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.
Jermaine Jackson – “Do What You Do”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #13 in January 1985
In 1982, Michael Jackson sang with Paul McCartney; in the same year, brother Jermaine sang with Devo. If you paid attention to such things that fourth quarter, you might have thought Jermaine was more with-it. Between the release of Off the Wall and Thriller, Jermaine released Let’s Get Serious, an unexpectedly fleet record anchored to a couple of first-rate Stevie Wonder compositions. The percolating Wonder-ful title track remains one of the best things any Jackson’s ever attached himself to; unlike McCartney in his own Wonder collaboration “What’s That You’re Doing“, Jermaine survives Wonder’s last third attempt to hijack his own song. He even plays credible bass.
A surprise, let me say. A whey-voiced smoothie who came on like Smokey Robinson at the singles lounge, Jermaine was the most successful non-Michael Jackson until Janet several years later; and even when his pop career faded he might’ve persisted as an adult contemporary radio non-entity had he not been so bland that beside him Richard Marx was Otis Redding. Scolds who believe in craftsmanship or something will note that he released three indifferently titled albums between 1980 and 1982; maybe Jermaine took his cues from country stars.
But he never threatened the top fifteen again until “Do What You Do,” a rather huge A/C hit that fucked with the notion that all a platinum artist had to do in 1984 to get pop cred was program syndrums and pay for a decent video. Jermaine tried with the latter: an expensive recreation of The Godfather in which he wanders through a California ranch-style patio in an undershirt, balling his fists and trying not to let the wind machine muss his slick jheri curls. In a flashback we see him having resolutely PG-rated sex with a grateful nightclub singer who doesn’t know Jermaine had several sexier brothers who could do what he said he did to her.
Written by Larry Ditommaso and Ralph Dino, also known as Dino & Sembello, “Do What You Do” disgraces the sixties duo responsible for “Pearl’s a Singer” and several Lovin’ Spoonful tracks. Even if it wasn’t as unacquainted with the subtleties of the English language as a pre-kinder kid, Jermaine’s production ideas are damp tiles: the programmed drum taps and synthed-up air go for a contemporary update of early sixties R&B smooch a la the Drifters, an idea that isn’t as stupid as it looks on paper; in 1984 the freshly branded yuppies were about to get moist-eyed about their youth. It should surprise no one that Arista overlord, friend of the cut-rate, and protector of the schlocky, Clive Davis, shares credit. If Dino & Sembello deserve kudos, it’s for stumbling over a hook as stupid-good as “Do what you do what you do what you did to me,” recited by Jermaine as if it were The Waste Land. A fungible hook too — it later becomes “say what you say what you say what you said to me”!
Except for the forgotten top twenty Wonder co-write “I Think It’s Love” and an #1 R&B single called “Don’t Take It Personal” at the end of the decade (Thomas Inskeep: “This is one hateful record”), Jermaine quietly dematerialized after 1984’s Victory tour and album. Let me give him credit: his duet with estranged bro Michael “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’ (Too Good to Be True)” would’ve been huge if Epic and Arista had resolved their feud (Robert Palmer’s excellent 1989 cover deserves a listen); and Victory‘s “Torture” benefits from his spooked wisp of a tenor. He may deny, credibly, that he destroyed Pia Zadora’s career. Word to the bad indeed.