Diana Ross: Why Do Fools Fall In Love / Mirror, Mirror
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Diana Ross is the perfect example of an artist to whom (not for whom, to whom) great records seemed to happen, with little-to-no involvement from the artist whose name adorned their covers. The brilliance of the diana. album? That’s thanks to the Chic Organization. “The Boss”? Ashford & Simpson. “Endless Love” and “Missing You”? Step up, Lionel Richie. Even the sublimely weird-for-her “Swept Away” wasn’t her vision—it was co-written by Daryl Hall and co-produced by Hall and Arthur Baker. And of course, as a Supreme, Miss Ross was but a cog in Berry Gordy’s machine.
There was, however, a moment when Diana took the reins of her own records, and that moment was 1981, when she produced the bulk of her RCA debut, Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Both of the album’s top 10 singles, its title track and “Mirror, Mirror” bear the credit “Produced by Diana Ross for Diana Ross Productions.”
“Mirror, Mirror” is great. Co-written by Michael Sembello (yes, Mr. “Maniac”), it’s a surprisingly rocked-up track by Ross’s standards; arguably, its most prominent instrument is electric guitar, which adds flourishes and accents to most everything Ross sings. (Not quite Steve Vai on “Yankee Rose,” but you get the point.) Lyrically, it’s also different from what audiences were used to from Ross at the time (hell, or ever), fairly dark (“Tell me mirror, mirror, mirror on the wall / I thought you said you had the answer to it all / You never told me I was gonna take a fall”), if not exactly wicked-stepmother territory. The horny horns are arranged by trumpeter Randy Brecker, so they’re predictably—and deliciously—brassy and sassy, all hard punctuation. If this is the sum of Diana’s production prowess, more please!
Hold on. “Mirror, Mirror” is a study in contrasts with her cover of Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fool Fall in Love,” a pleasantly tepid track that reeks of all that was 1981, pop-wise. The track is ‘50s-via-‘80s, straight up. It’s inoffensive, but really doesn’t have much to recommend it. As opposed to “Mirror,” which sounds risky (put in its place and time, not to mention singer’s mouth), “Fools” is all too bland, clearly created for mass appeal and consumption (#2 AC/#6 R&B/#7 pop/#4 UK pretty much sums it up).
Taken together, this pair of singles (“Fool” launched its parent album, with “Mirror” the follow-up) says that Diana Ross the producer isn’t all that much different from many of her other producers: she wanted cred, but wanted hits more. Fortunately for her, in 1981—coming off the nine weeks “Endless Love” spent atop the Billboard Hot 100—she pretty much couldn’t miss commercially, and accordingly didn’t. So you swallow “Fools” knowing that “Mirror” comes after it, and wonder about what else Ross might’ve done behind the boards, given the chance.