The Number Ones

July 2, 1988

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


When big-haired glam metal had its big pop-chart moment in the late ’80s, Michael Jackson paid attention. At the time, Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world, and he occupied a position that the insurgent rock poodles couldn’t even imagine. In Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock’s new book Nothin’ But A Good Time, an extremely fun oral history of the glam metal boom, Michael Jackson is a recurring character. Jackson gives props to Poison backstage at an awards show, or he hires a costume designer to make him something that looks like what he saw Warrant’s Jani Lane wearing in a Sunset Strip flyer, and the whole scene takes that as a moment of validation. These guys didn’t necessarily see themselves as pop musicians, but when the world’s biggest pop musician looked their way, they felt like they were part of the club. (Poison will eventually appear in this column. Warrant’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “Heaven,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

In fact, Michael Jackson had acknowledged that whole Sunset Strip scene before it really became a thing. In 1982, Quincy Jones advised Jackson to write a rock song like “My Sharona,” and Jackson came up with “Beat It,” a widescreen fusion of hard rock and dance-pop. Toto’s Steve Lukather played the main “Beat It” riff, but for the pyrotechnic guitar solo, Quincy Jones brought in Eddie Van Halen, the instrumental wizard whose band had essentially invented the sound that would take over the charts by the end of the decade. In working with Eddie Van Halen, Michael Jackson was ahead of the curve. A year after “Beat It” reached #1, Van Halen got there with “Jump,” an early warning of the glam metal takeover to come.

Michael Jackson was always adamant that he didn’t write songs with particular genres or audiences in mind. In his 1988 memoir Moonwalk, Jackson wrote, “I feel close to all different styles of music.” Still, it’s hard to escape the impression that “Dirty Diana” is an attempt to replicate the magic of “Beat It” and to tap into the whole glam metal boom. “Dirty Diana” is very much a song of its moment — an eerie minor-key freakout about a sexually aggressive groupie, a pop-music stock character that would’ve been familiar from god only knows how many glam rock songs of the era. Jackson recorded the song with the sort of spartan mechanical groove that he loved using in that Bad era, and he and Quincy Jones used their usual studio musicians. But once again, they brought in an outside guest to shred all over the final product.

For “Dirty Diana,” the outside guest was Steve Stevens, the metal-adjacent glam divebomb king who’d been one of past Number Ones artist Billy Idol’s main collaborators. Stevens later told Melody Maker that he accepted the invitation because he was “just curious, man,” and that he loved working with Quincy Jones:

He’s a real jazz head, and he’s got these great expressions. Like, I’d be playing behind the beat, maybe, and he’d get on the talkback on the other side of the glass and say, “Steve, uh, could you put a little more custard in your cone, man?” And here I am, white boy guitar player, going, “What does he mean?” “Play ahead of the beat, man, on top of the groove.” “Oh, OK, yeah!”

The main guitarists on “Dirty Diana” are past Jackson collaborators Paul Jackson, Jr. and David Williams, but Steve Stevens doesn’t just pop in for a few seconds of wheedles, the way Eddie Van Halen did on “Beat It.” Instead, Stevens’ constant acrobatics are weirdly crucial to “Dirty Diana.” Stevens plays through much of the song, adding horny-cat yowls and morse-code beeps. By the time the song is over, Stevens is in full flight; on the fade-out, Stevens is imitating car-alarm sirens and malfunctioning UFOs. Stevens helps turn “Dirty Diana” into something unhinged. That’s crucial, since “Dirty Diana” is otherwise a dank creep-out of a song.

Like “Beat It” before it, “Dirty Diana” opens with an echoing synth sound. With “Beat It,” it was those gothic church-bell gongs. On “Dirty Diana,” it’s a clang from a horror-movie score, fed through some sort of digital distortion and extended beyond whatever nature might allow. On the verses, Jackson sings over ominous synth-drones and Keith Richards-esque guitar-growls. On the choruses, things ratchet up. Jackson shrieks louder, and the riff gets bigger, but the minor-key evilness remains. Eventually, there’s an oddly spartan string arrangement that reminds me of the Terminator score. “Dirty Diana” is a nasty little cold-sweat song. It sounds mean, probably because that’s exactly what it is.

Jackson later said that “Billie Jean” was at least partly inspired by the girls who would stalk the backstage doors when he was touring with his older brothers, who would sometimes try to claim that his older brothers were the fathers of their kids. Most rock songs about groupies are songs of temptation. The women want to seduce the men, and the men are suspicious, but they’re also into it. That, presumably, was not the experience that pre-pubescent Michael Jackson had when he first got famous. “Billie Jean” is a song about freaked-out paranoia; there’s no real temptation in it. “Dirty Diana” works in much the same way.

Jackson structures “Dirty Diana” as a vignette about a girl who likes the boys in the band and knows when they come to town. Jackson’s narrator wants no part of this girl: “I’ve been here times before, but I was too blind to see/ That you seduce every man, this time you won’t seduce me.” Diana likes “those who have prestige” because they “promise fortune and fame, a life that’s so carefree.” But she has her own ideas about what she wants. When she approaches Jackson’s narrator, she offers to be “your night-loving thing,” “the freak you can taunt.” When the narrator says that he has to go call his baby, Diana basically demands that he come home with her.

In the hands of another singer, “Dirty Diana” might’ve been a conflicted ode to road-life sex, to the problems unique to rock-star life. But Michael Jackson does not sound like he’s into the whole Dirty Diana experience at all. He wants no part of this. Throughout the song, Jackson’s voice is a panicked howl. He’s freaked out, and he might be a little bit disgusted, too. “Dirty Diana” represents a strange take on the kind of misogyny that was so prevalent in the glam metal of the time. A song like Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name” depicts a merciless girl who keeps moving on. She snares the narrator, and then she breaks his heart. But “Dirty Diana” doesn’t even get to the heartbreak. The snaring itself is the problem.

