America has finally acknowledged
SOPHIE ELLIS BEXTOR
as Norman Warwick has learned from Paste
The polarizing, divisive film Saltburn has reminded us why “Murder on the Dancefloor” is the best club song of the 21st century. So proclaimed Matt Mitchell, one of the many excellent writers who write for Paste on-line magazine. That may have even become true of the the UK audiences in the 2020´s, as Sophie seemed to become less of a rock star than a friendly, familiar face on chatty celebrity shows.
Before autumn 2023, you probably didn’t know who Sophie Ellis-Bextor was – especially if you’re not English and especially if you’re not a millennial or older. She’s never made an appearance on a US chart, but Ellis-Bextor’s music has been around since the 1990s, though—when she fronted a band called The Audience and then went solo at the turn of the 21st century. Between 2000 and 2007, she had nine Top 25 songs in the UK, including the #1 hit “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” she made with Spiller. In 2015, it was revealed that “Groovejet” is the best-selling vinyl single since the turn of the millennium. It’s safe to say that this recent resurgence around Ellis-Bextor’s work is not one of divine happenstance. No, her music has been on many radars for a while, just not in the United States. But now, finally, she is getting the global attention due that she’s been so properly owed.
Recently, the second single from Ellis-Bextor’s debut album Read My Lips, “Murder on the Dancefloor,” has exploded in popularity—all thanks to its inclusion at the end of Emerald Fennell’s divisive new film, Saltburn. Whether you were famously seated for the flick or have seen the mirage of post-viewing TikToks or something in-between, you’ve heard “Murder on the Dancefloor” at least once in the last two months. Of course, nothing can top Ellis-Bextor’s awe-inspiring, generationally mystifying grooves sound tracking a scene where Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) elaborately dances naked across the halls of the Saltburn mansion he has just inherited through the Catton family fortune. Bare ass, floppy cock, lines of coke and dimly lit halls included, it’s one of the most memorable scenes of any film from 2023—a feat in itself, given how the sensationalism of Fennell’s vision has superseded the plot, substance and emotional resonance of the film itself; a rare trifecta of aesthetic over substance.
But I cannot get on TikTok without bearing witness to a Saltburn meme or reaction video, even though the movie has been out since mid-November. (Editor’s Note: This is my own fault, I am Saltburn-pilled to a delirious degree). Because of its recent addition to Prime Video, it’s become much more accessible, too, and, whether it’s daughters convincing their families to watch the movie during the holidays or a hilariously apt cap-cut about Keoghan’s character’s escapades (grave fucking, blood-play and grandiose, criminal deceit all included), “Murder on the Dancefloor” is now always nearby. It’s not new territory for a film or television show to bring fresh excitement from a new generation to a song that’s more than two decades old. I mean, look at what Stranger Things did for Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” in 2022. The power of the internet, streaming and nostalgia is a heavy cocktail—and “Murder on the Dancefloor” is just the latest all-time banger to get a retrospective star-treatment. And like the conversations around Bush’s masterpiece, it’s time I state the obvious: “Murder on the Dancefloor” is the best dance song of the last 25 years. I don’t think it’s a close race, really. The only competition, to me, is either Beyoncé’s “Virgo’s Groove” or Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.”
Fennell using “Murder on the Dancefloor” in Saltburn—just as she did with MGMT’s “Time to Pretend,” Bloc Party’s “This Modern Love” and Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent”—was done as a means of sentimentality, or a makeshift high-brow way of putting accessible pop and indie rock music into a film that has a focus so deftly positioned on upper class possessions, attitudes and the fragility of old-fashioned materialism. Whatever you feel towards Fennell and her writing, there’s no denying that the music in Saltburn was done with a precious intentionality. And, like “Running Up That Hill,” “Murder on the Dancefloor” has a significance that exists beyond the gaudiness of the frames it illuminates. It’s as much a plot device as the infamous bathtub drain or the Saltburn Estate maze. But I’m not here to tell you how great “Murder on the Dancefloor” is, though. You already know it’s sensational and massively catchy. It went platinum in Australia, was the 12th-highest-selling single of 2002 and was reported by the Daily Telegraph as the most-played song in Europe that same year.
What I am here to say is that Read My Lips is the most underrated dance record of this century—and, perhaps, the best modern attempt at disco altogether. It was produced by Moby, Blur bassist Alex James and New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, which is just a murderers’ row of names to put behind any record, let alone a debut. Read My Lips is the kind of album that is a star-making turn, and that’s what it was for Ellis-Bextor. It’s certified 3x platinum in the UK, to no one’s surprise, and produced four Top 15 hits (“Take Me Home,” “Murder on the Dancefloor,” “Get Over You” / “Move This Mountain” and “Music Gets the Best of Me”)—three of them peaking in the Top 3.
