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.
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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
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