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Michael Jackson’s Off the wall: beyond the wall of the American musical and colorist categorization

Michael Jackson’s Off the wall : au-delà du mur de la catégorisation musico-coloriste américaine
Isabelle Stegner-Petitjean
Cet article est une traduction de :
Michael Jackson’s Off the wall : au-delà du mur de la catégorisation musico-coloriste américaine [fr]


Notre article se propose d’analyser l’album Off the wall de Michael Jackson (1979) selon les modalités de la dichotomie musico-raciale américaine, commerciale et stylistique, telle qu’elle se décline à l’aube des années 1980. Il vise à mettre en évidence la manière dont cette production a dépassé les clivages des classements de vente, mais également les conventions coloristes attachées aux étiquettes stylistiques, par des dynamiques globales et internes d’imbrications et d’associations sonores. Des éléments d’autant plus importants qu’ils sont des jalons créatifs fondamentaux dans la trajectoire décatégorisante que Michael Jackson n’aura de cesse de poursuivre tout au long de sa carrière adulte.

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The author wishes to thank Jan Carlson for proofreading this translation.

  • 1 Michael Jackson, Off the wall, [33 rpm], prod. Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, label Epic Records, 1 (...)

1The association between Michael Jackson, the notions of crossover and decategorization seem to be obvious today. His relations with the supra-genre of pop music are supported by his music’s stylistic plurality as well as by the federating, yet disturbing, fluidity of the megastar’s self-defined image. It is the album Off the wall1, in 1979, that provided the basis of his decategorizing ambitions. Certainly, the notion of crossover has different meanings: stylistic, with loans from the periphery towards the center (Brackett, 2002: 68); commercial (Covach, 2007: 93) (Brackett, 2002: 69-70) (Garofalo, 1993: 231); cultural (Gans, 1974: 10) and gendered (Butler, 2012: 59). If these different dynamics are all inherent in Michael Jackson’s production. Off the wall gives us the opportunity, particularly through stylistic and commercial crossovers and their colorist implications in the United States, to direct attention to the first Jacksonian step, as an autonomous adult, in his determination to move beyond these contemporary divides initiated with the creation of race records (1920s) and of distinctive charts (1942). To achieve this, we will tackle, first, the nature of commercial crossovers achieved by the album and we will re-examine the importance of the charts, before defining the notions of so-called black or white music and analyzing the stylistic combinations implemented; finally, we will discuss the recording strategies and the sound outlines that contributed to relocating the album in relation to commercial labels’ prerequisites.

Commercial crossovers

Notion of crossover

2Let’s deal with the notion of commercial crossover, which concerns productions reaching high rankings consecutively in different, if non opposite, lists (Brackett, 2002: 69-70) (Garofalo, 1993: 231). Such a dynamic generally evolves from the margin, or “secondary” market (country and western, Latin or rhythm’n’blues), towards the center (mainstream market or pop market).

A few numbers

3Three weeks after placing at the top of the R&B list, Off the wall achieved a crossover, entering the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching 3rd place. It remained in this chart generally related to a mainly white market over a period of 169 weeks. Then, it received 7 Platinium certifications for selling 7 million copies. It was also the first album to rank 4 songs in the Top 10 simultaneously in the United States and in England (where a 5th title was added, “Girlfriend”).

4If this third place disappointed Michael Jackson (Jackson, 1988: 175-176), it remained respectable. Seen in the context and in terms of comparison, it was more significant than the ranking obtained, the same year, by Prince who, with his second eponymous studio album, remained confined at the 22nd place of the Billboard 200 and at the third place of the R&B list. Diana Ross, as well, with her album The boss, was only ranked at the 14th place of the general list. Finally, Tina Turner’s Love explosion was a commercial failure, remaining out of the charts and receiving no certification.

Charts and the colorist arena in the American record industry

5If Michael Jackson was not, in 1979, the first black artist to achieve crossovers, he was the first to go on to achieve a central position in the mostly white mainstream. This advancement placed him downstream of a secular process which lead to the elaboration of American popular culture as a complex network, established with subtle borrowing, exchange, and appropriation dynamics – a network in which the issues of alterity, two-eyed principle and double-consciousness remain fundamental elements. A history of the Euro- and African-American cultural identities – marked by controversial practices like blackface or leveling covers – which had always been the territory of power and formal and political issues: “when black artists cross over into pop success, they cease to be black in the music industry sense of the word. They get promoted from racialized black music to universal pop music in an economically driven process of racial transcendence” (Mahon, 2004: 163). With this first adult solo album, Michael Jackson seemed to lay the foundation, as an adult, in a process that was aimed to pick up and exceed Berry Gordy Jr’s objectives at Motown: creating a pop music with an African-American basis for the general market, contributing to an ever-growing stylistic heterogeneity. He proved, with his commercial success, that, at the beginning of the 1980s, a mainstream still existed, at the top of which he was able to take place.

