In 2001, Sophie Ellis Bextor’s song “Murder on the Dancefloor” achieved its highest chart position once again, reaching No 2 due to its inclusion in Emerald Fennell’s successful film Saltburn.
The song “Murder on the Dancefloor” returned to the UK Top 40 at number 8 last week following the premiere of “Saltburn” on Amazon Prime on December 22nd. During the holiday season, many viewers tuned in to see Fennell’s film about destructive desire and were left feeling uncomfortable as they watched the portrayal of class differences in a country-house setting in 2007. The film was deemed more scandalous than a typical episode of Downton Abbey.
Oliver, a student at Oxford University, is ostracized by his peers in Saltburn. He becomes enamored with Felix, a wealthy and well-bred individual, who invites him to his family’s grand estate. The song “Murder on the Dancefloor” is used quite literally in the climax of the film, as Oliver triumphantly dances naked through the property that he has acquired without any legal documentation. When a fan asked Ellis-Bextor if she had anticipated her song being used in this manner, she confirmed that she had.
44-year-old Ellis-Bextor has shared before that she felt like she didn’t belong when she attended a private school. However, she acknowledged that her own experiences cannot be compared to those portrayed in the film. In an interview with the Guardian, she reflected, “Looking back, there were quite a few people who also felt like outsiders.” She praised the director, Emerald, for capturing the relatable feeling of walking into a new environment and realizing that others have been raised differently, leading to a sense of being completely different from them.
Fennell was born into a wealthy upbringing and attended Oxford University. According to Ellis-Bextor, she has been observing these behaviors for a significant amount of time, which are represented in her caricatures. These portrayals showcase a sense of effortless and entitled privilege that comes with having all the advantages in life. This is something that many of us have witnessed – individuals who simply coast through life, knowing that if one opportunity doesn’t work out, there will always be another one waiting. Some people live in this manner constantly.
A popular TikTok trend in Saltburn features wealthy individuals dancing through their extravagant homes to the tune of Ellis-Bextor’s song, despite being fully clothed. This sparked a debate about whether they truly understood the message of the film or if Fennell’s commentary on class had missed its mark. Ellis-Bextor herself found the trend amusing and even made her own TikTok video dancing to her song in a hotel on New Year’s Eve. Despite not being in a lavish setting, she joked that others thought she was in a less glamorous location. The trend has also been embraced by other famous figures such as Richard E Grant and Paris Hilton.
Despite mixed reviews, Saltburn has gained popularity among Generation Z. Critic Simran Hans was among those who criticized the film, suggesting that its flashy music video-esque scenes, like Oliver’s naked dance, have a “shareable and meme-worthy” quality that works even without the context of the film. This is evident in the 4 billion views that Saltburn-themed videos have received on TikTok. Hans noted that the film’s appeal to Gen Z is telling, as many of them have likely only experienced bits and pieces of it through online platforms.
This week, the song “Murder on the Dancefloor” debuted on the US Hot 100 chart at No. 98. Originally a demo by songwriter Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals, the song has gained popularity due to its use in a popular TV show or through viral exposure. Another example of this trend is Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” which reached No. 1 in 2022 thanks to its appearance in the TV show Stranger Things, 37 years after its initial release. Similarly, in 2020, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” re-entered the charts after more than 40 years due to its use in a viral skateboarding video on TikTok.
Tom Gallacher serves as the general manager for Rhino UK, a catalogue label within Warner Music. He was involved in the viral campaigns for both songs. According to Gallacher, it’s crucial for artists to find a balance between managing and taking advantage of these moments, as Gen Z is highly focused on authenticity and dislikes anything that feels contrived. In response to the meme, Fleetwood Mac participated and Bush gave a rare interview to BBC Radio 4. Internally, labels may add the rising song to an artist’s greatest hits playlist or request that Spotify include it in themed playlists to reach a wider audience. These strategic approaches can lead to an increase in the overall catalogue’s popularity. “You gain new fans who continue to engage with your music,” explained Gallacher.
According to TikTok, the song’s hashtag has amassed over 92.2 million views and has been featured in more than 418,000 videos. This marks a 444% increase in just one week. The oldest members of Generation Z would have been approximately five years old when “Murder on the Dancefloor” was initially released. Sophie Ellis-Bextor, the artist behind the song, shared that her five sons have grown up listening to it and are now witnessing its popularity on social media. She added that her 14-year-old son has seen it on TikTok, while her eldest has heard it played in clubs in the United States. Even her 11-year-old son commented that the song may be overrated after hearing it on the radio.
