Why “Morphine” Is Michael Jackson’s Most Personal Song

Published on August 19th, 2013 in: Music |

By Paul Casey


Blood on the Dance Floor was released in 1997, two years after HIStory. It was marketed, in part, as a remix album, with the subtitle being HIStory in the Mix. It contained five new songs, and would result in videos and the full-on Michael Jackson short film treatment. This seemed slightly confusing at the time. Such a lavish production for something that seemed like a beefed up B-sides collection was odd to younger Paul, especially seeing as nothing quite as involved had been done for the songs on HIStory.

It took a long time to appreciate that the songs on Blood on the Dance Floor were not just a ploy to make the remixes seem like better value, but a unified collection of songs as important as any Michael Jackson would release in the 1990s. Paranoia became a major theme in MJ’s music from Thriller on, and while his fear of the media was well founded, the songs which expressed his fear of the world outside rarely felt connected with the singer’s reality. You would have tracks that would act as a musical retort, full of confidence and bravado that would show Michael at his very best.

This was his arena, and no one anywhere in the critic/journalist world could compete with him when it came to pure artistry. Some oily little creep writing for a semi-respectable music publication turning up the snark was made to appear as a creative minnow. A life not even worth snuffing out, in comparison to the overwhelming stature of a man who could reasonably claim to be the most important popular musician of the 20th Century. An elephant swatting flies. These songs mostly offered a pretty broad response to specific charges that were made against his name. It was about the injustice of the whole thing. His place in the song is as the singer telling you the way it is, not as someone expressing guarded truths.

A lot of these songs also happen to be really great, whether it is the Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis/Janet Jackson collaboration “Scream” or the original cry for privacy, “Leave Me Alone.” Their lack of specifics and focus on the emotion of the thing also meant that they could translate to anyone, anywhere who can’t do life properly or feels hard done by. Michael was always capable of expressing a state of being that while personal to him, could have applied to anyone. Even when these attack songs were specific, as on “D.S.” (a reference to District Attorney Tom Sneddon), it was still MJ the performer who addressed the state of things. During these songs, he was using his uncanny ability as a singer and performer as a weapon. It allowed him some agency and protection, when he was in desperate need of them.

“Stranger in Moscow” is in many ways the opposite of these attack/defense songs. It is certainly one of Michael’s greatest songs and a stunning production. Instead of someone powerful and in control, there is a helpless, desperate man. While the feeling it captured is as honest as any he committed to record, it is still cloaked in the kind of narrative that appealed greatly through his career. The video goes some way towards taking the emphasis off of the context that informed the song (the original claims of child abuse) and places that desperation on characters pulled from the air. It does not diminish the song, but it does suggest that if he had his way, Michael Jackson’s reality, and the extent to which it was destroying him, would have had nothing to do with his music.

HIStory is defined by this mixture of angry and outraged songs, and those which show a person completely lost. It is, a few tracks aside, a most compelling and interesting record. Blood on the Dance Floor is all of that confused, brilliant energy pushed into one 27-minute album. It possesses a much clearer head than the album that is the reason for its existence. There are no sentimental tangents for the purposes of the Free Willy 2 soundtrack. It is as dark and strange as Michael Jackson ever got. The title track was unfortunately pegged as a “Smooth Criminal” knock off, but is so apart from that world. It is genuinely sinister, and has an appreciation of doom like nothing else that he had done before. This isn’t the movie gangsters world of “Smooth Criminal,” it isn’t even physically tangible. This is big time existential fear.

Both “Ghosts” and the closing “Is It Scary” deal with the problem of being the most famous freak on the planet as well as anything Michael Jackson ever put on an album. The latter is perhaps his greatest Joe Merrick “I am not an animal!” cry. “Oh okay, you want me to be a freak? Well lemme help you with that.”

What is really unusual about Blood on the Dance Floor is what happens on the second track “Morphine.” Here, wrapped in super hard-edged Rock, Michael Jackson describes a specific, real-world dependency. The turn in the middle of the song between super hard and super soft expresses the state of mind, and that need for oblivion.

“Morphine” is perhaps the only time that Michael Jackson directly addressed the problems that would eventually lead to his death. Not just because he specifically names Demerol, which was injected into his body one hour before his death, but because he is willing to reveal what his life had turned into, not just what he wanted it to be. Not the wronged hero who would fight the unjust and win, but the man who would continue to shrivel until there was nothing left. “Morphine” is the most honest Michael Jackson ever was about himself and the man who could never be normal again. All he could hope to do was deaden his sense of the world, because the time had passed when he could be a part of it.

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