Crossovers of musical expressions

Notions of so-called white/black music and features

6Through Off the wall, Michael Jackson made his first choices in terms of combining colorist conventions – elements heard as belonging to so-called black and white music, linking genres and identities. These dynamics of opposition, perhaps of colorist confrontations, are secular questions that Paul Gilroy formulated as follows: “All blacks in the West stand between (at least) two great cultural assemblages, both of which have mutated through the course of the modern world that formed them and assumed new configurations. At present, they remain locked symbiotically in an antagonistic relationship marked out by the symbolism of colors which adds to the conspicuous cultural power of their central Manichean dynamic – black and white” (Gilroy, 1995: 1-2). A social and cultural divide transferred and reinforced over the establishment of the entertainment industry and particularly the record industry, formed this musical and colorist dichotomy that Philip Tagg described as “an utopian fantasy accepted”. Let’s recall for one moment the difficult reality constituted by the nature of this divide and the relevance of the stylistic conventions limited by these conceptual envelopes.

7Philip Tagg’s statement in his open letter, aimed to show that the notions of so-called black and white music have more to do with a complex and inextricable tissue of appropriations and secular exchanges than with precise and objective elements of analysis – which would be directly detectable, in an unambiguous way, in the ancestral sources to which they refer. A radical doubt adopted by Emmanuel Parent (2008: 168), stated with a globally anti-essentialist bias, at a time when the analysis focused on the search for African roots. Tagg’s letter, therefore, aimed to unessentialize the debate, demonstrating, for example, that musical elements linked to so-called black or white music were not only missing in every potentially original African musical expression (unlike Henry Louis Gates Jr’s or Samuel A. Floyds’s theories [Gates, 1988; Floyd, 1995], based on an utopian and non-existent homogeneity of African culture), but that they could also be identified in certain European popular music (particularly from the British Isles, where a majority of the colonists originated).

8A first cat set among the pigeons, that Denis-Constant Martin extended and completed with his article “Filiation or Innovation?” (1991b), in which he offered to invalidate this debate centered on an oppositional focal point Europe / Africa, totally neglecting the inevitably important contributions of Native Americans in the creolization / acculturation process, as they were closely linked with the European colonists and the African deportees and then the creole slaves, integrated into their communities (Martin, 2011a: 22-23). Moreover, these examinations ignore the homogeneity of the music imported from Africa by the slaves, when they were often moved as individuals, and not as members of communities, and when they were coming from geographically distant places, with languages, cultures, approaches and knowledges about music equally different and unequal. (Raibaud, 2009: 172)

9However, this colorist categorization took place in and against race discourses (Radano, 2003: 4). It has been accepted and is still being used today. It is what Yves Raibaud defined as an “including concept”, provided with its own representations linked to the musical era and “most effective if they fall within the cultural representations’ framework and take part in the construction of arguments still reinforcing these representations” (Raibaud, 2009: 171-172).

  • 2 See, for example, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sam Cooke.

10At the time of Off the wall – when Michael Jackson, as an African American agent, made his first adult and assumed choices aimed at dominating, to the point of dissolving, these ideological and artistic divisions – the colorist categorization was a key element of the politics pursued by record labels and it reflected the lens through which the U.S. social and racial chessboard is articulated. Why did it persist? Because, on the one hand, it consisted in what Tagg named a social construction, that resulted – like every form of socially constructed categorization which have no beginning – of exchanges, borrowings and acculturations; and, on the other hand, because it was accepted and used by Euro Americans and by African Americans, obviously and generally for opposed purposes. However, for the American sociologist William Isaac Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (quoted by Martin, 2011: 20): thus, in comparison with the reality of the historical background that helped it to emerge – a background steeped in domination and violence, marked by the establishment and the use of a power for prioritization and discriminatory purposes – this categorization is indeed a social and political process resulting from a perceived reality and continuing to intervene in real consequences (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000; see also Brubaker et al., 2006). The reality that gave birth to it corresponds to the need to designate, name and identify groups that were previously clearly and naturally identifiable within the previous social organization – an era marked by the emergence of a dichotomy within society, therefore, in the midst of the abolition of slavery (end of the Reconstruction, during the 1870s), in a context where systems of domination had not been modified. Once “built”, it occupied the ground, acted and made others act (Parent, 2008: 170). The logical next step was the labeling of cultural practices by the entertainment industry, according to the agent’s affiliation and according to a principle of remodeling and conforming to attributed and expected conventions and stereotypes. And, since it was not possible to accept that so-called black music is the result of beneficial race relations, it would have been attributed, according to Radano, to Black America as a remarkable gift, as a means of gaining a “viable” place in society (Radano, 2003: 115), by inducing two types of consideration: that, from a racist view, of a reference to primitivism and inferiority, and that, from the African-American point of view, of being able to be recognized as capable of creolizing creation, “evidence of humanity, source of dignity, basis for claims of recognition, justice and equality” (Martin, 2011: 29). A gift that, on a practical level and placed within the racial framework of the dominant ideology, substituted the transcultural dynamics that nourished the “prestigious roots” that led to original Afro-centric quests and the demand for black power, particularly, during the period of the civil rights struggle, by musico-political hymns of affirmation and individual and community valorization2.

