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Feb 14

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Blood On The Dancefloor”

Popular80 comments • 7,099 views

#765, 3rd May 1997

blooddance “Blood On The Dancefloor” dates from the 1991 Dangerous sessions – and its rigid, peg-legged Teddy Riley production, full of choppy, cut-up synths, would fit with some of that record’s harsher contours – but it works as a coda to his Popular career, too. Surely “Earth Song” would have been a grander way to go out, fitting the heal-the-world fantasies of Jackson the philanthropist. But “Blood On The Dancefloor” is a truer epilogue – a narrow, claustrophobic song, the sound of Jackson slipping into what we know now as his twilight years. At this point, he’s still younger than I am writing this. But it’s not just hindsight that makes him sound worn out and ragged here.

In his glory days, a Jackson song would marry indelible tunes to mercurial performance, and dance across genres daring pop to keep up. Now what’s left is an instinct for how to structure a song – the hooks here are by no means his best but he knows when to drop them – an emotional palette shared by nobody else in pop, and a bag of vocal tics. “Blood On The Dancefloor” criss-crosses Jackson’s multiple voices to unnerving effect.

He’s using at least three different tones here. On the chorus – and its “to escape the world…” lead-in – he’s using his late-career anguished voice, the howl he unleashed to full effect at the end of “Earth Song”. At the start of the verses, he’s using his Bad-era tough-guy voice, but interspersing guttural, almost feral barks and grunts after the end of every line. And the verses devolve into a third voice – up close against your ear, words and sense breaking down into a tumble of muttered, consonants, with Jackson multi-tracking to talk over himself. It’s the cold sweat wordrush of “Smooth Criminal” taken to its incomprehensible endpoint. The effect is one of horrid, haunted, intimacy.

It’s a dramatization of a crack-up: “Blood On The Dancefloor” is an angry, fearful song – one of many, stretching back at least to its forebear “Billie Jean”, except here the ensnaring, vengeful woman is actually murdering Jackson. And it’s set as a tragedy – the King of Pop butchered, like Caesar, in the place of his greatest power. The meaning – an allegory for the accusations swirling around him – is transparent. Except, of course, the song predates them. Sometimes a paranoid fantasy is just a paranoid fantasy.

It’s an ugly, uneasy record, certainly a minor Jackson single, but Iike a lot of his later songs, I find it fascinating. Whichever of Jackson or Riley put the tiny vamps of keyboard at the ends of occasional lines deserves enormous credit – they keep the song moving, distract you from its nasty side enough to keep the song feeling like spectacle, not voyeurism. That momentum, the shrieked pre-chorus hook, and the delayed-gratification relief of the chords under the final chorus are why I enjoy “Blood On The Dancefloor” as much as I do. But the close-up whispering sections are effectively creepy – a clammy, Gollumish performance. Even here, the last time we’ll see him, Jackson is trying new ideas, pushing his performances, and making pop that sounds stiff and uncomfortable, but which could only be his.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 27 Feb 2014 #

    And it’s goodbye to the Tories, too. For a while, anyhow. There’s no actual reason to talk about New Labour for a few more entries, though. (In my reviews, that is – chat away in the comments if you want. Whatever happened afterwards, that was a fun night to be in front of the TV)

  2. 2
    mapman132 on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Nothing to say about British politics, but I can say this record was pretty much ignored in the US in 1997 (Wikipedia says it got to #42 – surprised it managed that). MJ was pretty much a tabloid punchline in the US by this time – his albums still sold to hardcore fans but his singles didn’t get anywhere near the airplay to have much Hot 100 impact. I was surprised to see this hit #1 in the UK at the time – I assumed it was an older re-release (which it sort of was, originally recorded in 1991). Hearing it on first listen this weekend it actually wasn’t bad, even though I’m not a big MJ fan, especially from this era. Wavering between 5 and 6…what the heck, I’ll go 6.

  3. 3
    swanstep on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Yikes, a weak-tea ‘Rhythm Nation’ rip-off backing track and vocal rhythm, and a bizarre paranoid lyric that makes one question MJ’s sanity (and business sense – surely it was improbable that many people would be able to relate to the predicament described?).

