For all the talk of his sustained adolescence, no performer made a more compelling entrance into manhood than Michael Jackson did with the release of his 1979 album, “Off the Wall” just a couple of weeks before his 21st birthday.
It was all the more stunning because we had watched his childhood and adolescence. He wasn’t an apparition rising out of obscurity, like Elvis Presley. To become who he was in “Off the Wall,” he had to annul — if not destroy — the performer he had been in the Jackson 5.
And yet the change was organic as well as deliberate. Michael Jackson grew into his body, and out of that new body emerged a wholly new idea of what pop music, and the movement it generates, might be. It can be hard to remember now, 30 years later, just how ubiquitous the hits from that album, especially “Rock With You,” really were.
In soul, in rock ’n’ roll, and in pop, there is a long tradition of men singing in high voices, the height of the voice suggesting the pitch of the singer’s fervor. Michael Jackson made the sweetness of that high voice guttural and demanding. He showed that it was rooted in his feet and hips and hands. He re-sexualized it in a way that you could never really mistake — then — as androgynous.
Very few artists — certainly very few child stars — have ever redefined themselves as thoroughly or as successfully as Michael Jackson did. His second act was better than any number of first acts put together. The uncanny thing wasn’t just his physical transformation, his hypnotic new ability to move. It was the certainty of “Off the Wall” and its sequel “Thriller” that this was the music we wanted to hear. He knew, too, that this was a music we wanted to visualize, to see formalized and set loose in dance. In a sense, he was loosing his transformation upon the rest of us, expecting us to be caught up in the excitement the music caused in him. And we were.
Michael Jackson came to be synonymous with transformation — ultimately, with an eerie stasis that comes from seeking transformation all the time. The alchemy of change worked longer and better for him — through the ’80s and into the early ’90s — than it has for almost any other artist. And yet somehow all the changes always take us back to the album in which Michael Jackson grew up.
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG , NYT, Editorial, June 27, 2009