  • 3 The two other periods were, upstream, the Tin Pan Alley era (1930s and 1940s), corresponding to the (...)

11But let us return to these musical categories, supposed to refer to social and/or racial origins or affiliations, whose emergence was thus concretized during the 1920s and 1940s within the record industry labels, with the distinction race music / hillbilly music which, as we have understood it, masked the reality of the mixed origins of their productions and the stock of forms and repertoires they shared upstream (Radano, 2003: 107, 109). Their divisive labeling went beyond the fact that these two styles already constituted – beyond the commercial labels, their stylistic content and their target audiences – an example of irrepressible interaction between cultures. However, from then on, phonographic publishers consolidated this separation by introducing race catalogs. In the United States, racial ideology plays an important role in the determination of marketing categories, and as Reebee Garofalo reminds us, the desire to create identifiable genres had been reinforced, despite the reality of bilateral stylistic exchanges and absorptions between the parties: “At this time, the conventional marketing strategies of the music industry were based on three product categories: pop for the mainstream audience, country and western for the regional audiences, and rhythm and blues for the black audience” (Garofalo, 1994: 277). In all fields, the music industry thus prolonged the battle to define sound through racial labels, especially for commercial purposes, and these trends have resulted in particular conventions of vocalization, formal properties and instruments, specifically related to racial categories, always despite the complexity of their interracial origins. The association between musical labels and identity profiles – leading, among other things, to the affiliation between soul or R&B and so-called black music, between rock, pop or country and so-called white music – was established over a very long time and on the basis of long and complex historical transactions. Until the time that saw the birth of “Off the wall”, the genres encoded as “African-American” remained marginal breeding grounds from which the mainstream market regularly drew to regenerate itself (Brackett, 2002: 69). Moreover, the album was produced at the end of the second period defined by Reebee Garofalo, which was marked as much by the mutation of rhythm ’n’ blues into a hegemony of rock (1950–1970) as by the transitory domination of disco within the mainstream market3.

12Before describing these stylistic conventions from which the pop market has drawn, let us briefly return to the very principle of “convention”. For Susan McClary (2000: 5–7), this notion refers to postulates, to subjective constructions that give meaning to cultural activities and can be summed up, in the musical sphere, as stylistic choices. We have seen that the existence of the categories that envelope, separate and classify them, and their substantial relevance, is debatable and debated. However, their discursive and social existence, with its effects and consequences on the way they are viewed, analyzed and understood, is very real. The interpretation of conventions depends on the audience and the narrative environment, and understanding them allows us to grasp the way dominant and alternative discourses are transmitted. For Denis-Constant Martin, they are links resulting from processes of symbolization, which “connect the sound work to historical reality” (Martin, 1991a: 162). These conventions and their use thus reinforce our ways of defining communities while at the same time reflecting the social structures of society. Even if we keep in mind the complexity and subtlety of cultural interactions that have, in fact, irrigated the stylistic conventions shaping the mainstream (and Jackson’s production) through musical borrowings and labeling, the mapping of some of these conventions to “color” has remained so vivid that it has become the basis for much discussion and analysis of the three mainstream periods discussed above (Garofalo 1990: 76–81; Brackett, 1999: 129–135; Bayer, 2010).