    How did this get to #1 exactly? Is everyone so sure that Sony or whoever had a big stake in this didn’t bogusly self-purchase a whole bunch of copies? Better to release nothing than something this derivative and disturbed/eyebrow-raising. The interlaced vocal stylings at the three minute mark are still something special as Tom notes, but that’s not enough for me to give more than a:
    4

  4. 4
    taDOW on 27 Feb 2014 #

    yeah the stuntcasting that had helped ‘scream’ and ‘you are not alone’ be smashes in the us hadn’t carried over into a real comeback and the latter singles underperformed similarly to the dangerous singles. this couldn’t even manage that, a true flop as opposed to a flop ‘by michael jackson’s standards’. it would’ve been one of the lesser dangerous singles if it hadn’t been cut and as there are dangerous album cuts better than some of the singles i can totally understand why it was cut but for a fairly autopilot track it’s decent. there are more ignominious exits on popular that’s for sure. 6.

  5. 5
    Alfred on 27 Feb 2014 #

    The great track from this album is “Morphine,” as dense as Nine Inch Nails but brittle and twitchy like prime Jackson. And the lyrics — well.

  6. 6
    Tom on 27 Feb 2014 #

    #3 Jackson still had enough fans in the UK to manage a fanbase number one – “Earth Song” had been his best selling single ever here, remember – so I doubt any more sinister mechanism is needed.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 27 Feb 2014 #

    I’m not sure that I like this but it’s still morbidly(?) fascinating. MJ animates a cliched tale of violent betrayal with a conviction and dread that are reminiscent of Billie Jean, Thriller and others. A recurring nightmare.

  8. 8
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Apart from Billie Jean, I reckon this is his best UK #1 (though as Tom pointed out on Michael Jackson’s first #1, apart from Billie Jean, the UK public seems to have managed to avoid sending some of his standout tracks to the top of the charts). It’s a retread of the lyrical themes of the likes of Billie Jean and Dirty Diana, with a touch of Smooth Criminal thrown in – and as such, although it’s got the paranoia and the uneasiness shot through it, he sounds simultaneously comfortable, like he’s on safe ground here, knows what he’s doing and is capable of throwing down. Marked against his other #1s, this would be a solid 8 or 9, with Billie Jean as a 10 – I mean seriously, check out that list of Michael Jackson #1s again. Against all other #1s, I think 7 is probably about right.

    On the recent U2 thread, I said I wanted them to try and push their envelope and that interesting failures by them are better, to my ears, than doing their safe stuff over and over, so I guess it is perverse of me to say that in the case of Michael Jackson I’d have been keen for him to stick to the stuff that he’d shown he was good at – but there you go.

  9. 9
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Re: fanbase hits – Michael Jackson’s fanbase was capable of getting You Rock My World off Invincible to #2 and it was only kept off by a pretty “memorable” Kylie bunny. The Jackson fanbase is still pretty strong from what I understand. It wouldn’t surprise me if he got another #1 post death if they can dust something off that has wide enough appeal (there’s been talk of releasing the “State of Shock” duet with Freddie Mercury for instance – which as a combination of two large fanbases and with the right promotional push, could be the sort of thing that gets Michael Jackson back to #1).

  10. 10
    Speedwell54 on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Re 3 and 6.

    I don’t think the mechanism was sinister but there was ‘marketing’. I am sure he got all the usual stuff that was happening at the time, but also I think TOTP put this on before it was released which wasn’t something everyone could do. This alone could well have made this a no1.

    He still had a fan base and this was a return to the pattern of the 1st single from the album reaching No1, all the many singles after, don’t. (at the time this is being the only way to get the track)

    ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ then ‘Bad’,
    ‘Black or White’ then ‘Dangerous’
    ‘Blood On The Dance Floor’ then ‘Blood On The Dance Floor – History In The Mix’

    ‘You Are Not Alone’ and ‘Earthsong’ didn’t follow the pattern, but then again unlike BOTDF they both have a strong tune and some people other than Michael Jackson fans like the songs. They both stuck around for 9 weeks in the top 10 where as BOTDF fell to no 8 in week two and that was it.

    For me, from Dangerous onwards he started to release some songs that really do not stay in the memory. They are dominated by the industrial drumbeat, contain whispered vocals that are way back in the mix, and are littered with the usual moans, groans, yelps, gasps and other vocal tics.

    No one hums ‘In The Closet’, ‘Who Is It?’ is a “pointless” answer, and ‘Blood On The Dance Floor’ is in this group of tracks that sound like they are a ‘re imagining’ of a remix of his earlier stuff.

    3 from me.

    Cumbrian re ‘State of Shock’. It could happen and it’s not a bad track. It would be a marketing thing. They could even use Jagger and Turner as well!

