The Number Ones

June 3, 1995

The Number Ones: Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman”

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

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.

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Give Bryan Adams this: He did not sing “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman,” his fourth and final #1 hit, in a fake Spanish accent. The temptation must’ve been overwhelming. Adams recorded “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” for the soundtrack of Don Juan DeMarco, a film in which Johnny Depp never stops using a fake Spanish accent. The song requires Adams to portray a cartoonishly over-the-top lover, and it surrounds his voice with flamenco guitars and castanets. In the video, Adams wears a ruffly shirt and a Don Juan mask. On the song, however, Adams never even rolls his R’s once.

Bryan Adams is not exactly a model of restraint, but in this one crucial arena, he did the right thing. He sang his stupid Don Juan DeMarco song in his own husky Canadian rasp. That decision does not make “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” into anything resembling a good song, but we should give credit where it’s due before we get into every other aspect of this deeply poor piece of music.

At some point, Bryan Adams figured out that the movie ballad was his cheat code. Adams’ best songs are all faintly anonymous studio-polished rockers: “Summer Of ’69,” “Run To You,” “Cuts Like A Knife.” But all four times that Bryan Adams has topped the Hot 100, he’s done it with a grandly sweeping movie ballad. The first time that Adams topped the Hot 100, it was with “Heaven,” which was written for the instantly-forgotten 1983 male-stripper romance A Night In Heaven but which didn’t become a hit until a couple of years after the movie had already come and gone. Nobody thinks of “Heaven” as a movie ballad, and the film had nothing to do with the song’s success, but a movie ballad is still a movie ballad. The next three times that Bryan Adams topped the Hot 100, the intent was a whole lot clearer.

The biggest hit of Bryan Adams’ career, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” was written for the 1991 blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Adams and his producer, maximalist arena-crunch god Mutt Lange, used a melody from Robin Hood composer Michael Kamen, and they made something that held charts around the world in a chokehold for an entire summer. Adams, Kamen, and Lange followed that one up with 1994’s “All For Love,” which they wrote for The Three Musketeers and which Adams sang with Sting and Rod Stewart. The songwriting team of Bryan Adams, Mutt Lange, and Michael Kamen had worked together twice, and they had two #1 hits. You can’t blame them for going back to the well again.

1995’s Don Juan DeMarco was a different kind of swashbuckler. In the film, Johnny Depp plays a young man who’s convinced that he’s really Don Juan, the greatest lover in human history. He wears the mask and cape and everything, even though it’s really supposed to be 1995. Marlon Brando, who appears to be doing a bad impression of late-period Marlon Brando, plays the psychiatrist who has to evaluate this young man and figure out if he should be institutionalized. Of course, Depp’s passion for life reawakens Brando’s passion for Faye Dunaway, his wife. This is a real movie! They made this! I have never seen Don Juan DeMarco, and I don’t intend to ever see Don Juan DeMarco. I could barely make it through the trailer.

Unsurprisingly enough, Bryan Adams and Mutt Lange wanted to do another song with Michael Kamen, so when they heard that he was working on Don Juan DeMarco, they hoped to get involved. To her great credit, music supervisor Dawn Soler had no interest in getting a Bryan Adams song on the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack. Given that a Bryan Adams soundtrack ballad was basically a guaranteed hit, her decision must’ve been entirely motivated by the realization that these Bryan Adams soundtrack ballads are just straight dogshit.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Michael Kamen tells the story: “Johnny Depp was a sort of alternative character at that time, and [Soler] was determined that she would use Tori Amos and Michael Stipe, which is a great idea. But she couldn’t manage to get the film to either one of them, so they were going to make a song that they could shoehorn in somewhere.” That sounds great! They should’ve done that! Also, the next time I want to make fun of some asshole, I’m going to call him “a sort of alternative character.”

