The Number Ones

January 23, 1988

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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How do you describe that bassline? That bassline sounds like something you’d hear booming out of a lowrider UFO. That bassline sounds like what might a Terminator might throw on the stereo after it gets off from work. If Daleks could breakdance, they would breakdance to that bassline.

A lot of Michael Jackson songs have amazing basslines, but none of those basslines hits quite like the bassline of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Even on “Billie Jean,” the bassline isn’t quite so overpowering. The bassline on “The Way You Make Me Feel” sounds funky and awkward and menacing all at once. It sounds like a technological marvel, and that’s because it is. There’s no bass guitar on “The Way You Make Me Feel.” I’m pretty sure that bassline comes from session musician Christopher Currell playing the synclavier, the digital synth that Stevie Wonder loved so much. That loping sound was too weird and too precise for an actual bass guitar.

The story behind “The Way You Make Me Feel” is that Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother, wanted him to write a shuffle — an old-school R&B number, like the stuff that Motown was putting out nearly a decade before Berry Gordy signed the Jackson 5. That’s why Jackson wrote “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The song is a shuffle, and it has plenty of things that call back to earlier eras of R&B. But Katherine Jackson apparently didn’t quite understand that her son was Michael Jackson and that anything he’d write in the late ’80s would come out sounding like a space-age oddity.

Jackson’s Bad might be the original too-big-to-fail pop album. Jackson was following up Thriller, the most successful album in existence, so he made a record where all the songs could work as singles. Every song on Bad checks some kind of box. Every song works as image maintenance and as music, a difficult thing to pull off. The album’s two previous singles had served their functions. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was the soft, approachable reintroduction. “Bad” was the statement of intent, the mean-mugging dance anthem. “The Way You Make Me Feel” served a different purpose. It made Michael Jackson out to be a flirt.

This was no easy task. Michael Jackson was, by just about every account, not a flirt. He didn’t date. He kept his private life intensely private. If all those allegations are right, he used all his fame and success to predatory ends. But with “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Jackson depicts himself as a charming, boisterous lothario. Just about every lyric on “The Way You Make Me Feel” is some attempt at a pickup line, and most of them are perfectly ridiculous: “You’re just a product of loveliness/ I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress.”

But the lyrics of “The Way You Make Me Feel” aren’t the point. The song uses Jackson’s playfulness in other ways. The charm of “The Way You Make Me Feel” is in the way Jackson darts in and out of that monster digital groove. The ad-libs sound like hooks: “Ooooh! G’on, girl! Owwww!” The hooks, on the other hand, sound like ad-libs. Jackson delivers certain phrases — “so goooood!” — in ways that no other human being ever has or ever will. If it wasn’t for that monster chorus, “The Way You Make Me Feel” might come off as some strangely inspired in-studio jam session.

On Bad 25, the album reissue that came out in 2012, you can hear the a cappella vocal edit of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and it’s pretty amazing. You can hear just how much mustard Jackson put on so many lines, how hard he sang some of those syllables. You can also hear how crucial all his grunts and breaths and hiccups are to the actual beat of the song. If he had to, Michael Jackson could serve as his own rhythm section.

He didn’t have to. The Quincy Jones production on “The Way You Make Me Feel” is a thing of beauty. Like so much of Bad, “The Way You Make Me Feel” is blocky and hard, but it’s also richly orchestrated. Everything arrives right on time: The opening tumble of thundercrack drum sounds, the tiptoeing keyboard riff, the electro-guitar siren whines, the bursts of simulated Southern-soul horns. Even with all those embellishments, though, “The Way You Make Me Feel” is relentlessly percussive, and everything stays tied to that bassline. The fully mechanized beat is there to give Michael Jackson a chance to strut around, to peacock. He takes it.