  11. 11
    swanstep on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Checking now, BOTD got to #1 in NZ too (and spent two weeks at #3 before hitting the top) and got to #5 in Australia. So I guess it has broader appeal at least among the faithful than I imagined. No suspicious record company behavior necessary!

  12. 12
    Izzy on 27 Feb 2014 #

    This was the big step in my reëvaluating Michael Jackson, after having had him down as irrelevant and increasingly in-the-way since Dangerous, and nothing in the run through to Earth Song causing me to change my mind.

    I spent a little time in Tunisia at the start of 1997. There was a pretty relaxed club we frequented which played a mix of mainstream pop-dance older hits and contemporary francophone pop. One night someone turned up with what, going by when this hit no.1, must have been a pre-release of Blood On The Dancefloor.

    I hesitate to say the place went mental – it really wasn’t that kind of place – but the local kids certainly went for this in a huge way. They were throwing all kinds of moves to a first listen, it was quite extraordinary and completely unlike the reception any other track ever got. I think MJ may have played Tunis on one of his world tours, which must have been pretty unusual and nailed down the affection. It was brilliant, and a huge surprise, to see that for cooler kids than I he was still the man.

    Anyway seeing that reaction changed my perspective to a big extent – plus it’s a great, visceral record and still is – such that I got a similar huge kick from You Rock My World a couple of years later. Like: not only has he still got it, he always had it. (9)

  13. 13
    JLucas on 27 Feb 2014 #

    #10 I could totally hum In The Closet, and Who Is It is amazing!

    I find Jackson’s post-imperial work generally more interesting than the Thriller and Bad stuff. It’s less iconic, but was there ever a pop star more lacking in any kind of filter? (At least in the pre-Twitter age). The combination of superbudget-pop and naked vulnerability is fascinating, even if it sometimes slips into something quite uncomfortable to hear. I also think the Dangerous album is an undervalued masterpiece of New Jack Swing. A couple of the gloopier ballads aside, it’s a fantastic album.

    This is serviceable, not one of his best but far from his worst. 7 from me. Blood On The Dancefloor feels like a bit of a wash-up project from the HIStory album, although ‘Morphine’ is certainly creepily prophetic.

    As we won’t be discussing it later, hasn’t You Rock My World aged well? The album was his weakest by some distance, but the song still sounds great. I remember it was massively derided at the time, quite unfairly in retrospect.

  14. 14
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Agreed that “Who Is It?” is astonishing (lyric: “I am the damned/I am the dead/I am the agony inside a dying head” — wtf omg wait whut ect ect…)

    By now MJ has become the most unguardedly avant-garde musician operating at the toppermost/(anti)poppermost level of the entertainment industry since, well, maybe John&Yoko in the last days of the Beatles. Except , if anything, his level of isolated unhappiness and disenchanted anger is more extreme — and of course Lennon had during divorce proceedings become quite hostile to (McCartney-sanctioned) complexity of production and arrangement: he declared it a betrayal of all that rock’n’roll is/was about, and favoured nakedness of delivery and quasi-nakedness of presentation. By contrast, Jackson increasingly pushes in both directions at once: nakedness and complexity of collage-juxtaposition of elements.

    [update: edited for clarity]

  15. 15
    Tommy Mack on 27 Feb 2014 #

    There’s nothing a teenager despises more than that that he/she adored as a child. When Dangerous came out, I remember playing it over and over again, finding it completely perfect: Bad sounded positively old-fashioned by comparison. He was The Man and he was leading pop boldly from the front (I now realise that, by 1991, he probably wasn’t but I owned about three tapes so as far as i was concerned, New Jack Swing (not that I knew it had a name back then) was His thing (capital H intentional!))

    I’d agree Dangerous is undervalued: his most consistent album since Off The Wall (although that’s somewhat disingenuous: Thriller is only uneven in the sense that its peaks are so stratospherically high that even the fine tracks around them can’t quite match their impact)

    By 1996-7, he was, to my mates and I, at best a punchline to a playground joke and at worst, genuinely an annoyance, a creepy, needy old fart, hanging round, still getting plastic surgery to ‘pretend’ to be young: an embarassing reminder of the bygone pop era of our childhood. We were practically grown ups now and we were listening to proper grown-up music by the sort of sussed, arrogant young men we would no doubt soon be. I started getting into Pulp after having been ho-hum on them after Jarvis’ Brits antics and I know plenty of mates felt the same – prior to this there would have been little playground cache in publicly alligning yourself with a pervy gimp like Jarvis…

