Behind the Song: “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson

The familiar beat, synthesizers, and spitting vocals are recognizable anywhere. Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” off his record Bad, digs into the darker side of his music.

After the release of Bad in August of 1987, “Smooth Criminal” was the album’s seventh single, released on November 14, 1988. It peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart but never reached No. 1 on either. It did, however, reach No. 1 in Belgium, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Spain.

The song opens with an eerie heartbeat, which alludes to the core refrain of the song. The lyrics jump right in to describe the scene of a crime; a woman being attacked in her apartment by this allusive “smooth criminal.” The upbeat tempo and strong beat don’t seem to match the difficult subject matter, but they capture the frantic energy of attempting to help a victim of a violent crime.

As he came into the window / Was a sound of a crescendo / He came into her apartment / He left the bloodstains on the carpet / She ran underneath the table / He could see she was unable / So she ran into the bedroom / She was struck down, it was her doom

Jackson’s familiar refrain of “Annie, are you OK?” carries more meaning than just the narrator asking a question. The line is inspired by Resusci Anne, the name of the model of doll used to teach CPR. Jackson combined the question trainees learn to ask, “are you OK?” with the name of the doll to create the iconic line.

The second verse moves on from the occurrence of the crime to the discovery of the victim, as neighbors or medics attempt to resuscitate the victim, seemingly to no avail. Here, we once again see the connection to the heartbeat that opened the song and the CPR doll, Resusci Anne, in the lyrics.

So they came into the outway / It was Sunday, what a black day / Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / Sounding heartbeats, intimidations

“Smooth Criminal” evolved from an earlier song, “Al Capone,” which was unreleased until the reissue of Bad in 2012, titled Bad 25. The songs share a similar beat and synth-bass, and both allude to violent crimes, making it clear that the two are connected.

Accompanying the song is a nine-minute-long music video, which premiered on MTV on October 13, 1988. It was in this video that Jackson’s infamous “anti-gravity lean” was first seen, created by the video’s co-choreographer Vincent Paterson. At the time of this video, Jackson and his dancers lean an impossible 45 degrees forward with the help of cables and harnesses, but the pop sensation’s team patented a technique to perform the move in concert with special shoes and hooks that raise from the floor in 1993. The video was also central to the 1988 film Moonwalker, a collection of short films and long-form music videos starring Jackson.

Although the song never reached No. 1, it received retrospective acclamations and is highly recognized as one of the best hits of Jackson’s career. In recent years, it’s been written up as No. 1 on Bad by Newsweek and No. 2 by Entertainment Weekly, as well as Jackson’s sixth-best song of his career by Rolling Stone.

“Jackson held his ground, and the result is his best blend of R&B groove and rock edginess, and a turning point in his shift toward darker, harder-edged material,” wrote Rolling Stone regarding Jackson’s new sound and disapproval from his producer, Quincy Jones, as well as the Jehovah’s Witness elders.

The iconic song has made its mark and made its way into other artists’ hands, including covers from Alien Ant Farm and 2Cellos, as well as being featured in the hit musical show, Glee.


Check out the “Smooth Criminal” music video below.

FRANCIS Sylvain/AFP via Getty Images

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