For any girl hitting her formative years in the late 80s and early 90s, Janet’s recordings during this time were a soundtrack for life. She was a different kind of female role model compared to her contemporaries – strong, self-assured and self-efficient. The three albums in this time frame, Control, Rhythm Nation and Janet represent a coming of age – the awakening that occurs when you see a world available to you that you never knew existed, with each album representing a different stage of this awakening.
With Janet’s name being tossed around as a potential judge on American Idol, this is as good a time as any to do a retrospective on these three albums. After the Super Bowl brouhaha and a few albums over the past 10 years that didn’t leave an imprint on the music scene, it’s easy to forget how important Janet Jackson was in the late 80s and early 90s. She not only helped influence and usher new jack swing into the Hot 100, she inspired young women everywhere. Today we’ll start with her breakthrough album, Control.
A story of liberation from family
To give you a little background on Janet, prior to this album, her career was managed by her father Joe Jackson. Joe Jackson’s “management style” for his children is both well-documented and well-speculated upon, containing lovely vignettes like how he demanded Janet stop calling him “dad” when she was seven because he was her manager. Her two albums prior to Control were under his grip, containing music she had zero input on. Ultimately, while still a teenager, Janet made the difficult choice of firing her father. She escaped his world in Hollywood to join Prince proteges Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in Minneapolis to create an album far from the distractions and hauntings of L.A. Six weeks later, the 19 year-old Jackson gave us Control.
If there was ever a more suitably titled album, I cannot think of it. From the start, the vision of the album is clear; it’s a statement of believing in your own power and not letting anyone get in your way. This is a vision that is realized through lyrics and through an infectious sound you simply did not hear on the radio in 1986. The opening track, “Control,” is the story of declaring your independence from family; it’s a statement that everyone must leave home and find their own way. The opening dialogue to the song introduces the theme of the entire album: “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.” She then sings about the importance of calling your own shots and not letting people make decisions on your behalf. She wants to “take you by the hand and lead you in this dance, ‘cause what I’ve got is because I took a chance.”
You’ve got to hand it to Janet – to fire your own father, specifically a figure like Joe Jackson, was probably the hardest and scariest thing she ever had to do. Fans of Janet like myself are grateful she took the chance, because where would she be if she didn’t? I’ll give you a hint – you probably didn’t even know she had two albums prior to Control, did you?
Here’s Janet rocking it out in video:
Ironically, during the making of this video Joe Jackson was said to be a holy terror on set. He reportedly lashed out at several people and physically threatened the producer of the video, Sharon Oreck.
Next up on the album is “Nasty”, a song inspired by men who harassed Janet when she was walking to and from the studio. It’s like “These Boots are Made for Walking” in that it is a rare song about a woman who demands respect and proper treatment – she’s not asking you, she’s telling you. With a fantastic beat backing it, she lets young women know it’s okay to tell someone to BTFO, and you’re not a prude for demanding someone treat you appropriately. If you look at the top 100 songs of 1986, I challenge you to find another song that has this level of assertion.
Plus? It has some killer choreography from Paula Abdul in the video (who also plays one of Janet’s friends):
If you did check that list of top 100 songs, maybe you did find one other song on the list to challenge “Nasty”: The third track on this album, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” This is no “Can’t Help Loving that Man of Mine.” All too often in pop music we have songs that are about women who oh-so-adorably-tee-hee can’t leave their asshole boyfriends because, OMG, they’re just so cute and amazing when they don’t completely suck. The most extreme example of this is the worst song Carole King has ever written, The Crystals, “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).” Janet turns this sentiment on its head and and puts the asshole boyfriend on notice.
This video has another appearance by Paula Abdul, and again features her choreography. When you watch and listen to these videos it really drives home how lazy today’s pop music is as a whole – people have their bland voices auto-tuned onto bland, uninspired music, and their dancing is just…well, it ain’t this.
The final song I’ll cover on the album today is “Let’s Wait a While,” although if you are unfamiliar with this album I also recommend checking out Janet’s video for “The Pleasure Principle” – it is another great song, and I particularly love that this video is simply Janet dancing in a studio. It’s mesmerizing from start to finish.
On “Let’s Wait a While,” Janet makes another important assertion – the song promotes abstinence and waiting for the right time in a relationship. In the three albums we discover, this is the first song in a series of songs Janet covers about sexual intimacy. For the final line of the song, she sings “I promise, I’ll be worth the wait.” You kind of get the sense on Janet that she kinda followed through on that one, because, damn.
But, that’s a story further down the road – next up? We have Janet’s liberation in full bloom and her desire to shine her light on that path for others. We’ve got Rhythm Nation 1814.