When I’m writing this column, it’s always a temptation to downgrade songs that display fucked-up sentiments. “Dirty Diana” definitely displays fucked-up sentiments. It sounds weirdly anti-sex, and it turns its title character into a figure of confusion and maybe revulsion. But I think it’s also an effective piece of work — a character study of Jackson’s narrator as much as Diana herself. The song creates a heightened sonic environment, all these hums and whirrs and guitar-screeches piling up to create a disoriented feeling. In the version of the song from the video, the cheers of a crowd create an extra layer of noise. When the crowd cheers, it’s not a triumphant sound. It’s one more sign of the general oppression of living your whole life on stages.

I also think “Dirty Diana” is just a nasty rock song. The cold-steel groove serves the hooks, and the hooks serve the cold-steel groove. Jackson’s vocal performance is just masterful — a wounded and tremulous yelp that turns into a horrified scream. The song’s chorus is really just the title repeated again and again, but Jackson wails it out like he’s naming that which he fears the most. “Dirty Diana” may be, essentially, a glam metal song, but Jackson does things on it that almost no glam metal singers could do. It’s the most intense vocal performance on Bad, and it’s weirdly one of the most soulful, too.

For the video, director Joe Pytka — who’d already made Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” video, and who would later make Space Jam — films Michael Jackson leading a band of glam rockers in front of a Long Beach audience. Steve Stevens is in there, rocking a shiny Catwoman-looking jumpsuit and some positively enormous hair. Jackson wears a plain white button-up over a pre-ripped T-shirt, so that he can do the Hulk Hogan shirt-rip move at the song’s climax. He also has some extremely complicated leather pants, with about 15 different belts, and black leather gauntlets that probably have a few more belts.

All through the video, Jackson pulls rock-star moves, including the classic Bowie/Ronson thing where he and Steve Stevens shove their dicks in each other’s faces. The stage is surrounded by laser lights and by what appear to be billowing flags made of ripped-up curtains. It looks fucking awesome. I love it. There’s also a Diana figure in there — always silhouetted, her face never completely visible. She looks scary. That’s the point. At the end of the video, she’s waiting for Jackson in his limo, and it’s supposed to play like the final scare of a horror movie. Dirty Diana won’t die. She’ll get you in the end.

“Dirty Diana” didn’t cross over to rock radio, the way “Beat It” had done. It did much better at R&B, where it went top-10 despite sounding like nothing else in the format. Jackson had to dispel rumors that the song was about Diana Ross or about Princess Diana. In the summer of 1988, Princess Diana and Prince Charles went to see Jackson when his Bad tour came to London. Years later, in an interview with Barbara Walters, Jackson said that he’s planned to omit “Dirty Diana” from the setlist that night but that Princess Di told him that he had to sing it. Jackson complied.

When “Man In The Mirror” reached #1, Michael Jackson became the first artist who’d ever scored four #1 singles from one album. In the weeks afterwards, Whitney Houston caught up with Jackson. Soon afterwards, George Michael would, too. But when “Dirty Diana” got to the top spot, that meant that Bad had generated an unheard of five #1 hits. To this day, nobody has ever had more, though another artist would eventually tie that record.

After “Dirty Diana,” Jackson kept releasing more singles from Bad, but those singles weren’t surefire chart-toppers anymore. Jackson’s next single was the robotically funky “Another Part Of Me,” which had debuted as part of Jackson’s 1986 Disney World short film Captain EO. When “Another Part Of Me” peaked at #11, it became the first new Michael Jackson single to miss the top 10 since 1979. (Jackson’s 1979 single “You Can’t Win (Part 1),” from the soundtrack of The Wiz, had peaked at #81.) Soon afterwards, Jackson was back in the top 10 with the dancefloor freakout “Smooth Criminal,” my favorite song from Bad. (“Smooth Criminal” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

In the US, “Smooth Criminal” was the last single from Bad, though Jackson also released “Liberian Girl” and “Leave Me Alone” in the UK and Europe. (“Leave Me Alone” was only on the CD version of Bad, not on the LP or cassette, and Jackson still made a video for the thing.) Michael Jackson will eventually return to this column, but unless he achieves some kind of late-career miracle, Quincy Jones will not. As a producer, Quincy Jones racked up 12 #1 singles, starting with Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” in 1963. Almost all of those chart-toppers were Michael Jackson collaborations, but Quincy Jones still had one of the all-time great pop producer runs. Respect is due.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Whitney Houston quoted from “Dirty Diana” in “Queen Of The Night,” an absolute banger from the soundtrack of The Bodyguard. Here’s that song’s video:

(Whitney Houston has been in this column plenty of times, and she’ll be in this column again.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Three 6 Mafia sampling the “Dirty Diana” intro on their 1995 mixtape track “Love To Make A Stang”:

(Three 6 Mafia’s highest-charting single, the 2005 8Ball & MJG/Young Buck collab “Stay Fly,” peaked at #13. As a guest artist, Three 6 member Juicy J will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Dirty Diana” cover that the Weeknd included on his 2011 mixtape Echoes Of Silence:

(The Weeknd will appear in this column plenty of times. In fact, he happens to have the #1 song in America this very moment.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the utterly horrifying “Dirty Diana” cover that the great pro wrestler Chris Jericho recorded for a 2013 tribute album:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2019, the troubled young rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again remade “Dirty Diana” as “Dirty Iyanna.” Here’s his video for the track:

(NBA YoungBoy’s highest-charting single, the 2019 Juice WRLD collab “Bandit,” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.)

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