On 9 February, 1980, “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson peaked at #1.
It’s only in retrospect that we, or at least I, find it strange to think of Michael Jackson as seductive. For much of my adult life, I knew of Michael Jackson as either weird, because that’s what he looked like on TV, or as 12, because that’s what he sounded like on the radio station my parents listened to. For a while from, say, 1975 to 1984, he was not exactly a sex symbol, but certainly an attractive guy who could deliver lyrics like those in “Rock With You” without coming across as creepy. If you buy the argument that most rock songs that aren’t obviously about something else are actually about sex, this song is about lots and lots of sex. The thought of lots and lots of sex with 1990 Michael Jackson is repulsive. The thought of lots and lots of sex with 1980 Michael Jackson is totally reasonable.
So let’s get past the visuals of Michael Jackson and just listen to his delivery of these lyrics, silky-smooth with just enough occasional friction to create an adventurous frisson that lets you know that a night of rocking with MJ is going to be quite an experience. The result is what disco was really designed for — to serve as a enabler for dancing and seducing, interesting enough to keep your attention, but not distracting enough to take your mind off of your dancing partner/seductee. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that “Rock With You” went to number one, but it also makes sense that it’s not one of Michael Jackson’s best songs — it doesn’t have the theatrical fullness of “Thriller” or the creepy undercurrent of “Billie Jean” or the social consciousness of “Black or White”. But that’s not its job; it’s a great dance song, that’s all, and it triumphs in that.