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Feb 14

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Blood On The Dancefloor”

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#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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