The music video opens with a swell of strings rising to meet Michael Jackson, who’s sitting on a stool by himself in a dark room. It’s the Michael I prefer to remember. He has the wide nose my brothers and I have, the deep brown skin, and the thousand-yard stare. Lit from behind by a single spotlight with that angelic voice, it’s easy to believe he’s a spirit arriving from on high. If it weren’t for the lovably goofy green sweater he’s wearing, you might actually notice that Jackson breaks down in tears while singing the song’s final line.
“She’s Out of My Life” was the last of four top ten hit singles released off of Jackson’s game-changing 1980 album Off the Wall. The album was significant not only for the reason that it fully launched his superstar solo career with smashes like “Rock with You” and “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”, but also in that was the beginning of his partnership with renowned producer Quincy Jones. Up until that album, Jackson’s previous solo work was with Motown Records—an institution, but an institution holding him back from greatness.
At Motown, Jackson’s solo work and music with The Jackson 5 (later changed to The Jacksons) was associated with pure bubblegum pop. Mining the Jackson boys for hits, Motown also refused Michael and his brothers to have any creative control or input into their music. Less of a problem when the kids were younger and pushed by their manipulative father Joe, this lack of self-direction was more of an issue when it became clear that Michael’s talent was light-years ahead of his brothers’.
It’s only the true Michael Jackson obsessives who accept that he had solo output before Off the Wall. For Motown, he released four solo albums: Got to Be There (1972), Ben (1972), Music and Me (1973), and Forever, Michael (1975). The albums sold very well, but they weren’t exactly challenging. For example, Ben’s Academy Award-nominated title track was for the movie of the same name, which told the story of a young boy and his pet rat (named Ben) that becomes the leader of a murderous rat colony terrorizing a small town. I don’t think I could come up with a more ludicrous plot idea if you gave me a notepad, one hour, and a bottle of whiskey.
For the cover photo of 1973’s Music and Me, Jackson was forced to pose with a guitar in his hands, even though he doesn’t play guitar on a single song from the record. More posed action figure than professional musician, Jackson was pimped by Motown to sell records with his electric smile and endearing dance moves. The split from Motown and signing with Epic was logical and ultimately world changing. Michael was floundering; he needed not only a new direction but also the guiding hand of an experienced producer.
Quincy Jones first met Michael Jackson on the set of the film The Wiz, the 1978 musical recreation of The Wizard of Oz with an entirely African-American cast. Depending on whom you ask, The Wiz was either an awful box office failure that killed the Blaxploitation film genre, or a cult classic family favorite starring black cultural heroes like Diana Ross and Richard Pryor. When Jackson asked Jones for recommendations on producers to take the helm of his first solo album under Epic Records, he shot off several names. However, Jones eventually gave his best suggestion: himself.
In the studio during the recording of Jackson’s Off the Wall, Jones suggested a cover that would come in lockstep with him wanting the young singer to record material with more mature themes. While The Jackson 5 and The Jacksons had countless hits, they were typically filled with milquetoast lyrics about schoolyard crushes and dancing with a smile on your face. Tom Bahler’s song “She’s Out of my Life” was a song that Jones had, astoundingly, been intending to save for former collaborator Frank Sinatra. Bahler was a California-based songwriter mostly active in the 60s and 70s who counted Jones as a close friend.
When Jackson finally sat down and recorded “She’s Out of My Life”, he finished each take by crying while singing the final line. Although he attempted to sing the final seconds with restraint, instead Jackson let it go, as Jones recounted in an interview for a 2001 Special Edition re-release of Off the Wall:
She's Out of My Life, I'd been carrying around for about three years—you can feel the pain in it, you know. And I held on to it and finally something said 'this is the right moment to give it to Michael'.
And when we recorded it with Michael, I know it was an experience he'd never even thought about to sing in a song, 'cause it's a very mature emotion. And he cried at the end of every take, you know. We recorded about—I don't know—8-11 takes, and every one at the end, he just cried, and I said 'hey - that's supposed to be, leave it on there.'
The point Jones makes about that “mature emotion” is significant. A sheltered boy was now a sheltered 21-year old, and the one feeling he knew well was loneliness. The former child star was loved by scores of fans but had few close friends. Jackson’s later issues and social insecurities can be traced back to his childhood, which was well known to be far from ideal.
Aside from only having his brothers as companions, Jackson and his siblings were frequently beaten by their father Joe for making small mistakes during their marathon rehearsals. Proving to later have severe implications on Michael’s cosmetic decision-making, Joe frequently, and sadistically, told him that he had a “fat nose.”
In Jackson’s 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, he talks about the loneliness that came be a defining, pervading part of his life:
Many girls want to know what makes me tick—why I live the way I live or do the things I do. They want to rescue me from my loneliness, but they do it in such a way that they give me the impression they want to share my loneliness, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody, because I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world…
I got too wrapped up in 'She’s Out of My Life.' In this case, the story’s true—I cried at the end of a take, because the words suddenly had such a strong effect on me. I had been letting so much build up inside me. I was twenty-one years old, and I was so rich in some experiences while being poor in moments of true joy…
When I got emotional after that take, the only people with me were Q [Quincy] and Bruce Swedien. I remember burying my face in my hands and hearing only the hum of the machinery as my sobs echoed in the room. Later I apologized, but they said there was no need.
While recording Off the Wall, Jackson would wander through his neighborhood, looking for people who didn’t recognize him. On these painful walks, he was hoping, he says in Moonwalk, to meet “somebody who would be my friend because they liked me and needed a friend too, not because I was who I am."
As is now obvious, Jackson’s tears in the final recording of “She’s Out of My Life” made it all the more meaningful. At 66 beats per minute, the song is one of the slowest in Jackson’s catalog. That crawling pace serves to highlight Bahler’s simple-but-poignant lyrics, which call out “damned indecision and cursed pride”, as if Jackson knew actually knew what it felt like to lose a lover by one’s own idiocy.
The clear highlight of the song is the fourth line of each verse, where Jackson’s voice soars miles above the song’s low-key musical accompaniment. “She’s Out of My Life” definitely isn’t the only example of a love song ballad in the singer’s catalog—tracks like “Carousel”, “Fly Away”, and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” are fair examples of Jackson singing in depth about the pain of love.
The difference between these songs and “She’s Out of My Life” is their time and place. When Jackson recorded the latter, he was a lonely young man who didn’t know what love meant; when he recorded mega-hits like “Will You Be There,” he was a lonely adult superstar insulated by fame, singing instead about universal God-like love.
“She’s Out of My Life” catches Michael Jackson at a pivotal point in his life and career. Watching him sing, you get the sense that you’re witnessing a rare moment of vulnerability from a version of the singer you rarely get to see. Although he went on to make some clear mistakes and bizarre decisions later in life, it’s difficult to not sympathize with the young man sitting alone in the music video’s dark room, isolated and without a “she” in his life, much less out of it.
Austin Bryant is not your lover, but he is on Twitter.