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.
Michael Jackson’s “”Dirty Diana”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in July 1988
In 1982, Eddie Van Halen, perhaps with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” in mind, contributed a scorcher of a solo to Thriller‘s Beat It. Chuffed, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson repeated the R&B-metal fusion trick on the fifth single from Bad, the 1987 Thriller followup whose robust sales proved the truth about Dylan’s adage: there’s no success like failure. Instead of Van Halen, though, Jackson and Jones hired Steve Stevens, late of Billy Idol’s band. It didn’t work. Blustery, thin, and sexist, “Dirty Diana” was Jackson’s worst single to date.
To mention that Thriller‘s most thrilling moments centered on Jackson’s expressions of paranoia is a banality in 2018; we accept “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” because Jackson and Jones channel the clammy into beats that we know now are indivisible from Jackson’s fleetness of foot. In 1983, as MTV entered its Culture Club phase, during which programmers assured that black music was limited to a few slots (if that) a day, hearing those Thriller singles in a blanched landscape was a relief.
Five years later, hair metal had stuck its flag on that landscape. Stevens, who had contributed solos so mechanistic for Idol that for a couple of minutes I think they’re programmed, is working in a context in which the ear-shred solo through which even David Lee Roth had mugged in 1986 was familiar business. Worse, Jackson the songwriter and co-producer added nothing atmospheric or rhythmically to compete; why would Jackson compete against “Eyes Without a Face” or “Don’t Need a Gun” when “Nothin’ But a Good Time” was the competition? “She likes the boys in the band/She knows when they come to town,” Jackson hisses, using words about groupies that no one familiar with “Billie Jean” might have glanced at. Judged in the context of Headbanger’s Ball, right for the times too. But I don’t listen to Michael Jackson to hear what the times demanded. Two years later, his sister would emulate his approach to more novel effect.