13At the time we are discussing, the musico-colorist conventions are still strongly in line with the stylistic elements that have infused popular music, from Mingus’s jazz (Martin, 1991a) to rock’n’roll (Brackett 1999: 132); on the African-American side, they commonly remain rhythmicity and improvisation, responsorial exchanges (gospel and soul influences), the importance of bass and groove (funk), a not very smooth vocality, vehicle of the soul, instrumentalizing the voice to noise (shouting, interjections, scat, hiccups, human beatboxing), lyrics carrying half-religious half secular fervor, reflecting social awareness and personal development (funk and soul). Regarding the Euro-American conventions, as disinences of the elements of this “European art music” evoked by Brackett (1999: 130), they bring together the notions of melodicity, thematic development, sophisticated harmonizations and orchestrations, aseptic and sophisticated sound design work.

14With Off the wall, Michael Jackson has set up the main tools of what will become, within his productions, a continuous process of musico-racial decompartmentalization. Fully aware of the existence of these labels, of the value commonly attributed to them and of their impact on the definition of music, he never ceased to rely on them in an attempt to transcend them. In this first adult solo album, he made the first combinatorial choices of these colorist labels that link genres and identities and that have not escaped criticism: “a slick, sophisticated R&B-pop showcase with a definite disco slant, [which] presents Michael Jackson as the Stevie Wonder of the Eighties” (Holden, 1979), “an intoxicating blend of strong melodies, rhythmic hooks, and indelible construction… that is utterly thrilling in its utter joy” (Erlewine). All these elements induce references to the music-colorist associations that already innervated the pop music in which Michael Jackson operated.

15Thus, more than an essentialist notion, this pop should be seen as the fruit of a social construction that testifies to the central place occupied by the racial question in the United States and that is articulated, through these borrowings from marginal currents, on secular relations between Whites and Blacks. It is true that historical analysis no longer recognizes the independence of notions of black and white identities, given the constant evolution of debates on race and their hierarchization. However, the persistence of musical categorizations can be explained by the specific histories of the music business, cultural consumer policies, institutional practices (radio, production, rankings, press, forums) and evolving and changing technologies that affect audiences. Despite discourses that sometimes contradict this fact, the music industry’s policy is framed in terms of markets. So-called black music has always attracted so-called white audiences and has often even drawn on white musical traditions, and it is when it brings together a mosaic of racial identities and histories that the relationship between popular music and identity issues is most deterministic, especially when confronted with essentialist interpretations (Potter, 1999: 71). In such a context, defining Black popular music would be equivalent to sticking to what African-American artists play or what African-American consumers buy, risking mistaken shortcuts. Relying on the racial background of musicians can be a convenient way to place black artists, whatever they perform, in an inferior commercial structure, as caricatured here by Curtis Mayfield: “No matter how deep they get into Beethoven or the symphony, that’s an R&B product. And pop, that’s the white artist” (Mayfield, 1970: 18). It would also be to deny the funk, disco and R&B dimensions of the tracks signed by the white Englishman Rod Temperton on Off the wall. And to rely on what the black public buys is to consider that certain titles by Madonna or George Michael (who won the American Music Award for Best Black Male Vocalist in 1989), for example, are black popular music. Thus are the whims of the commercial music categories.

16A label such as Motown, where Michael Jackson was trained, showed, through its ability to operate crossovers, that a black record industry had its full place in a dominant market that was economically and socially monolithic. It contributed to an ever-expanding fluidity and stylistic heterogeneity. This desire to decompartmentalize music has been expressed on several occasions by both Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, the producer of Off the wall: “In 1973 Duke [Ellington] signed a picture for me that read, ‘You be the one to de-categorize, American music. I never forgot that. I don’t like categories… It’s all music! It uses the same 12 notes! I love it all” (Gibson & Jones, 2010: 46) – a statement that echoes Jackson’s: “I don’t categorize music. Music is music […] it has no color, it has no boundaries” (Lewis Jones, 2005: 279–280). Since it is not possible to ignore these labels, which reflect the mutability of social categories and the cultural transactions they symbolize, Michael Jackson used their codes to blur boundaries and feelings of belonging (Bayer, 2010: 49) and used the full potential of this categorization on the human unconscious.

We will now turn to the stylistic balance and combinations of musico-colorist conventions that mark the album and contribute to its decategorizing character.

A multiracial and eclectic production team

17Off the wall’s production team brought together multiracial and eclectic personal and musical identities that prevent essentialist shortcuts. It consisted of producer and arranger Quincy Jones, engineer Bruce Swedien, and included funk-dominated musicians (bassist Louis Johnson, guitarists David Williams and Melvin Ragin) and musicians from various origins: the guitarist Marlo Henderson (R&B, heavy metal), the Brazilian percussionist Paulhino Da Costa with a broad musical polyglottism, the Seawind Horns, from jazz fusion, or the keyboardists Greg Phillinganes (Stevie Wonder, Toto) and Michael Boddicker (electronic music and film music composer).

