How Michael Jackson Wrote a Song: A Close Look at How the King of Pop Crafted “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

First of all, hap­py belat­ed birth­day to Evan Puschak, the man behind Nerd­writer and some of the best video essays on the web that we often fea­ture here on Open Cul­ture. He recent­ly turned 30, and if you’re in your 20s that’s some elder states­man busi­ness. If you’re old­er, well, remem­ber how you felt when you turned 30? Wouldn’t you want that youth­ful anx­i­ety back?

Any­way, Evan’s gift to us is this appre­ci­a­tion of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” the break­away hit from his 1979 album Off the Wall, the one that began Jackson’s rise into the stratos­phere, a jour­ney that would end with an iso­lat­ed man chas­ing the dragon’s tail of suc­cess. But that was far off in the future, and though Thriller was the block­buster album, Off the Wall has so much more joy, sex­u­al­i­ty, and heart than what was to come. “Rock with You” and the title track are smooth, soul­ful num­bers, but as Puschak says, “Don’t Stop” is *the* sin­gle off that album, a song that still sounds fresh today, a cross-over pop hit par excel­lence, despite being over­played at every wed­ding recep­tion since the ‘80s. (Even when watch­ing the video for this piece, I found myself clap­ping along, some­thing I rarely do. But it’s just so. damn. catchy.)

So why is that? How does this song work?

Puschak makes a few salient points.

One is that the song comes heav­i­ly indebt­ed to dis­co, yet it is not a dis­co song. The rhythm struc­ture is clos­er to funk than disco–it’s real­ly just a vamp on two chords–and the verse-cho­rus struc­ture is from rock music. It’s “pure dance music,” as Puschak says, quot­ing writer Ann Daniel­son.

Anoth­er point is that the rhythm mix is all about syn­co­pa­tion, with bass, shak­ers, strings, horns, and even a Coke bot­tle (played by Jack­son him­self) fill­ing in the spaces between the beat. (Those that find, say, house music bor­ing can put a lot of it down to the lack of syn­co­pa­tion).

And final­ly, there’s Jackson’s vocals, the top of each verse being two notes in a tri­tone inter­val. The tri­tone has been called the “devil’s inter­val”–there’s a nice video essay here on its his­to­ry–but there’s noth­ing dev­il­ish about Jackson’s falset­to. As Puschak says, quot­ing Ethan Hein, “the rela­tion­ship between these notes is some­what off kil­ter, and your mind notices that. And that infus­es the song with an urgency that it wouldn’t oth­er­wise have.”

Inter­est­ing­ly, the lyrics are not dis­cussed. And prob­a­bly for good reason–apart from the song’s title in the cho­rus, Jackson’s lyrics are sung so high they are inscrutable. Be hon­est, until you read the lyric sheet, did you know what he was singing? My point would be–it doesn’t mat­ter. The point is in the title; the mean­ing is in the mood.

Jack­son would try to catch light­ing in a bot­tle again on Thriller with “You Wan­na Be Startin’ Some­thing,” a pret­ty bla­tant rewrite. It’s still a great sin­gle, but that song, along with “Beat It” start­ed Jack­son along the path of lry­ics about aggres­sion and pos­tur­ing. (A few years lat­er, we’d have “Bad,” “Smooth Crim­i­nal,” and more.)

Hence my point about the mag­ic of Off the Wall–before the fame, before the insan­i­ty, before the “King of Pop” busi­ness, Jack­son was a sen­su­al, androg­y­nous angel sent down to bring love to the dance floor, or your bed­room, and all spaces in between. It didn’t last long, but it’s a beau­ti­ful sin­gle, a beau­ti­ful album, and a beau­ti­ful moment in pop.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear “Starlight,” Michael Jackson’s Ear­ly Demo of “Thriller”: A Ver­sion Before the Lyrics Were Rad­i­cal­ly Changed

The Ori­gins of Michael Jackson’s Moon­walk: Vin­tage Footage of Cab Cal­loway, Sam­my Davis Jr., Fred Astaire & More

Miles Davis Cov­ers Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (1983)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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