Michael Jackson's Three Most Brilliant Songs

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NPR gave The New Yorker culture writer Kelefa Sanneh the challenge of narrowing down Michael Jackson's musical legacy to three songs. Sanneh explains why he picked "Wanna Be Starting Something", "Human Nature" and "Heartbreaker."

GUY RAZ, host:

We posed a challenge to music and culture writer Kelefa Sanneh of The New Yorker magazine. We asked him to pick three tracks that showcase why Michael Jackson wasn't just an extraordinary artist, but a legendary one. And his list might surprise you. Mr. Sanneh joins me from New York.


Mr. KELEFA SANNEH (Music and culture writer, The New Yorker): Thank you.

RAZ: First of all, how tough was it to come up with just three songs to represent Michael Jackson?

Mr. SANNEH: You know with a lesser artist or someone whose career had been maybe smaller or less influential; it might have been difficult because you might have tried to go for the three definitive tracks. Considering all that Michael Jackson has done, I gave up immediately. I said there's no way to sum him up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So here are three interesting tracks that allow you to say something interesting about Michael Jackson, but I would never ever want to make a list of the three greatest.

RAZ: All right. Well, let's start with the first one for now. This is the opening track to his landmark album, "Thriller," "Want To Be Starting Something."

(Soundbite of song "Want To Be Starting Something")

Mr. SANNEH: Part of what I love about this song is it's such an amazing overture for the album that seems to be doing everything at once. It starts with this kind of hiphop electro break-dancing-inspired beat. It turns into this kind of this paranoid freaked out narrative...

(Soundbite of song "Want To Be Starting Something")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): (Singing) You got to be startin' somethin'. It's too high to get over (yeah, yeah). Too low to get under (yeah, yeah). You're stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah). And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah).

Mr. SANNEH: From there it goes into - it gives some self-help advice, you know? And then, by the end it's kind of turned into this joyous affirmation with a chorus at the end that's borrowed from Manu Diabango, the Cameroonian pop star, who's actually the person who coined Ma ma coo, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.

RAZ: Let's hear a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song "Want To Be Starting Something")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa. Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa. Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.

(Soundbite of song, "Soul Makoosa")

Mr. MANU DIABANGO (Musician): (Singing) Mama sa maka makoosa. Mama ko mama sa maka makoosa. Mama ko mama sa maka makoosa. Mama ko mama sa maka makoosa.

RAZ: And this is the Manu Diabango version?

Mr. SANNEH: Yes. This is "Soul Makoosa" by Manu Diabango, which was a huge worldwide hit starting in 1972, which Michael Jackson borrowed and adapted for this song. So it's just so overstuffed and it's so joyful. And it's so audacious that this would be the opening track on a record is crazy in a great way.

RAZ: Okay. Great first song. Second on your list of Michael Jackson's most brilliant moments, you're going back to "Thriller" again, this time with "Human Nature." I'm surprised at the choice.

(Soundbite of song "Human Nature")

Mr. SANNEH: Well, part of what I love about "Human Nature" - which on some days is my favorite song from "Thriller" - is that it feels like a love song. When he keeps saying, why? Why? There's a certain yearning, there's a certain lust there, but when you listen to the lyrics, it pulls in a totally different direction. When he says if this town is just an apple, then let me take a bite, he sounds either like some kids who's been locked up and wants to finally go out, or he sounds like, you know, a vampire hungry for blood. So there's this weird virgin vampire thing going on in the lyrics.

(Soundbite of song "Human Nature")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Get me out into the night-time. Four walls won't hold me tonight. If this town is just an apple, then let me take a bite.

Mr. SANNEH: Part of what was so interesting about Michael Jackson was that he was slightly estranged from this very sensual R&B tradition of, you know, what they call baby-making music - the love song, and when you think about so many of his greatest moments, a lot of them are about anything or everything besides love - except love.

RAZ: Finally Kelefa Sanneh, in your list of Michael Jackson's top three songs, you picked a relatively recent track, "Heartbreaker" from 2001's "Invincible." This was never a hit, never even released as a single. What does this tell us about Michael Jackson's style?

(Soundbite of song "Heartbreaker")

Mr. SANNEH: I pick this song "Heartbreaker" from his last album, "Invincible," not necessarily because it's the greatest Michael Jackson song of all time, but just because it illustrates the fact that even late in his career he was still doing interesting things. He made a lot of his record with the producer Rodney Jerkins. He's experimenting with some really interesting, complicated rhythms. He was trying to figure out how to be in dialogue with what was going on in the radio and on R&B music at that time.

(Soundbite of song "Heartbreaker")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) ... That girl I can't take her. Should have seen right through her she's a heartbreaker. She plays a game with such an innocent face.

Mr. SANNEH: I guess I like this song just as an example of one of his lesser achievements that it's kind of ripe to be rediscovered.

RAZ: And that album, "Invincible" turned out to be his last album. Michael Jackson, of course, was planning a series of comeback concerts. Do you think he still had some brilliance left in him?

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah. I think part of what was a little frustrating about watching him was that it seemed so obvious and so easy to think about what he needed to do. I mean when people talk about a comeback, they weren't even necessarily talking about, oh, you've got to make another blockbuster album. They're just talking about we want him to get back on stage and sing the songs that he loves and that we all loved. And in a sense, it's sad that he never got to do those concerts, that he never got to, you know, move to Vegas and spend five years doing what Cher or Bette Midler or Celine Dion does. You know, having a theater named after him and performing every night because it seems like in sense that's something that he would have loved to do and that people would have love to see.

RAZ: Kelefa Sanneh is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where you can find his latest piece on Michael Jackson.

Kelefa Sanneh, thank you so much.

Mr. SANNEH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Want To Be Starting Something")

RAZ: And we'd like to know your three favorite Michael Jackson songs. Go to npr.org and join the conversation on this story's comment section.

(Soundbite of song "Want To Be Starting Something")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa. Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa. Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.

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