    All of which goes to say that this passed me by at the time and for the worst possible reasons. I’ll give it a spin and try to post some thoughts on what it sound like to me now…

  16. 16
    Steve Mannion on 27 Feb 2014 #

    This sounded so unpleasantly dated and out of place to me back then (which the likes of the rising Timbaland only magnified). I found the same with ‘You Rock My World’ a few years later which felt like another case of a hip new producer washing out their sound for an artist who couldn’t afford to take risks in that way – an interesting contrast in perception with some of the above comments (but again I’m a little less harsh on both now).

  17. 17
    Billy Hicks on 27 Feb 2014 #

    I don’t think I’d heard this at all until June 26th, 2009 – the date being memorable for two reasons, one the obvious and also iTunes tell me it’s the same day I added to my music library. The energetic opening caught me by surprise as after You Are Not Alone and Earth Song I presumed Jackson stuck to soppy ballads for the last few years or so of his career. But the four minutes don’t hold my attention enough to make me listen to the end, I’d give this a 5 at most.

    I think many casual chart fans would be surprised when they look at his post-1995 career as there’s a hell of a lot more fairly big hits than most people remember. You Rock My World as mentioned was a shock #2 in 2001 (‘shock’ simply for not charting a place higher), then even in late 2003, right at the time of his second arrest, the now completely forgotten ‘One More Chance’ was another one that charted top 5 here but flopped at number 83 in the US, in what turned out to be his last original single before his death. A major re-issue of all his singles took place in 2006, most charting in the top 20 with Billie Jean the highest (#11) and this one recharting at a not too shabby #19. Then of course there’s 2009, ‘Man in the Mirror’ being a hugely unfair #2 given the dreadful record that, erm, ‘beat it’ in a Jackson-dominated singles and album chart, and a further top 10 hit with ‘Hold My Hand’ a year later.

    As for New Labour, that’s a hugely memorable day for eight year old me. My mum tuned in not to BBC1 but BBC2, who ran both a special Have I Got News For You and a comedic election programme featuring Armando Iannucci, Steve Coogan etc which I thought was the real one and didn’t understand why the audience kept laughing at what was surely meant to be a serious programme. Being a huge Labour supporter she tried to explain to me why this was an incredible day and why the man with the big grin was going to be so much better than the one with grey hair and glasses and the world was going to change for the better. Meanwhile my Dad sat in the corner, grumbling “He’s just as much a Tory as Major”. I was confused. And still am, to be honest.

  18. 18
    Billy Hicks on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Bonus 1997 Jackson memory – hearing the sound of his Wembley Stadium show through the air, listening to it out the window. I still live near the stadium but the masses of extra soundproofing added to the new stadium make hearing it mostly a thing of the past.

  19. 19
    iconoclast on 27 Feb 2014 #

    I honestly can’t think of much to say about this. It’s not especially notable or remarkable in any way and gets a bit boring. SIX.

  20. 20
    Rory on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Missed this at the time. Halfway through the track I was ready to give it a 4 or 5, but the end lifts it to 5 or 6 territory (so Billy @18, maybe give it another try?). I don’t know how often I’d want to hear it, though, so might give it a man-in-the-middling 5.

    Great silhouette on the sleeve – immediately recognisable. Is he wearing the Elephant Man’s hood, though? Must have been a job lot.

  21. 21
    thefatgit on 27 Feb 2014 #

    As this had been recorded in 1991, I’d have imagined MJ was entirely familiar with Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails and The Young Gods. I wonder if Teddy Riley was as keen as MJ? It wouldn’t have been a mis-step to employ Flood to produce as Reznor did on “Pretty Hate Machine” and come up with something that could be described as Massive AtTackhead. How remarkable would that have been? Instead Riley played down the IDM and forced BOTD into an R&B straitjacket. BOTD’s drenched in paranoia, entirely suited to a much more muscular and visceral backdrop, where his vocal tics povide texture and context. The dancefloor becomes a dungeon. But then perhaps for Michael, the dancefloor has always been a dungeon.

    Compare this to “Billie Jean” and yes there are similarities, but Billie Jean is human and relatable. BOTD is monstrous, disturbing even. It’s sad for me that Popular parts company with MJ this way.

