Strength in Numbers: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation

Aishah Murray
15 Min Read

Do you remember where you were on the day when a music video premiere, on your music channel of choice, meant the world stopped? When you planned your schedule around it? When you were forced to be glued to the television set until it repeated during the day? When most of the songs on album actually made it to the music video stage? When each new video had the potential to change the look of what videos would become in the late ’80s/early ’90s?

When asked to write an editorial on a huge milestone of one of music’s most influential albums, I was not only honored but beyond confident that I could provide a unique perspective to readers and fellow fans all over.

I remember exactly where I was when it all began: sitting in front of my television, like any other time I knew she was going to be on it.  Studying each choreographed move, studying elements of each and every video, mimicking everything, tracing her face from the latest magazine in school (lord knows I couldn’t draw it otherwise) – all of which still continues to this day (minus the tracing).

September 19, 1989.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 30 years since the release of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (my first copy was a cassette tape). Amazingly enough, even thinking about the fact that amount of time has passed is incredible, especially considering the fact that this album still continues to influence trends in artists from all genres.

1989 saw the rise of Hip Hop as a major industry force, along with rock being the major sounds in music. Pop itself was beginning to transition, incorporating new sounds as we approached the early ’90s. Janet Jackson changed to a new direction from her previous 3 albums (Janet Jackson, 1982; Dream Street, 1984; Control, 1986) and decided to focus on everyday issues with her creed of Music, Poetry, Dance, Unity carrying throughout 1989’s Rhythm Nation. Janet had always been known to follow her gut in her music; after solidifying her independence with Control, she sought out to make an album that was guaranteed to make headlines and create buzz.  Not within the music industry, but a buzz within her listeners. She decided to take her art and affect change in others. Needless to say, that is an understatement for what this project became.

The dynamic trio of Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis co-produced the entire album.  Together, the trio of Jackson, Jam and Lewis co-wrote 6 songs on the album, while Jimmy and Terry penned the remaining 5 tracks.  The one exception was “Black Cat”  which was written completely by Janet and produced by Jellybean Johnson.

With the trademark key in her ear, dressed in black from head to toe (which we learned later actually stemmed from a period in her life that she was dealing with body image) Janet sparked an empowerment in women, as well as a reflective look into the world.  She addressed issues going on that hadn’t been previously brought to the forefront of pop music such as poverty, abuse, illiteracy, drugs and racism.

The title itself held a huge meaning, specifically the 1814.  During the writing process she joked “God I feel like this could be the national anthem for the ’90s.” Francis Scott Key wrote “The National Anthem” on September 14, 1814. How’s that for innovation and coincidence?!  Rhythm Nation would be released the same week in 1989.  The 1814 also connected to R being the 18th letter in the alphabet and N being the 14th. Another little known fact is in earlier interviews Janet makes reference to the 14th Ammendment which gave women the right to vote.

Janet starts Rhythm Nation with a firm stance in the first interlude, “Pledge,” where she sets the tone for the rest of the album in an effort to inspire unity throughout the world no matter one’s background. She asserts: “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries. Bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals. Sharing a common vision. Pushing toward a world rid of color-lines.”  The interlude transitions into the album’s title track “Rhythm Nation.” In this song she reiterates the message of unity and togetherness.

However, it’s the music video and short film (directed by Dominic Sena and choreographed by Anthony Thomas) that truly bring this track to life! The entire short film tells the story of a couple of kids trying to hustle as shoe shine boys and street runners to survive, while trying to hold onto their huge dreams for their future. One gets caught up and happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other makes it out and, while taking refuge, receives some of the messages from Janet, her music, dancing, and the community of dancers behind her. Everything is in black and white; everyone in a sense is the same. The album’s other songs “The Knowledge,” and the album’s lead single “Miss You Much” (how many of you tried the breakdown with the chair?! I know I did!) were also a part of this short film.

Two songs that mirror each other on this album are “State of the World” and “Living In a World.”  In “State of the World,” Janet is reporting to the world (just in case you hadn’t been paying attention to what is going on) painting a vocal picture of what she is seeing as she flips through the channels (highlighted on the previous interlude, “T.V.”). In her verses, she breaks down the stories of two young people who are thrown into situations they can’t control, and forced to grow up before their time in order to handle what’s happening in their lives. You almost forget they are children.