Structural and stylistic balance of the album

18On the compositional side, the album offers a balanced stylistic diversity: three compositions by Michael Jackson himself, of dancing funk-disco aesthetics, two soft rock type tracks (thus rather associated with so-called white conventions), by Rod Temperton who also penned the last disco-funk of the album, a melodic pop ballad by Paul McCartney counterbalanced by a rhythmic and jazzy ballad co-written by Stevie Wonder, and two other very crossover ballads written or co-written by David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager and Tom Balher. This balance and stylistic juxtaposition on a large scale can be found in a more cellular way in most of the titles. The first three singles correspond to the times and to the young, fresh, dynamic and assumed image that the artist wished to project, breaking with the child star who would repeat himself or age badly. These songs, rhythmic and danceable, endowed with lush orchestrations and carried by a voice that unfolds its rhythmic-melodic potential, are taken from the initial block of the album (tracks 1, 2, 5) – a dynamic, catchy and powerful sound opening that will set the tone for subsequent albums. The last two singles released, corresponding to tracks 7 and 6, were taken from the more melodic central part of the album and offered the public another artistic aspect of Michael Jackson while at the same time offering a stylistic renewal, or even a reversal compared to the previous singles: with these ballads of character, sometimes painful and introspective (“She’s out of my life”), sometimes seductive and entertaining (“Girlfriend”), the tracks chosen to support the marketing of Michael Jackson constituted a panel of crossover expression, opening up the public’s field and bringing together different, even opposing, musical affinities within a mainstream that was beginning to fragment.

Stylistic imbrications in the album

19Let’s go further into the analysis and develop in more detail, through a few key titles, the ways in which the album’s stylistic borrowings were intertwined, but also the singer’s crossover vocality and the recording processes implemented to combine two data associated with musico-coloristic fields, natural ‘integrity’ and sophistication.

One of the first (and main) stylistic conventions infusing Michael Jackson’s music in Off the wall4 is the disco-funk combination (“Don’t stop ’til you get enough”, “Workin’ day and night”, “Get on the floor”, “Burn this disco out”), which was also one of the constituents of pop music of the time. As Christophe Pirenne points out, funk reverses the instrumental hierarchy and puts rhythm in the foreground and melodic instruments in the background. The melodies or riffs, therefore, often come from the bass and its interventions are supported by drums that accentuate the high beat more than the low beat, causing a loss of importance of harmony. If the tonality of the songs is often static, or lacking modulation, this apparent lack is, however, compensated by a great rhythmic diversity, which involves very syncopated guitars and keyboards (Pirenne, 2011: 268). Funk is here combined with disco, which has also gained a foothold in the mainstream and was present in contemporary albums (Tina Turner, Love explosion; Jermaine Jackson, Let’s get serious; Diana Ross, Diana). Disco is characterized by a 4 beat pulse, a tempo at 120 bpm, with beats systematically marked by the bass drum, sixteenth notes played on hi-hat cymbals and often, in the choruses, an alternation between bass drum and snare drum, with systematically opening hi-hat calling in an aspiration the next beat. Disco brought to funk a lightness, a rhythmic fluidity and luxuriant orchestrations (strings, woodwinds, brass) through its ample counter chants. These play here in favor of a “white” influence, acting – in the same way as when they are used in rock or jazzy crooner ballads – as reminiscences of great European music (Brackett, 1999: 130).

The case of “Don’t stop ’til you get enough”

20Such is the case in the title “Don’t stop ’til you get enough”, which opens the album Off the wall. This one was composed by Michael Jackson and is his first crossover since 1970, ranking jointly at the top of the R&B and Billboard Hot 100 lists for 5 weeks. His ubiquitous disco-funk style is recurrent in Michael Jackson’s production, but presents here a real balance and an influence less linked to “black” clichés associated with rhythmicity and noise than in tracks such as: “Shake your body (down to the ground)” (Destiny, 1978), “Working day and night”, “Get on the floor” (Off the wall, 1979), “Wanna be startin’ somethin’” (Thriller, 1982). Indeed, in “Don’t stop ’til you get enough”, African-American characteristics are incorporated but also leveled.

