This article originally appeared in the December 28, 1982 issue of the Boston Phoenix
At the dead end of a decade when everyone was too discouraged to wonder if pop had a center, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (1979) gathered up disillusioned factions of fans as confidently as it punted four singles into the Top 10. Cajoling critic and teen, black and white, half of the album's miracle was its variegated popularity. The other half was how it deserved its sales. With a slickness that breathed — which is to say that the privilege the moneyed textures evoked felt earned — Quincy Jones and a bevy of cohorts led Jackson through the ultimate candyland where all sweet dreams come true, where even the romantic loss of "She's Out of My Life" pleased with its glossy grandeur. With evocations of physicality that took on the tang of upward mobility ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"), Off the Wall presented a mythical good life both unhurried and sensual, the utopia only a consumer artifact could contain.
Yet to call a record perfect isn't necessarily a compliment, just a statement of aims realized. Although Jackson broached no troubles on Off the Wall, this is not to accuse him of a cipher's blankness. A child star who might have been one of the last products of the Motown charm school and how (in a recent issue of Interview) stands revealed as a gossip-mate of Liza Minnelli is not a cipher. A child star who was introduced to the world, in 1969, by Diana Ross and who, in his adulthood, not only mimics her vocally but can assume her slinkiness to fashion the steamy "Muscles" in her image is not a cipher. Jackson's jet-setting androgyny — along with the sexual utopia that his androgyny implies — is fueled by the equally above-it-all upper-crust evocations of Off the Wall's glinting settings.
For someone who has been pleading his way through number-one hits for more than half his life (he turned 24 last August), Jackson teases us with his elusiveness. As fans sizing up a boy forced to grow up in public, we blur the phases of his career. Jackson's at once the precocious 11-year-old declaiming "I Want You Back" on the Ed Sullivan Show and the cosmopolite dressed by Quincy Jones. He's one of a handful of performers who sustain both a solo career and membership in a group. His spotlight solo work exudes a worldly charisma that doesn't come out when he's with his brothers. But Jackson's multiple roles would be irrelevant if it weren't for his voice's ability to map every last one of them. Jackson crams his vocals full of jazzy flights (the stars eyes flutter coyly), fierce growls (the brother lends a hand), falsetto shouts (the little- boy cries), creamy coasting (the young man settles back). For workouts this complex, this full of duplicity, only the compulsively furtive Marvin Gaye and the bobbing-and-weaving Al Green can rival Jackson.
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