Jackson also peacocks in the video. In fact, he peacocks a little too hard. Today, it’s hard to see the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel” as anything other than a glorification of street harassment. Director Joe Pytka, who’d made a bunch of high-profile commercials and who would later make Space Jam, films Jackson out, late at night, on a Los Angeles street corner. (They shot the video on Skid Row in LA.) Jackson and his friends see a beautiful woman walking alone, and Jackson screams at her to get her attention. Then he goes into a big dance routine to impress her, while his friends surround her and keep her from escaping. The girl, played by the model Tatiana Thumbtzen, starts out looking nervous. She tries to get away. Jackson won’t leave her alone. She climbs into a parked car, and he climbs in after her. Finally, she’s charmed, and after a hallucinatory hydrants-busting-open sequence, they end the video with a kiss.

Time has not been kind to the very idea of this music video. When Jackson’s friends block her path in a dark alley, Thumbtzen looks like she’s living out a nightmare. Jackson grimaces and pants and humps the air. At the time, maybe Michael Jackson’s whole image was so profoundly nonthreatening that he could get away with this stuff in a music video. These days, it’s a different story. But Michael Jackson videos don’t play out according to real-world logic. They exist in the Hollywood-musical dreamspace. Seen from that perspective — as a chance for Michael Jackson to remind the world how he can move — the video works.

In the video, Jackson dances the same way he sings on the song — erratic but liquid, all elbows and hips and constantly-shifting poses. He dances like he’s in cursive, everything connecting to everything else. Some of his moves are profoundly dorky, like on the “I swear I’m keeping you satisfied” bit, where he does the hourglass-figure shape with his hands and then pumps his dick at the air. He tries this move twice. It reminds me of the “bags of sand” bit from The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Jackson also dances on the roof of a car that he presumably does not own. Later on, we see a VW Bug with a severely dented roof. Jackson never jumps up on that one, but I like the idea that it’s all beat up because Michael Jackson danced on that particular roof too many times.

The video builds up a weird sense of tension, but it also lifts that tension. Thumbtzen, who never really had an acting career, does well at selling the idea that this dancing weirdo is gradually winning her over. By the time she and her friends — including Michael’s sister LaToya — are clowning Jackson and his friends, it just looks like we’re watching a friendly social ritual play out. Maybe that’s a problem. Maybe this gave some impressionable kids the idea that there might be a fairytale ending if they hollered at girls on the street hard enough. But I don’t know. I still like watching it.

Michael Jackson and Tatiana Thumbtzen recreated some of the choreography from that video onstage at the 1988 Grammys. Thumbtzen also joined Jackson on the Bad tour, where they danced onstage together, but she later claimed that she got fired from the tour for kissing Jackson onstage. For the rest of the tour, big-haired backup singer Sheryl Crow stood in for Thumbtzen. (Sheryl Crow’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “All I Wanna Do,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. I will never get tired of the fact that Sheryl Crow used to be Michael Jackson’s backup singer.)

“The Way You Make Me Feel” was the third #1 single from the Bad album. That marked a new high point for Jackson. As huge as Off The Wall and Thriller had been, those albums only had two #1 hits apiece. Jackson wasn’t done. Bad still had more hits left in it, and Michael Jackson will be back in this column again soon.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2000 movie Center Stage where “The Way You Make Me Feel” soundtracks a ballet recital:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On the 2001 TV special that he taped at Madison Square Garden, Michael Jackson performed “The Way You Make Me Feel” with Britney Spears. Here’s that performance:

(Britney Spears will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Nick Jonas playing a goofy, bluesy cover of “The Way You Make Me Feel” at a 2010 live show:

(As a solo artist, Nick Jonas’ highest-charting single, 2014’s “Jealous,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6. As a Jonas Brother, Nick Jonas will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rihanna’s 2012 Chris Brown collaboration “Nobody’s Business,” which interpolates the “ain’t nobody’s business but mine and my baby” bit from “The Way You Make Me Feel”:

(Rihanna and Chris Brown will both appear in this column eventually.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Lil Wayne’s 2013 mixtape track “You Song,” which features Chance The Rapper, samples the “G’on, girl!” ad-lib from “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Here it is:

(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column. Chance The Rapper will appear in the column, too, as a guest-rapper. Chance’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2016 Wayne/2 Chainz collab “No Problem,” peaked at #43.)

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