Structure and organization

21The introduction directly installs Louis Johnson’s funk bass and lays down a very tight melodic-rhythmic groove woven of riffs, supporting the singer’s restrained and hesitant spoken introduction rising to an uninhibited scream. The whole song borrows from funk a duration that exceeds the framework of the standard pop format (6'06). It also owes to it its harmonic stagnation of Bb Sharp (Bb 5 and Bb 11) of which only the late addition of a guitar section in C (absent from the demo) casts a glance towards the pop/rock conventions, thus “white”. It also substitutes funk for instrumental sessions – although it structures other tracks such as “Shake your body” – a unique bridge in the manner of pop/rock songs, which directly links brass, guitars and strings in a noisy sound context evoking the atmosphere of disco clubs.

22The principle of call and response – generally associated with the soul-gospel influence and which is also more present in “Shake your body” or in “Wanna be startin’ somethin’” (with the presence of an African choir and the borrowing of Manu DiBango’s “Soul Makossa”) – is here softened by the double discourse of the singer (apart in the low register, at the front of the sound field / vocal riff in the lead voice, doubled in the background). Moreover, the musical narration of the song opts for repetition, conventionally associated here with “black” music, as opposed to “white” development, reducing verse and refrain to two antithetically constructed phrases, one melodic in long values, the other on an alternation of short rhythmic formulas energized by brief silences. This repetition, which moves the whole song and extends to the shunt, finds a counterpart in the instrumental riffs and vocal punctuations.


23“Don’t stop ’til you get enough” is a title that strikes by its polyrhythmic texture (fig. 1). The pulse and the strong beats are marked by the bass drum and the bass, which unrolls a riff derived from the funk while the snare drum and percussion mark the weak beats. This basic structure is enriched by the use of other percussion instruments, but also by the use of concrete objects, such as glass bottles, “played” by Paulhino Da Costa and whose brightness of impact has been captured by Bruce Swedien’s Ribbon microphones. The whole of this contrapuntal canvas confers an effective dance dynamic, further enhanced by the notion of micro-rhythmicity highlighted by Anne Danielsen (2012), which takes into account the duration of rhythmic events at an infra temporal level, the sound and the internal dynamics of such events and thus prioritizes the reality of sound gestures over abstract structural figures. However, here it is more leveled, “white” and clearer than in James Brown’s titles where it is the prerogative of all instruments (“Sex machine”). In Michael Jackson, it is confined to the basic groove section and includes, in the same call to body movement, only the bass, drums and guitar. The first beat of each measure, underlined by a slight anticipation, evokes, in an equally weighted manner, the gravitational impact that it generates more strongly in the funk.

24The leveling is also carried by the borrowing from disco. Indeed, while the vital cross-rhythmic frictions between bass and bass drum maintain a ratio of 4 to 3 specific to all dance music, the influence of disco can be seen in a 16 sixteenth note beat played with a shaker which counters the funk dimension, in the sense that this structure favors an equal attack and only occasionally brings a syncopated accent. The whole thing thus creates a double contrast with, on the one hand, the traditional bass drum/snare drum alternation, characteristic of pop and rock, and, on the other hand, the heavily accentuated first beat of the funk.

Figure 1 : “Don’t stop ’til you get enough”’s polyrhythmic texture

Figure 1 : “Don’t stop ’til you get enough”’s polyrhythmic texture


25The disco softening also occurs in the orchestration of the third verse, after the bridge, in the joint and regular counterpoint of violins and cellos, which brings a linear and melodic touch to this section.

Vocally, “Don’t stop ’til you get enough” uses less noisy, guttural and shouted expressions than Michael Jackson’s other disco-funk tracks, and uses here a lead voice familiar from the disco style of the time (the Bee Gees, Earth Wind and Fire, Imagination), but which was also already heard in the gospel groups of the 1940s-1950s (the Golden Gate Quartet, the Wright Brothers Gospel Singers, the Swan Silvertones).

26Finally, the general sonic design associated with pop sophistication, achieved by Bruce Swedien, is due to the clarity of the sounds and their subtle and identifiable distribution in the sound space that contributes to the crossover aspect, as an antithesis of the raucous and aggressive sound of funk and its hip-hop disinence. This combination also contributed to the crossover depth of the song, mixing danceable funk-disco rhythmicity and sophisticated sonic pleasures. A crossover depth that is summarized here in its entirety by Anne Danielsen:

“Through the combination of a compelling micro-rhythmic design derived from previous black dance music styles with a pop song format and production techniques that were mainstream friendly and not marked by race, Jackson and his producer, Quincy Jones, achieved a critical balance that transcended the segregation of the music market, neutralizing the cultural background and historical baggage of what otherwise would have been deemed ‘black’ music” (Anne Danielsen, 2012 : 151).

