why MJ's 'wannabe startin somethin' is a work of singular genius


it is the first track of the greatest pop record of all time regardless of the metric you choose. and as an opener, 'wannabe' goes far beyond the line of duty, allowing us a foretaste of the album's (and the 80s) sound palette and painstakingly polished production, a deliberate departure from the rawer, organic ethos of the preceding decades.
most of you will notice that the basic four-bar groove of 'wannabe startin' somethin' does not change. perhaps this is a nod towards the great minimalists of the age - philip glass had at the time recently soundtracked a devastating documentary 'koyaanisqasti' where he delights in synthesisers, arpeggiating organs, and otherworldy choirs.
philip glass's music is often propelled by arpeggios, and it is frequently evocative and sparse enough for even the musically challenged to follow. in this sense, glass is the great democrat of aural pleasure, distilling complexity into a few strings stroked by the bow to bring chamber music to the everyman.
there is definitely a kinship between these two musicians - like glass, jackson brings marginal elements such as afro funk and heavy metal to the mainstream. both men are gods in their realms, but jackson is a titan razing the sonic terrain of what preceded in pop.
there is a very obvious 'blackness' in the song, in the enunciation, in delivery, a bold move in a white-dominated pop ecosystem. and yet, jackson's disciplined, methodical genius proved far too colossal to ignore.
'wannabe startin something's' bassy theme repeats insistently throughout the track. one might expect tedium after the first few bars, yet michael and quincy use it as the rhythmic backbone on which to meticulously layer other elements such as guitar and percussion. the occasional stabs of brass give the track a certain pomp while making jazz and disco references. and the song asks you to remain observant as the instruments accent and augment the main riff. and it sets the stage for jackson's smooth tenor to weave its way through the contours of the track and achieve dominance.
the song soon becomes a clarion call to hasten to the dancefloor. though a post-disco track, its danceability is a brute fact. and how this spartan, repetitive riff lends itself to a cosmos of sound that at times narrowly avoids cacophony is magnificent. and the joyous repetition of mamasemamasamamakusa confers on it a sort of spiritual energy and recalls its african roots.
'wannabe startin somethin' is not merely a perfect opener to an album whose likes we will not witness again. it is a magnificent song in its own right, playful, experimental, a quantum leap from the funk and disco influenced 'off the wall'. it is a bold album devised by two of pop's greatest minds, the jazzy quincy jones and the perfectionist michael jackson - a consummate track heralding an album that inspired everyone from miles davis to kanye west.