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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.