Tori Amos and Michael Stipe really did write and record a song together for the movie. It was called “It Might Hurt A Bit,” and it never came out. Amos has spoken vaguely about the idea of releasing it someday, but thus far, the only evidence we have of the song’s existence is a brief clip from the TV show Extra where we see Stipe and Amos working none-too-seriously on the song. (Tori Amos’ highest-charting single is 1998’s “Spark,” which peaked at #49. The highest-charting single from Stipe’s band R.E.M. is 1991’s “Losing My Religion,” which peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

I don’t quite understand why the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack couldn’t have had two songs, but Michael Kamen went to New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye and complained that he needed to get a Bryan Adams song on the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack instead of the Stipe/Amos duet: “[‘It Might Hurt A Bit’] was a pretty cool song, but it had nothing to do with the film either lyrically or musically. I believe a film score and the story are inextricably linked and the theme of the movie should be the theme of the song, period.” Michael Kamen got what he wanted, and then he went off with Bryan Adams and Mutt Lange to write the song.

“Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” is built on a melody that Kamen compared to “a sort of Mexican folk tune.” The three writers spent a bit of time struggling with that melody, trying to figure out how to turn it into a song, but then everything fell together. Here’s Kamen in the Bronson book: “Bryan, Mutt, and I had that goosebump shivery feeling when we knew we had come up with something that was so delicious. This was a love song so tender and sweet and so evocative, to this day it makes women melt.” I don’t have the right chromosome situation to fact-check that particular statement, so I’m just going to have to take Kamen’s word on that one.

Here’s the thing: “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” is a fucking ridiculous song. It’s so stupid. Lyrically, Adams insists over and over that you have to, like, immerse yourself in a woman’s juices before you can say that you really love her. I wish I was exaggerating: “To really love a woman, let her hold you till you know how she needs to be touched/ You’ve gotta breathe her, really taste her, till you can feel her in your blood/ And when you can see your unborn children in her eyes, you know you really love a woman.” Bryan Adams was laying it on thick with this one. He was on his Fabio shit. Maybe the song makes women melt just because it’s trying so hard. It’s a weapons-grade pander move. I’d respect the sheer shamelessness if the song was any good, but it’s not, so I don’t.

The legendary flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia plays all over “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman.” I’m usually a sucker for flamenco guitars on pop songs, but “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” mostly just makes me wish I could listen to that guitar and mute everything else. Adams sings the whole song in a romantic grunt-moan; he really tastes the “really taste her” line. The song rises and falls dramatically, with these big orchestral swells on the chorus. At the climax, the song threatens to rock out for a couple of seconds, but that impulse ends quickly. There’s not much of a hook to the song, and I can’t really call it a power ballad. It’s not a slow-dance number. Instead, it’s a kind of antsy trot that never settles into anything resembling a groove. Listening to it, I mostly just feel great embarrassment for everyone involved.

In Don Juan DeMarco, Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” plays over the end credits, and there’s also a scene where the great Tejano star Selena sings the song in Spanish. A few weeks before the movie came out, Selena was murdered. (Selena’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1995’s “Dreaming Of You,” peaked at #22.)

Bryan Adams filmed the “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” video in Spain with Anton Corbijn, the Dutch photographer and video director who’d done iconic work with Depeche Mode and who would later make the muted, minimal films Control and The American. I interviewed Corbijn once, years ago; he was very intense and very quiet. The only thing I can remember him saying was that he hated 24 Hour Party People and that he wanted to make a film that was true to the spirit of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis; I guess that was Control. The fact that Corbijn ever made anything as silly as the “Do You Ever Really Love A Woman” video is very, very funny to me. The whole thing is just Bryan Adams putting on that Don Juan shit and swanning around picturesque Mediterranean locations with two extremely hot women who are also wearing Don Juan masks. (One of them is Cecilie Thomsen, the Danish model and future Bond girl who was Adams’ long-term girlfriend at the time.)

Don Juan DeMarco was a catastrophic box-office flop. In its opening weekend, it made less than Bad Boys, A Goofy Movie, or Tommy Boy, the latter of which was in its second week. (Please enjoy the mental image of the Brando/Farley box-office showdown.) But “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” lingered, and it topped the Hot 100 two months after the movie opened. Maybe women really were melting; I don’t fucking know. I’ve never seen my unborn children in anyone’s eyes, so maybe I’ve just been doing this whole thing wrong. Maybe Bryan Adams knows things that I don’t.

The song got Bryan Adams his third Oscar nomination, and he lost the award to “Colors Of The Wind,” from Disney’s Pocahontas movie. (Former Number Ones artist Vanessa Williams took “Colors Of The Wind” to #4. It’s a 6.) Adams performed “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” with a bunch of masked flamenco dancers on the Oscar telecast. In a recent Stereogum interview, Adams described the experience like this: “I don’t know. I was quite nervous. That’s the long and the short of it.” Thanks, Bryan Adams. Very illuminating.

