Thursday, August 19, 2010

8/19/10 - Songs of the Summer, #48-49: "Dirty Diana" and "Right Here Waiting"

The Master List

Top Song of 1988: "Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson

Man, Michael Jackson. When he died, and the world exploded in appreciation for his peerless pop gifts, it was like a flood of pent-up relief that we no longer had to reckon with the complicated horror-show that popular adoration can be for those subjected to it. If you want to chill your blood, read this profile of Justin Bieber in New York: Bieber's plaintive attempts to get some, any downtime, straining gently against bonds that he is only just beginning to perceive, were strikingly uncomfortable for me to read. For all that showbiz success seems to be some sort of glorious golden prize, it can in practice often turn out closer to Tolkien's One Ring to rule them all. Beautiful, compelling, desired by all, and terrifically dangerous and addictive.

You can see the Smeagol-to-Gollum transition just by tracking the evolution of Jackson from his early hitmaking days on through the hits and into the wheel-spinning '90s and '00s. All fresh-faced and innocent to start, Jackson put out a throat-clearing disco innocent collection of songs in Off The Wall before declaring himself a solo artist with authority with "Billie Jean", one of the most paranoid chart-toppers ever recorded. Even in a list of summer songs that includes "Every Breath You Take", that's a feat. "Dirty Diana", coming as it does a scant three years before the grunge explosion of the early '90s that really destroyed Jackson's club pop until the tide receded at the end of the decade, is at the beginning of the end of Jackson's reign of King of Pop. It sounds it, too - the clockwork drum machine, dry guitars, and Jackson in full-paranoia mode - it's a relatively desparate and off-putting song, a kind of quasi-prequel to "Billie Jean".

And, because it's Michael Jackson in the late '80s, it's catchy as hell. The way the guitar rises in the chorus after snaking threateningly through the verse gives the song a queasy anthemic quality; some of that Van Halen rubbing off, maybe? The vocal melody is catchy all the way through, snaking against the guitar in the verse to rise and fall to the incantation of the title as refrain. Success did not come unearned to Jackson, though it ultimately destroyed more of him than is comfortable to contemplate.

Top Song of 1989: "Right Here Waiting For You" by Richard Marx

Oh, the ridiculous piano balladry with the overemoting singer. I believe it was "Endless Love" that I was struggling with earlier. This song is of a piece with that, or any other piece of Adult Contemporary syrup.

The thing about songs like this is that they seem insincere. Marx's delivery is so over the top, so ridiculously plaintive, and the piano is designed for maximum tear-wringing "melancholy" in its melodic construction, that something seems off about the whole thing. It's an easy type of song to mistrust. It's hard to locate the beating heart at the core of the song. Is it a cynical Hallmark card? Preying on a universal emotion to sell some CDs (or iTunes downloads in the current day)? Or is this really a cry from the soul of Richard Marx? One suspects the former, even if the strings, acoustic guitar solo, and melody try to point at the former.

All it takes is to be in the right frame of mind, and you can be gobsmacked by a song like this; feeling melodramatic, perhaps driving late at night through the rain and turning the radio dial to catch something to ease your boredom, thinking of things that make you sad, and then BAM! That piano has you right where it wants you. Even if, like dirty Diana, its intentions are less than pure.

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