Crossover of vocal expressions: melodicity, rhythmicity, noisy sounds

27In addition to this interweaving of stylistic elements borrowed from black and white musical expressions, the voice, Michael Jackson’s main instrument, plays an important crossover role. Throughout his childhood in Motown, this voice was exploited for its expressive, timbral and melodic-rhythmic potential. The various composers of Off the wall exploited and made the most of this vocal instrument: with “Off the wall” or “Rock with you”, Rod Temperton combined rhythmic dynamism and broad melodic ambitus; with “I can’t help it”, Stevie Wonder played on rhythmicity, the interplay between vocal timbres, attacks and resonances.

28In one of his compositions, “Working day and night” Michael Jackson exploited the conventional springs of a vocality that would like to be more “black” (always in the context of the representations in force in the American context of colorist labels), that is to say rhythmic, noisy and inviting into the sound field a black corporeality. The introduction opens directly onto a double rhythmic vocal track that combines, as an initial groove, phonemes and voiced breaths. This practice, more noisy than melodic, constitutes a percussive and vocal intermediary between scat and human beatboxing that will cement later tracks. Leading to an exhilarating scream, the singer’s voice is marked by an exacerbated rhythmicity, sighs and cries, repetitive interjections and phonemes interacting with the orchestra and taking part in the bridge, like a real instrument. It is also marked by the inflections related to the singer-dancer’s body movements, accompanied by claps of hands, fingers, and foot tapping generally associated with Afro-American exuberance.

29With “Girlfriend”, Paul McCartney offered a relaxed pop melodic ballad without any characteristic effect. The vocality is not very clear-cut, more combinatory, and at first follows the melodic line faithfully, with a clear, polished timbre and a certain neutrality, inflecting only the phrasing in pairs, but then gradually reintegrates the other facet of Michael Jackson’s vocal personality, hiccups, rhythmic breaths and anticipatory phonemes, working in favor of a certain expressive mix.

30On the other hand, “She’s out of my life” plays on the simplicity, humility and contrition that accompany this text of ruptured relationship. Michael Jackson’s vocal expression remains very sober, attached to the conduct of ample phrases without embellishing them, the careful holding of long values, the integrity of theatrical silences, without hiccups or noise; even the singer’s breath remains discreet, with no sound function other than breathing. In this title, Michael Jackson thus adopts a softened, purely melodic and linear imprint, a precise diction, a white crossover voice in the line of the first crooners with a softened and relaxed vocal expression (Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby), which had made white listeners happy (Gillett, 1986: 163).

Studio strategies for sound decategorization

Prerequisites and colorist sound issues

31Eclectic stylistic interweaving and vocal expressions, whether controlled and leveled or impulsive and visceral, are not the only modalities of music-colorist categorization. It also involves the capture and fixation of sounds. Taken as they are, in a direct and raw way, they would approach the essentialist conceptions of black music as a “vital force” close to nature, as Quincy Jones expressed it. Reworked, softened, purified, they would approach a certain neutrality of identity and even a form of sophistication and artificiality often associated with the mainstream.

32The sound profile of the musico-racial categorization, as it was heard at the end of the 1970s, was gradually established from the end of the period of hegemony of Tin Pan Alley (1920s) and throughout the phase of rock’s domination within the mainstream (1950–1970) (Garofalo, 1994: 283–284), through an accentuation that led to two fields of antithetical influences: on the one hand, the association between aggressive and noisy sounds and rebellious, antisocial or pan-Africanizing veins (rock or funk); on the other, the association between sonic sophistication, hedonism and consumerism and pop, all of which supports the nature/culture dichotomy. Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or George Clinton paved the way for artists such as Michael Jackson or Prince by mixing African-American musical conventions and rock. But despite the transplantation of these markers, the black sound crossover has most often tended to be characterized by a leveling, a softening of angularities. Off the wall is part of these sound problems, through the work of sound engineer Bruce Swedien, who combined a so-called natural approach with complex processes. He offered a double-language that preserves the integrity of the singer’s voice, but also adopted complex processes.

Combination of recordings, the case of “Rock with you”.

Voice sound integrity

33In “Rock with you”, the main voice was recorded monophonically and analogically with a Shure SM-7 (Swedien, 2009a: 116), chosen for its transparent rendition and the absence of artificiality in its high notes. It was used very close to Michael Jackson’s mouth (Swedien, 2009a: 19), without windscreen (Swedien, 2009b: 194) and thus captured some of the body noises of the singer dancing in the studio. This sound recording was framed by acoustic filters called Tubetraps (Swedien, 2009b: 167-169) creating sound spaces and avoiding the addition of artificial reverberation or compression (Swedien, 2009a: 134-135). Bruce Swedien’s goal was to ensure the sonic materialization of the singer’s virtual body (Cook, 2014: 323), retaining an essential part of body sounds as raw ingredients that sign his vocal and community identity. This sound recording conferred a lush promiscuity and a feeling of naturalness reinforced by the recording of the main voice in a single continuous take, without cutting or editing.

