Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in June 1995
By the middle of the nineties, Bryan Adams could only get American hits co-writing songs about abstractions in period drag. “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” from 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves presumed to comment on Kevin Costner’s mulleted Robin Hood’s affection for Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio. 1993’s “All For Love” for The Three Musketeers roped in an an embarrassed Rod Stewart and Adams and Sting in a valentine to cross-promotional platinum. 1995’s Don Juan DeMarco lacked this pedigree. Despite starring Johnny Depp and a rather charming Marlon Brando and a game Faye Dunaway, the film wasn’t a hit — audiences didn’t know what they were watching or what they were supposed to react to. Any film about Don Juan, especially Byron’s Don Juan, deserved a randier and more ambivalently sexual titular hero; Johnny Depp’s idea of randy and ambivalent required a Fred Flintstone exotic accent. The casual erotic banter between Dunaway and Brando is more suggestive and outrageous than any of the fantasies in which writer-director Jeremy Leven places Depp; it was one of the few movies in which an older woman and a weird, sexually ambivalent, obese American actor could be allowed a bedroom scene. A young cinephile thrilled to see two legends onscreen, I enjoyed Don Juan DeMarco more than it deserved.
As is his wont, Bryan Adams’ song acknowledges no reality except what’s cooked up in a Hollywood boardroom. Because “Don Juan” sounds as exotic as “Chipotle,” he requests flamenco guitar to pluck and strum the main melody. We’re a long way from “This Time,” “Cuts Like a Knife, “Somebody,” “Run to You,” or even “Can’t Stop This Thing We Started.” Adams has a propensity for advice; now he’s explaining what women like, in the manner of a best bro at seventeen years old explaining earnestly how chicks love pastel soaps, roses on beds, Victoria’s Secret undergarments, and Seal. To quote Pauline Kael about Paul Schrader, he sings like a sleazo putting the make on you, applying his beef jerky timbre to ears, necks, tape decks, and sound systems across the land. I admire the advice: if you’re in love, tell him! Shania Twain would agree, down to the exclamation point. The sensitivity-by-gunpoint arrangement, though, makes a case for solitary confinement.
Harmless, as committed to the healthily generic as Target, Adams had a pretty good run before 1991. He, Jim Vallance, and his other co-writers (which later included Twain ex Robert “Mutt” Lange) understood what to do with guitars and lyrical tags. When Tina Turner, Glass Tiger, and Joe Cocker needed hits, there he was, laryngeal on command. I’m a fan of the aforementioned “Can’t Stop This Thing We Started,” a hit in the wake of the Robin Hood theme, yet whose #2 peak, weeks before Soundscan debuted, smells funny. The Don Juan DeMarco was his last French kiss to the American chart — the guy collapsed to such a degree that it’s difficult to remember his ubiquity if you weren’t an adult contemporary listener. The garlic clove called “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” explains why.