February 4, 1986
Janet Jackson has never required an introduction, whether it’s today or 1986, she has been a household name by default. She is one of nine siblings in pop’s most successful musical family, the Jacksons, and grew up in the spotlight. Her entertainment career began in 1976 on The Jacksons’ Variety Show, followed by a role on the sitcom Good Times in 1977. She did not begin her music career until 1982, however, with the release of her self-titled debut album. In 1984, she followed it up with her sophomore set Dreamstreet. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to match the success of her brothers with the nondescript, bubblegum pop sound of her first two albums. So, what was Janet’s sound?
If you listen to those first two albums, you’ll hear a lot – a lot of extra, 80’s production, a lot of bubblegum pop and a lot of generic lyrics – but not a whole lot of Janet herself. Perhaps this could simply be attributed to her age – she was between 15-17 when recording her first two albums – but more so, it was because of her father’s stifling control. So, her sound was as-yet-undefined… until 1985; when she finally had enough. She fired her father as her manager and his replacement, John McClain, introduced Janet to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The sessions for what would become Control began in Minneapolis in 1985, when she decided it was time for her to take control of her career, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis helped orchestrate this move – literally and figuratively.
Jam and Lewis encouraged Janet to experiment with a new sound, musically, as well as new, more personal topics lyrically. The story goes that while Janet stayed in Minneapolis recording the album, she was inspired by certain life experiences, which yielded several of the album’s tracks. The lead single was the sassy “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”; but in retrospect, the title track is the essential first step to any discussion of the album. Since Control, we have seen many pop stars who have undoubtedly been inspired by Janet, touting themselves as feminists. However, Janet was one of the first female pop stars to make songs that flat-out emasculated her suitors; asserting herself as a woman in charge, in control.
In what would later become a trend on her albums, Control begins with its mood-setting, theme-defining introduction: “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say, control of what I do. And this time, I’m gonna do it my way. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. Are we ready? I am. ‘Cause it’s all about control, and I’ve got lots of it.” From there, the set launches into its title track, an unabashedly brazen pronouncement – no, assertion – of Janet’s new found “Control.” While there is a certain, inherent sweet quality to Janet’s voice, there is still a fire behind it. That fire was ignited by the work of her newfound production team, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Their hard-hitting sound perfectly juxtaposed Janet’s vocals, while at the same time perfectly complimenting her ferocious, defiant lyrics. It asserts her independence, maturity, and the theme of the album.
“Control” – the song, and album – was a proclamation, a declaration of independence by a then-20 year old Janet Jackson. She separated herself from her family, from her musical peers, from the constraints of her youth. She became a household name in her own right, independent of her famous brothers. She revolutionized the sound of female crossover R&B and how female pop music videos looked. She brought dance to the forefront, and gave women a more defiant voice in music. Without Ms. Jackson, who would’ve gotten the “Nasty” boys together?