  22. 22
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Obviously there are many worse sadnesses and possibly badnesses in MJ’s story, but I’m always a little melancholy that after c.1982 he wasn’t quizzed more closely on what he was listening to, by people with ears to hear. Of course unlike a million bad bands listing their “influences”, he didn’t desperately need to borrow authority, and so might not have answered such questions usefully: this being exactly the kind of promo-process banter he was so (justifiably) leery of. My ungrounded guess has always been that he listened widely and (as a phenomenally able dancer and singer) well: that the lack of a link between him and us in one media territory doesn’t imply lack of a shared knowledge-base in others. But who knows?

    (Teddy Riley’s talked a little about working with MJ, but no one’s really asking him the right questions either.)

  23. 23
    leveret on 27 Feb 2014 #

    I must admit, I took the lyrics of this as being metaphorical. Rather than the ensnaring, vengeful woman actually murdering Jackson, I took it as her being out to ruin him in some other way, or even another paternity claim theme like Billie Jean (“She got your baby/It happened fast/If you could only/Erase the past”). Still pretty paranoid stuff mind you.

    Without wishing to open cans of worms, I’ve never been able to buy into any of the songs that present Jackson as some kind of ladies’ man. A bit like his marriages, these seem to smack of unconvincing attempts to portray himself as just a regular guy.

    I do rather like this tune overall, though. 7 seems about right. It more or less passed me by at the time. The fact that it dates from 1991 explains a lot, as it has a very early 90s or even late 80s kind of sound palette. Infinitely preferrable to the turgidity and messiah complex of Earth Song.

  24. 24
    Tommy Mack on 27 Feb 2014 #

    #22: In the Christmas issue of the NME, 2000 (or maybe 2001), MJ headed a list of artists giving their top picks from the preceding year. I remember an editorial note saying none of his picks were actually from the year in question and sprawled into films as well but ‘f*ck it, it’s Michael Jackson, we’re not going to quibble.’ The only specific thing I remember from his list was Coldplay’s Parachutes, which disappointed me greatly, even though I was no longer a big MJ fan.

  25. 25
    Tom on 27 Feb 2014 #

    There’s an element of metaphor in there – I mean, I don’t know what standard blade lengths in the USA are/were but getting killed on a dancefloor by ‘seven inches’ is a resonant choice – but they’re all swirling around unfixed, and so the literal reading looms larger than any of them.

    (Actually the song doesn’t make it clear it’s Jackson getting murdered – it’s an unknown “you” all through – but it’s hard not to feel he’s not singing about himself here)

  26. 26
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Feb 2014 #

    As per Cintra Wilson’s (unavailable online, I think) essay on MJ, I think almost any attempt to portray him as a ‘regular guy’ makes very little sense – but particularly in the realm of The Ladies.

  27. 27
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Whatever intermittent attempts he may have made to come across as ordinary are just swamped in the flood of successful instances of coming across as really quite odd: his autobiography is after all called Moonwalk

  28. 28
    James BC on 27 Feb 2014 #

    The comments above about MJ’s number ones all being sub-par seem a bit unfair to Black Or White – to me, that’s by far the best song on its album and his last truly great track. Its release felt like a massive event and both song and video lived up to the hype (weird car-smashing bit aside). (I have a liking for I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, too, but it is low-key.)

    This isn’t anywhere near that league, though. In fact I don’t even remember much hype for this album, which seems odd. Perhaps it was because of the accusations.

  29. 29
    Tom on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Quick interruption: I’ll hype this more at the start of the next entry, but I’ve set up a side-Tumblr to Popular here – http://notquiteaspopular.tumblr.com/ – at which I will post no discussion or analysis (so you will miss absolutely nothing by NOT following it). But it will have videos of all the hits we’re covering, and relevant additional material sometimes too. The additional material may be out of sequence so beware mild spoilers. And some of the additional material will be inspired by comments here, and I’ll credit it as such.

    It seemed a good way of promoting the site on Tumblr and also putting up interesting side material without clogging up FT.

  30. 30
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2014 #

    #28: They’re not all sub-par. Billie Jean is great.

    Black Or White is not one of my favourites – moralising like Man In The Mirror without as strong a tune. I’d also be much more likely to join Izzy’s Tunisian friends on the dancefloor for this, rather than Black Or White. I definitely prefer the rhythm to BOTD than BOW, even if he’s mumbling the lyrics and it’s not as good as some of his other works. BOW isn’t even the best single off Dangerous in my view – much prefer Remember The Time and Who Is It to be honest.

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