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You might think this song belongs more on a playlist for dancing your baby to sleep. It does indeed work great for that, though my kids prefer “Beat It” for dance party purposes. But like a lot of the best uptempo songs, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” also works well if you sing it slowly.

Since Michael Jackson is the greatest, Thriller is the best Michael Jackson album, and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is the best song on Thriller, that arguably makes this song the best one that has ever been recorded. It’s certainly in my desert island top ten. But like a lot of Michael’s originals, the more closely you listen to its, the stranger it gets. When I was a kid, I loved Michael Jackson, like everyone else with a soul and a pulse, but he made me uneasy, too. As an adult, I found out that Michael was an angry and troubled person, so it makes sense that some anger would seep out of even his most joyful music. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” feels close to Michael’s psyche, with its schoolyard chant cadence and dream-logic shifting of the subject from a nameless “you” to himself and back. As a kid, the lyrics just seemed nonsensical. Knowing what I know about the horrifying abuse that Michael suffered as a child, now some of them are frankly terrifying.

In the refrain, Michael is talking to someone in the second person. “You” wanna be startin’ somethin’. You are constantly threatening to start a fight, you’re stuck in your situation. Michael’s baby (girlfriend? daughter?) Billie Jean is sick, physically or mentally. Someone is always trying to hurt her (probably “you.”) You really can’t make him hate her, so your tongue became a razor. You’re a vegetable, still they hate you, you’re just a buffet, they eat off of you. But then, at the end, the song delivers uplift: Lift your head up high and scream out to the world, I know I am someone and let the truth unfurl. No one can hurt you now, because you know what's true: yes, I believe in me, so you believe in you. And then Michael asks you to help him sing it, the African-sounding part: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa, ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma coosa.”

Michael’s chant is a loose interpolation of “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango. Mani Dibango’s lyrics are nonsense—he’s scat-singing around with the syllables in the word “makossa,” a Cameroonian dance style. I have no way of knowing what was in Michael’s head when he chose to interpolate “Soul Makossa,” but in the context of the song, it feels like the climax of his self-affirmation, a black man voicing pride in his African roots in the face of a racist society. If there is a common theme to African-American vernacular music, it’s overcoming adversity through social dance. The chant has taken on a life of its own as a meme in dance, pop, and hip-hop. I trace some of its journey through this mix:

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About the Curator - Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab , Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza . In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses . He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog , and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.