Read My Lips is packed with stadium-sized theatricality. It’s the kind of nu-disco joint that, if not executed perfectly, will come across too campy for its own good. What’s fascinating to me is that, at the time, critics were pretty split down the middle on the record. Q Magazine didn’t believe that the project stood up as tall as “Groovejet” had two years prior, while The Guardian claimed that it was a “sophisticated package” with little fun to be had. AllMusic called it a “disappointing debut.” Likewise, Read My Lips didn’t quite garner much attention in the states. Yahoo! Music reviewed it, giving out a 5/10 score. Andrew Arora from Blue Coupe placed the album somewhere on a spectrum bookended by Pet Shop Boys and Parallel Lines. I think that assessment is an accurate one, though Ellis-Bextor’s work has a cinematic architecture more akin to the former.
I hope that more contemporary re-assessments will soften and, finally, embrace just how brilliant Read My Lips really is. With the consistent undercurrent of post-disco and revivalist tunes hitting streaming services, there may not be a better moment for Ellis-Bextor than right now. “Music Gets the Best of Me” is a stirringly charming tune, with a rhythmic beat that is as muted as something you might hear on an Avalanches record like Since I Left You or Wildflower. You can hear Moby’s DJ influence across the entire project, as many of the arrangements feel like collages or samples dug up from forgotten albums. In that sense, “Is It Any Wonder” flickers sublimely and swirls in a kaleidoscope of piano-driven, digital beats that provide the type of electro-ballad euphoria that is so gravely missing from contemporary dance scenes. And there are inflections in Ellis-Bextor’s singing that might sound familiar, too, largely because artists like Lady Gaga also possess them. It’s an example found largely in the work of musicians who have a stark understanding of just how crucial of an instrument a voice can be—company mostly kept by pop musicians, and understandably so. Her performance is a composite of the heavenliness of Audrey Hepburn and the confidence of Debbie Harry.
A track like “Get over You”—which was included in the 2002 reissue of the album—still sounds timeless. It could’ve topped a chart in 1984, 2004 and 2014. On the other hand, “Move This Mountain” and “By Chance” have the kind of Y2K electro-pop polish that doesn’t really exist anymore in the musical zeitgeist. But that doesn’t mean the former is any less gripping when it plays right before “Murder on the Dancefloor,” or that the latter isn’t a cosmic affair that toes the line between teen drama montage and campy prestige bliss.
Sure, you might look at this article and not understand why, given Sophies (left) successes in the UK, I would even dare to claim that her work is “getting its due.” I hear you on that. But I think, as an American, it’s easy for so many incredible international pop stars to go unnoticed here in the States. Not every artist can be post-Moloko Róisín Murphy and make dance records that cross the Atlantic with ease. Ellis-Bextor’s music never quite landed here—well, before November 2023 at least. Can you imagine how much healing might have happened had we been gifted the pleasures of her cover of Cher’s “Take Me Home” in 2001? It’s one of the most beautiful dance songs I’ve ever heard, and quite possibly one of the best dance covers of all time.
Ellis-Bextor’s story is a different outcome than what Kate Bush went through a year-and-a-half ago; “Murder on the Dancefloor” is not going to have the Billboard chart resurgence of “Running Up That Hill,” but that doesn’t mean that what we’re witnessing—through Gen-Z’s obsessive, numbers-spiking tendencies and the virality of modern-day internet—isn’t some kind of miracle. I mean, “Murder on the Dancefloor” has been streamed over 235 million times on Spotify. Ellis-Bextor’s second-most-streamed song is “Not Giving Up On Love,” which has 23 million plays. The Saltburn effect is real and it has, thankfully, put millions of ears on Ellis-Bextor’s music once again. She put out a dance record in June called HANNA and it’s quite good (“Breaking the Circle” is anthemic and masterful, especially). More than 20 years have passed since Read My Lips but Ellis-Bextor hasn’t missed a beat. On New Year’s Eve, she posted a video of herself recreating the Saltburn finale scene, and she was even present on the red carpet at the film’s premiere and performed at a special screening in London.
But the way that “Murder on the Dancefloor” has delighted people is, I think, a mark of what great pop music can do—be it by itself or in conversation with an unforgettable moment on-screen. The fact that Saltburn has put people in seats more than once (I had the pleasure of seeing it multiple times, the second of which I sat next to a group of people who had all watched it no less than three times) in America is a little dash of good fortune; the newfound embrace of “Murder on the Dancefloor” here in the States (and the continued love for the song globally) is a prime argument for how pop music can never lose its footing when the stars align. The movies aren’t dead yet and neither is the brilliance of Sophie Ellis-Bextor. As we ride into 2024, I’d say those are two pretty great truths to carry with us. And we better not kill the groove.
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