Even though this popular moment will eventually fade away, the song holds a lasting meaning for Ellis-Bextor. In her memoir Music, Men, Motherhood and Me, published in 2021, she discusses being in a relationship with an older man who she describes as abusive and manipulative. At his worst, she claims he wouldn’t allow her to walk down the street alone and even physically hurt her. According to Ellis-Bextor, the success of the original single allowed her to travel the world and hear people’s stories, ultimately helping her to leave the toxic relationship.
“I worked with many older women who shared their wisdom with me,” she recalled. “Slowly but surely, I gained the strength to leave the unhealthy situation. It was an interesting contrast because my work was increasing my visibility while my personal life was trying to bring me down.” Several months after the song was released, Ellis-Bextor met her now-husband, Richard Jones, who is the bassist for the pop-rock band the Feeling.
She claims that her pop music career began as a result of “failure” and by chance. In the year 2000, she collaborated on and performed Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love), which was inspired by a song from Italian DJ Spiller. The song became a success, despite the hype created by tabloids surrounding a chart battle with Victoria Beckham’s first solo single. Ellis-Bextor handled the situation gracefully, appearing in public wearing a “Peckham” T-shirt.
The intense environment of the pop industry in the early 2000s has been questioned lately, with a focus on artists like Britney Spears and former talent show participants. In Michael Cragg’s book, Reach for the Stars, which chronicles the British side of the industry, the topic is explored. Before becoming a pop star, Ellis-Bextor was part of an indie band called Theaudience, who were signed to Mercury Records but eventually dropped when she turned 20. She reflects, “Being a woman in her early twenties in the pop scene was much less chaotic than being a teenager in the indie world. That was intense.”
She managed to endure the intense beginning of her career – with four songs reaching the Top 3 and a debut album that peaked at No. 2 – by connecting with her support system, she explained. This included people like Sophie Muller, who directed the music video for “Murder on the Dancefloor” and is the godmother to one of her children. In the video, Ellis-Bextor chose to portray a villain, sabotaging her fellow competitors in a dance competition, as a way to push back against the overly cheerful, kid-friendly pop music that was popular after the Spice Girls. “By presenting something extreme, I could just play a role and detach myself from any criticism,” she said. “It shielded me from feeling vulnerable – constantly seeking approval and worrying if people would like me – because I thought: maybe you don’t really know me anyway. It helped me distance myself from any negative comments or attacks.”
During the COVID-19 outbreak, well past her peak in the 2000s pop scene, Ellis-Bextor let her guard down and regained her fame by live streaming impromptu “Kitchen Discos” on Instagram. These charming performances, with her children by her side, featured sequin-clad renditions of beloved hits. This phenomenon led to a BBC Radio 2 program, a tour with a revue-style format, and Ellis-Bextor’s first appearance on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury last year.
The star’s latest music release, her seventh solo album titled “Hana”, was not as widely recognized. It was a collaboration with songwriter Ed Harcourt, her third album to be co-written with him. She rejected the idea that older female musicians are often limited by nostalgia and associated with their past works. She described the experience of making these albums as a privilege, allowing her to follow her heart without hesitation. She also acknowledged that not everyone gets the opportunity to feel this level of freedom without worrying about public reception or radio airplay. In her early 20s, she struggled with feeling like a failure and has since been striving for success and validation in her career.
According to the artist, it is essential to follow the energy and momentum in order to thrive creatively. Interestingly, she had already started working on a dance-focused album with collaborators Cathy Dennis and Richard X before “Murder on the Dancefloor” became popular. This unexpected success has given her a sense of the universe coming together.
After defeating Victoria Beckham in 2000, Ellis-Bextor’s current competition on the charts is Liam Gallagher and John Squire with their first joint single, Just Another Rainbow. Will she be able to surpass them? “I’m not falling for that!” she exclaimed. “I already went through all of that the first time. Cut me some slack! I think it’s a bit petty to be throwing a fit: I don’t just want my hit from two decades ago to make a comeback, I want it to reach number one! But no matter what happens, it’s all magical.”
She then added, “Perhaps if Liam becomes No 1, he can perform a naked dance around a grand estate.”