Bryan Adams included “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” on 18 Till I Die, the questionably titled 1996 album that he recorded with Mutt Lange. The album was not a hit. It limped along to platinum sales, moving about a quarter what Adams’ previous LP Waking Up The Neighbours had sold. “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” was already more than a year old when the album came out, and its other singles didn’t do so well. The next-biggest hit from that album was “Let’s Make A Night To Remember,” which peaked at #24.

After “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman,” Bryan Adams scored one more hit with another movie ballad. Later in 1996, Adams and Barbra Streisand got to #8 with the duet “I Finally Found Someone,” the theme from the Streisand-directed romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces. That song brought Streisand back to the top 10 for the first time since 1981. Neither Adams nor Streisand has been back in the top 10 since. (“I Finally Found Someone” is a 3.)

Adams has kept touring and recording since his chart heyday, and he remains a huge concert draw around the world. He’s done more movie themes, but none of them have been world-conquering smashes. Adams eventually reunited with his old co-writer Jim Vallance, and the two of them wrote the songs for the Broadway musical version of Pretty Woman, which opened in 2018. Adams is also a big-deal photographer, and he shot a bunch of female musicians for the 2021 Pirelli calendar.

There’s definitely been some Bryan Adams weirdness in the past few years. In 2016, for instance, Adams got into a strange beef with the website AllMusic, and he pressured the site into removing all mention of him. In 2020, shortly after the pandemic broke out, Adams posted some racist bullshit on Instagram and then apologized. Since then, he caught COVID twice, and he was hospitalized in Italy last year, but he’s apparently OK now. A couple of weeks ago, Adams released an album called So Happy It Hurts.

Mutt Lange hasn’t been back to #1 since “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman,” but he certainly did well for himself in the ’90s. In 1993, Lange agreed to co-write and produce The Woman In Me, the second album from the Canadian country singer Shania Twain. While working on the album, Lange and Shania got married. Lange’s mega-crunch sound turned out to be a perfect fit for ’90s pop-country in general and for Shania Twain in particular. The Woman In Me came out in 1995, and it went platinum 12 times over. 1997’s Come On Over did even better, selling double diamond. (The biggest hit from Come On Over is “You’re Still The One,” which peaked at #2 in 1998. That’s the highest-charting single of Twain’s career. It’s an 8.)

After one more diamond album, 2002’s Up!, Twain and Lange went through a crazy divorce. In 2008, Lange left Twain for her best friend, and Twain ended up marrying that friend’s ex-husband. Lange went on to work with Nickelback and Maroon 5 and Muse, and he also co-produced the new Bryan Adams album. If an artist has enough clout, they can usually bring in Mutt Lange to recapture some of that old ’80s/’90s excess. In 2011, for instance, future Number Ones artist Lady Gaga brought Lange in to co-produce her single “Yoü And I,” which peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.) But Lange is presumably richer than God, and these days, he only works when he feels like it.

A couple of years after “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman,” Michael Kamen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2003, Kamen died of a heart attack. He was 55. Kamen was composing and orchestrating music scores until the end of his life, and his last on-record appearance was on Bryan Adams’ 2004 album Room Service. In retrospect, it’s pretty amazing that a film-score composer ended up co-writing three different #1 hits. I might not like any of those songs, but I respect the hustle. Michael Kamen overachieved.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” soundtracking a fantasy-daydream sequence on a 2003 episode of Scrubs:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Monica’s swaggering, Public Enemy-sampling solitude anthem “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One Of Dem Days)” peaked at #2 behind “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman.” It’s an 8.

THE ASTERISK: The Rembrandts’ Friends theme song “I’ll Be There For You” was, by any measure, one of the biggest songs of 1995. “I’ll Be There For You” topped the Hot 100 airplay chart for eight weeks that summer, starting during the reign of “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman.” At the time, though, “I’ll Be There For You” wasn’t commercially available as a single, so it didn’t chart on the Hot 100. Eventually, the single came out, and it peaked at #17, but that didn’t happen until September. If “I’ll Be There For you” had been able to compete against songs like “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” on the Hot 100, it absolutely would’ve reached #1. It’s a 6.

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