” I am 53 so I also grew up with Michael’s music even though I lost the connection for a while due to life’s distractions getting in the way. In the years since 2009 I have become awakened again to all of Michael’s music and learning everything I possibly can about this amazing man! The “Off the Wall” songs absolutely transport me back to a wonderful time in my life when I was just finding out who and what I wanted to be. I have a feeling that is what Michael was experiencing also. I feel so much joy when listening. One of my favorites is “Get on the Floor”. His voice is just so filled with exuberance in this song, especially at the end when he can’t contain his laughter.
    Your comparison of Working Day and Night and Whatever Happens is really interesting. I love both of them and never really thought about their connection before. You always give me food for thought! I love the Armond White quote in one of the comments “MJ responded to ‘an unfeeling world with pure feeling'” That is what sets Michael apart from all of the rest. Every note or sound that Michael created is filled with emotion. It is palpable and goes right to my heart!
    Thanks again for another wonderful post!

  10. what y’all said….

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