Interesting. This is my second review on a Michael Jackson song for my Every Number-One Single challenge – the first was “Ben”, which peaked near the beginning of Jackson’s prominence, and now it’s “Dirty Diana”, which came by around the beginning of his descent. It’s tempting for me to try to compare the world of differences between the two very different singles… but I’ll refrain from such recklessness.
Following the unparalleled success of his 1982 album Thriller, Jackson released his album Bad five years later, opting for a more mature trajectory in terms of sound and lyrical themes. This album would cement him as one of the best-selling pop artists of the 80s, and of all time for that matter. In total, five singles from Bad would all hit number-one, a feat that has yet to be surpassed. Written by Jackson, who also co-produced it with longtime collaborator Quincy Jones, “Dirty Diana” was the final of these chart topping singles. Immediately, one can note the stylistic difference between this song’s sound and the sonic qualities of Thriller‘s singles – the synths run deeper and darker; the tempo is less funky and more brooding. And although the prominent electric guitar (from Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens) is reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen’s work on “Beat It”, these power chords are not nearly quite so fun.
Thematically, this song concerns a woman – the titular Diana – whom Jackson berates for her promiscuity and her constant attempts to bed him (“You seduce every man; this time you won’t seduce me”). Contemporary critics immediately drew parallels between this song and another of Jackson’s earlier huge hits, “Billie Jean”, which dealt with Jackson’s dodging a woman who possibly mistakenly claims him to be her child’s father. Although both of these singles deal with relatively similar material, “Billie Jean” covers the realistic stress and tragedy of this predicament with funky synths and a cool, casual, utterly danceable rhythm. In the case of “Dirty Diana”, no dancing is invited. The anger emitted by the lyrics is echoed not just in the dark production, but in Jackson’s impassioned performance itself. The is especially pronounced in the pre-chorus melody, where Jackson’s singing (coupled with some cold keyboards) builds and builds to an explosion of intense frustration, immediately followed by the simple, chanting chorus (“Dirty Diana, nah; dirty Diana, nah…”).
At this time, I haven’t quite reached the late 80s part of my Year-End Hot 100 challenge, but honestly I’m kind of dreading the thought of covering Jackson’s Bad singles once I get there. It’s not that I dislike them, so much as it is that the move away from the fun and good vibes of Off the Wall and Thriller is so jarring, and I think “Dirty Diana” is a good example of this. While none of Jackson’s music has ever been the most progressive in terms of gender politics and depiction of women, his utter distaste toward this hypothetical woman seems to come right out of nowhere. In this song, Diana is predatory in her affection for Jackson (“She says there’s no turnin’ back; she trapped me in her heart”), as well as a fast lover (“‘I’ll be your night lovin’ thing, I’ll be the freak you can taunt'”), hungry for fame (“‘I’ll be your everything if you make me a star'”), and willing to tear apart loving relationships to get what she wants (“She said, ‘He’s not coming back, because he’s sleeping with me'”). There is also the obvious connotation of Diana being “dirty” that definitely throws this woman on the wrong side of the dreaded virgin/whore dichotomy.
Nonetheless, while this twisted depiction of a woman who dares not to be docile is replete with its own kind of misogyny, I think it’s also worth noting who this is coming from. It’s clear that so much of this is reflective of Jackson’s increasingly tensed relationship with the media and individual people who have come in and out of his life through the years. These darker themes of betrayal, frustration, and anger help to compose many of the more prominent tracks off Bad, with this one being no exception. Therefore, it might not be much of a stretch to state that “Dirty Diana” is yet another depiction of the unfair ways he feels to have been treated, by way of a tired, sexist metaphor.
Still, it also wouldn’t surprise me at all that Michael Jackson would have no idea how to present multi-faceted women in his compositions in fair, unbiased ways. This is coming from someone whose had fame chase him almost his entire life, and certainly through his entire adult life. Empathy toward others doesn’t get built if you’ve had no reason to think of anyone but yourself for several years, and the built-in misogyny of the music industry as a whole wouldn’t help manners. Anyway, the point I’m getting at is that this is nowhere near my favorite of Jackson’s work. The production is fine enough and I can even get behind the guitar work (even if I’d rather be listening to Eddie Van Halen). The lyrics just about kill it for me, though – songs like these were definitely not meant for the performer’s female fans, and this only serves to mark the beginning of the end for Jackson.