To this first element was added another process of creating vocal prisms that stratified, with Michael Jackson’s voice alone, the depth of the sound field. This is the first example of a series of harmonic vocal prisms and a natural and sophisticated double approach that would almost become a signature of the Swedien-Jackson collaboration.

Sophisticated choirs

  • 5 The early reflections are the very first bounces emitted by a sound in contact with the closest wal (...)

34In a combinatorial way, “Rock with you” proposes an example of the complex elaboration of three-dimensional vocal prisms that creates a choir with the singer’s sole voice and allowed the use of the responsorial mode, avoiding the use of an external choir that would suggest a more gospel-soul alternation. These vocal blocks have given rise to strategies more associated with pop conventions as well as superimpositions of tracks playing in particular on the proportion of early reflections5 and their impact on texture and depth, a sensitive element for Bruce Swedien. The idea was to record Michael Jackson’s voice twice in mono, very close to the microphone, before moving it back a few steps for other takes, this time in stereo, while increasing their sound level to reach the level of the two previous ones. By combining these takes – whose vocal inflections were reproduced with great precision by Jackson, who had been trained in chorus and dubbing his own voice since his childhood in Motown – Bruce Swedien supported the voice by enriching its sound spectrum in a natural and real way, without resorting to artificial reprocessing or reverberation of any kind (Swedien, 2009b: 203-204).

35The harmonized vocal prisms were made as follows: “integral” recording of the main voice; dubbing of the same track, at equal distance from the microphone; 3rd take at a greater distance and rebalancing of the sound level; 4th stereophonic take at a greater distance, with two bidirectional microphones configured as an X-Y pair, or “Blumlein Pair”, i.e., placed with the converging capsules at an angle of 90 degrees, all added to the previous takes. The resulting increase in anticipated reflections created the depth of field for the vocal harmonies of “Rock with you” and is an example of the combination of pop and creative sophistication with the “realistic integrity” of a more music-colored voice.


36Off the wall, with its commercial crossovers, its interweaving of labels, stylistic conventions, vocal expressions and sound contours, constitutes Michael Jackson’s first autonomous step towards his ideal of music-identity neutrality. He participated in the canonization of a pop music that is more a fluid dynamic than a fixed category, drawing inspiration from a diversity of styles that his artistic identity crossed without settling down, and highlighting the tense dynamics that exist and that actually define the mainstream, constantly seeking to transcend racial categories through his music. It essentially represents a first hurdle crossed for Michael Jackson, who will go on to persist in his will to decategorize by expanding his stylistic range more and more, decompartmentalizing the sound and visual supports, delocalizing, finally, the production in pop performance.

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1 Michael Jackson, Off the wall, [33 rpm], prod. Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, label Epic Records, 10 August 1979.

2 See, for example, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sam Cooke.

3 The two other periods were, upstream, the Tin Pan Alley era (1930s and 1940s), corresponding to the emergence of popular culture as dominant, and, downstream, the breakthrough of rap at the end of the 1980s (Garofalo, 1994: 283–284).

4 The songs of the album Off the wall can be heard on YouTube at this link: [30 August 2020].

5 The early reflections are the very first bounces emitted by a sound in contact with the closest walls in its environment. This first reverberation is essential because it contains the information that the ear needs to identify the size of the room (width, height and depth) and the distance between the listener and the sound source. The primary reflections should therefore be closely monitored if the goal is to reproduce a realistic sense of space.

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Titre Figure 1 : “Don’t stop ’til you get enough”’s polyrhythmic texture
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Isabelle Stegner-Petitjean, « Michael Jackson’s Off the wall: beyond the wall of the American musical and colorist categorization  »Volume ! [En ligne], 18 : 1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Stegner-Petitjean

Isabelle STEGNER-PETITJEAN est docteure en musicologie. Elle a rédigé une thèse à Sorbonne Université sous la direction de Catherine Rudent et Olivier Julien, portant sur « Les dynamiques raciales au sein de la production de Michael Jackson (1979-2001) : aspects commerciaux, stylistiques et visuels ». Elle est également l’auteure de trois ouvrages musicaux sur l’artiste et membre du comité de rédaction de la revue culturelle NaKaN.

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