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Janet Jackson: Demanding Control, Demanding Change

John | September 14, 2021

After a series of television stints, Janet Jackson made her move to the recording studio. Unlike her brothers, though, this Jackson’s music wasn’t hitting any of the right notes. Not until, Control.

In Control

Jackson’s 1986 third studio album, appropriately titled Control (released February 4, 1986), marked the reintroduction of Janet Jackson – this time as a mature woman who was entirely on her own and making all the decisions for herself. As Janet sings on the first verse of the title track, “When I was 17, I did what people told me / I did what my father said and let my mother mold me / But that was long ago, I’m in control…,” she is making her own statement, declaring her own independence and moving to her own groove. There was nothing bubblegum pop about her this time around. If anything, she was paving her own lane into the competition with assertiveness, drive and pristine dance steps.

Control wasn’t just a collection of pop and R&B melodies. It was a fusion of sharp, industrial beats, packed with layered vocals that screamed dominance, all laced with a hint of attitude. This particular style of music created by Jam and Lewis would become known as “new jack swing,” and Control brought it to the mainstream. The album also helped Jackson score her very first number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “When I Think Of You.” Its other singles – “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “Control” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” – all peaked within the top five of the Hot 100, while “The Pleasure Principle” became a top 15 hit for the singer. What set these tunes apart from those of her past was that these songs weren’t just masterfully crafted hits, these songs were her stories.

While the title track set the tone for the album’s self-assured girl power, songs like “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty” were all about demanding respect, with the latter coming to fruition after Jackson was catcalled by a group of guys on the street – resulting in one of the most iconic lines in pop music, “No, my first name ain’t ‘baby’ / It’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” The abstinence anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile” came to be after a conversation Jackson had with her friend about whether or not she was ready to have sex with her boyfriend. After Jackson advised her to wait it out, the song was born and millions of younger listeners decided to wait a little while longer before they hit the sheets.

After soaring to the top of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, Control is still in demand to this day. Selling more than 10 million copies worldwide, the album has even been listed by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 200 Definitive Albums of All Time. Through carefully choreographed music videos – thanks to on the rise choreographer Paula Abdul, who would soon become Jackson’s contemporary – and songs that became staples of the Janet Jackson repertoire, Control made this Jackson a household name, and she didn’t need to thank her brothers for it.

Bringing Rhythm to the Nation

After the massive success of Control, A&M Records wanted another album of similar content. Jackson, however, opted otherwise. Her direction this time was less personal and more national. As a means of bringing awareness to the societal issues of drugs, violence, racism and poverty, she turned action into song. Thus, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (released September 19, 1989) turned Janet’s mantra from insisting command to insisting change.

She enlisted Jam and Lewis for assistance (and would do so for every album, except 2008’s Discipline), and like Control, their Flyte Tyme Studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota was the dwelling place for the magic. The album’s lyrical content touched on socially conscious themes, as well as love and romance. To date, it is the only album to have seven commercial singles peak within the top five positions of the Billboard Hot 100, with “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” all reaching the summit. It also became the first album to have a number-one single in three separate calendar years (1989-1991). The album’s concept, as well as Jackson’s militaristic approach to styling and dancing, helped turn Janet Jackson into a role model for younger audiences.

Lyricism and advocacy weren’t the only factors to propel Jackson during this era, as were her performances and visuals. In support of the album, Jackson embarked on her very first concert tour. The 10-month long Rhythm Nation World Tour became the most successful debut concert tour in history. At a time when Madonna laid the decade’s feminine pop template and Paula Abdul’s budding career was a top contender for a stiff rivalry, Jackson distinguished herself from her opponents with clean-cut dancing and must-see music videos. “Escapade” took watchers on a journey to a Mardi Gras-esque extravaganza, while “Love Will Never Do,” directed by legendary photographer Herb Ritts, seemed more like a gleaming Vogue photoshoot brought to life. “Alright” was a 1950’s inspired jazz fest packed with color (and zoot suits), as Jackson and her two backup dancers tear up the streets with leg splitting and head bopping precision, all while being accompanied by guest stars Cyd Charisse, The Nicholas Brothers and Cab Calloway.

A “telemusical,” titled Rhythm Nation 1814, was produced in aid of its parent album. The 30-minute long-form music video consisted of three separate pieces: “Miss You Much,” “The Knowledge” and “Rhythm Nation.” Directed by Dominic Sena, the film chronicles two young boys whose dreams of becoming musicians are lost to drugs. For “Rhythm Nation,” Jackson and her army of backup dancers, all dressed in black military gear, are in synch like soldiers – dancing, stomping and reminding us that we are in unity, “Sharing a common vision / Pushing toward a world rid of color lines.” For “Miss You Much,” the depth of the conversation is much lighter, but Jackson’s movement is just as vigor and intense, with a staggering chair routine to close out the catchy number

Where Control left off, Rhythm Nation picked up on – garnering Jackson even more praise from critics for her defying of abiding by the direction of mainstream pop music. The album earned nine Grammy nominations, making Jackson the first woman to be nominated for Producer of the Year. Jackson was later awarded the MTV Video Vanguard Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her musical contributions. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 went on to becoming the best-selling album of 1990, and remains one of Jackson’s most recognizable works to date. In 2021, the album was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

Be sure to check back in next week for the next part of our series, Janet Jackson: Then, Now & All the In-Between!

Written by John


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