However, Janet doesn’t let you as she urges you not to forget about our children on “Living In A World.”  In the song, Janet chose to address one of the biggest headlines of the time: a gunman had walked into a school and opened fire on children, a horrible event that is all too common now in 2014. Even today, the sound of that last gunshot and the screams of the children still leaves me painfully still and silent. The first time I heard that song I remember tearing up, wishing I could help through my stereo.”Get the point?  Good.  Let’s dance!” asserts Janet on one interlude.  Yes, in addition to the social awareness on this album, Janet makes sure we knew it was okay to have a good time and groove on tracks like the interlude “Hey Baby,” where we hear her trademark laugh that we’ve fallen in love with and can recognize anywhere (Janet fans know what I mean), “Escapade,” and my all time favorite song and video, “Alright.”

If anyone knows me, they know I have an old soul. “Alright,” directed by Julien Temple, paid homage in a major way to some serious legends: Cyd Charisse, The Nicholas Brothers, and the Hi De Ho Man himself Cab Calloway (who passed not too long after appearing in the video). The video was again choreographed by Anthony Thomas, with some staging by Hollywood choreographer Michael Kidd. The remix of the song even featured the late Heavy D. No matter how many times Janet performs that song, or how many zoot suit colors she chooses, or choreography changes she makes, “Alright” remains a timeless classic!

Janet even gave us a peek into what we would soon see full blown in the next album: her truly blossoming into womanhood in the video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” (starring Antonio Sabàto Jr and Djimon Hounsou). The video was directed by the late Herb Ritts, and choreographed by Ritts, Janet, and Tina Landon.

“Love Will Never Do” really set the stage for our beloved Janet to carry that sex symbol title later on. In the tracks “Lonely” and “Come Back To Me” we see Janet’s vulnerable side as she slows it down and gives a glimpse into relationship trials and tribulations, while offering her signature soft melodic sound on those ballads. The video for “Come Back To Me” was beautiful as well, directed by Dominic Sena in Paris. We all wished we were a fly on the wall in the hotel room next door when that video came out! That trademark smile of hers in the last shot as she walks away… you already know!

Now what’s a Janet album without sass?! As she reminds us, “Ain’t no acid in this house!” in the preceding interlude, she breaks it down and brings it to the stage on “Black Cat,” reminding the guy who is the subject of the song that he truly needed to check himself before he was messed up.  Directed by Wayne Isham, in the video we get a chance to see Janet in tour mode, tearing up stages across the United States. I used to pretend that I was one of the little girls in the aisle! Oh, and that scene that flips back between Janet’s face and the Panther? One word: legendary!

Janet also stirred up a bit of controversy with the song “Someday is Tonight” being that previously, she said she wanted to “wait a while” in a direct reference to the hit from Control.  For the first time we got to hear her soft, flirtatious tone and the moaning, yes the moaning, with no subtlety like on Control’s “Funny How Time Flies.”  With “Someday,” she made even the most conservative of people clutch their pearls. That song was guided through an angelic melody, and led into the last interlude on the album: “Livin’….In Complete Darkness.”

“In complete darkness we are all the same.  It is our knowledge and wisdom that separates us; don’t let your eyes deceive you.”

I’m proud to say that quote made it into my yearbook, and one that has been near and dear to me all of these years!  The quote, of course, addresses racism and idealistically hopes for unity and togetherness.  Here, Janet implies that it is only our judgmental eyes that deceive people and cause many of the problems in today’s world.

Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation hit #1 on the Pop and R&B charts, and is the only album to have #1 hits in 3 consecutive chart years and achieved seven Top 5 hits: “Miss You Much” and “Rhythm Nation” in 1989, “Escapade,” “Come Back to Me,” “Alright,” and “Black Cat” in 1990, and “Love Will Never Do Without You” in 1991. “State of the World hit #2 on the airplay charts with no video to promote it.

Jackson is the only artist to receive Grammy nominations in 5 different genre categories, and the first woman to be nominated for Producer of the Year. In 1990 she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well. Janet cleaned house at the award shows for Rhythm Nation: the Recording Academy’s Governors Award, a Grammy, 5 American Music Awards, 7 BMI Pop Awards, 3 BMI UK Awards, 4 MTV Video Music Awards, an NAACP Image award, The Video Vanguard Award in 1990, and many other awards and accolades.

Rhythm Nation is certified 6x platinum by the RIAA and has sold over 14 million copies worldwide. The tour also became the world’s most successful debut concert tour by a recording artist.  After years of chasing one down, I finally got my very own Rhythm Nation Tour jacket earlier this year, so you know the love is definitely real for me.


We continue to see the influence of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation in other artists, from choreography to concepts, videos, and wardrobe. Countless artists who have admired and collaborated with Janet have sang their praises on its 25th anniversary, including Jimmy Jam who did an interview with Billboard to celebrate the project.

I tip my hat to Janet as fans like myself celebrate this amazing album across the world! After all, “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color lines.” Still. Here’s to Miss Jackson; to history imprinted in time; to Rhythm Nation!

Listen to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

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