Disco fever, bouncing synth: revisiting MJ’s “Off the Wall”

Nathan Olsen, Contributing Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Being the product of Generation X parents is a very special experience. As their child you are subject to many of their specific tastes on things like food, politics and particularly music. They came of age in a tumultuous time for American culture staples, music being no exception. How many generations can say they spent their formative years experiencing musical milestones like the death of the Beatles, the birth of rap and synth-pop and when disco was king? In all this musical uncertainty there is, however, one artist which you can trace through all of it, Michael Jackson.

A man with numerous genre-defining albums to his name, everybody who grew up listening to him on the radio had a favorite, but there are no doubt some which are more iconic than others. Most people’s minds will immediately jump to “Thriller,” which musically defined high school for many Gen Xer’s, my mother included, but do you know what album was perpetually stuck playing in the tape deck, CD changer, and after his death, Bluetooth playlist of her car? “Off the Wall.” This frequently overlooked and overshadowed album had a much greater role in defining not just the following Jackson albums but the sound of the eighties as a whole than it is recognized for. What it did was facilitate the smooth transition from the muffled tones of the seventies to the crisp beats of the eighties.

He [bridges] the gap from the natural vibes of disco to the synthetic sounds of the pop which would define the eighties”

Released in the summer of 1979, Off the Wall was the perfect ending to the musical revolution that was disco, as well as the decade of the 1970s. Around this time disco was seen as an example of American excess, which many believed to be a contributing factor to the general decline the United States had experienced in the seventies, but “Off the Wall” was different. Make no mistake, this album was littered with iconic disco hits, “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” to name two. It had infectious rhythms and melodies which could and would draw you onto the dance floor as soon as the needle hit the record, but its sound would seem out of place on the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever”. This is because the album shed the typical disco sound for something sharp, crisp, almost bouncy, not unlike Michael Jackson’s voice, which compliments the new sound so well. Songs which defined disco in the decade before “Off the Wall,” like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Love to Love You Baby” had a dark quality. Stemming from an earthy sound which was engineered in the recording studio, these songs emulated the din of the nightclubs of the era. These, compared to any of the tracks from “Off the Wall,” which are bright and full of energy, seem pessimistic, an ode to the mood of the times. This is where Jackson’s true genius was seen. With “Off the Wall,” he created an album that set the tone for the coming decade, a tone of clean optimism and upbeat sounds. He does this all while still making a sound that is distinctively funky, bridging the gap from the natural vibes of disco to the synthetic sounds of the pop which would define the eighties. This is what makes this album iconic: Jackson knew where music had to go in the coming years, and he did that by making a sound which would give rise to albums like “Thriller” which would go on to define the eighties.

It takes a great deal of intelligence and foresight to predict the tone of a decade, but with a man like Michael Jackson, it is no surprise it happened. “Off the Wall” is emblematic because it is the swan song for the seventies. Instead of having disco crash and burn as it was expected to do, “Off the Wall” let it softly land into the pages of history in a way that allows us look back at it with a sense of fondness, not contempt. So next time you hear any of the mesmerizing tracks from this great album, think not just about the fast beats and urge to dance, but also the lasting impact it had on the people who listened and the artists who would follow the sound.