Monday, July 12, 2021

Retrospective: Rhythm Nation 1814 • Janet Jackson

“You don’t get me in here acting silly now. You’re not taping this, are you? Edit!”

Raised in a white Midwestern home during the Iraq War, I was not raised in a household of transparent politics or diverse music. In fact, my household preferred its music like its political commentary: Inoffensive, background noise at the loudest, and sometimes vaguely patriotic without solid rationale. My parents seemed to know every Alan Jackson and Nickelback song on adult contemporary radio, but they were never ones to spin an album after Sunday morning breakfast. When they listened to seemingly familiar music in the car or at a local cover band concert, I sensed that the lyrics were a means to a melody, not a message, for them. Now, in hindsight, it makes sense: They preferred soft rock and country, two genres that could easily sweep attention without requiring much thought. (The inexplicable exception was Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” which they loved to bump from the car radio. They even mouthed the lyrics to that one. Yeah, yikes.) So it should come as no surprise that my parents frequently reminded me, under no uncertain terms, that they were not fans of the Jackson children.

Without a beat-up copy of Off the Wall or Thriller to nab from my parents, I learned about the Jackson family only via the alleged indiscretions of its headlining child: Michael, whose trial and subsequent acquittal for a second child molestation allegation was well documented on cable news in 2005, when I was still in elementary school. His reputation – his regressed behaviors, overzealous cosmetic surgeries, and unsavory controversies – had overtaken his status as the King of Pop by the time I was old enough to begin educating myself in pop culture outside the Nickelodeon empire. The other wildly successful Jackson, meanwhile, had been ripped to shreds and placed on a career-crippling industry blacklist after an incident – or rather, the incident – at a nationally televised performance the year prior. (“You’re not taping this, are you? Edit!” If only we could.) As someone who lacked interest in the evening news for most of his childhood and a connection to high-speed internet until 2011 – yes, 2011 – I couldn’t recognize Janet Jackson as a celebrity until her brother’s death. But soon after that, I realized why the Jacksons didn’t make my parents’ kind of music.

• • •

“We are in a race between education and catastrophe.”

In any given cultural thesis on Janet Jackson, the narrative has many opportunities to victimize its subject. (This one, too, is guilty as charged.) The youngest of the Jackson dynasty, Janet maintained a contentious relationship with her father and ex-manager, Joe, from whom she detached her career to produce the centerpiece album of the 1980s, Control. Her relationship with older brother Michael was much closer: The two ruled in harmony, but Janet would lose Michael in a 2009 accidental overdose after decades of personal struggles. And of course, a half-second of her exposed breast on a live broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVIII would overshadow the year’s biggest football game and conjure a misogynistic tsunami, all but decimating her astonishing career from the history books. As dozens of think-pieces have reiterated, the punishment was too intense for a minimally offensive moment that passed so quickly that it could have been missed with one blink – especially when cross-referenced with her brother’s ricochet after much more significant accusations.

In part due to the lasting effects of the Super Bowl overreaction, the victimization of Janet Jackson may be easier than the celebration. That is, until we revisit her essential recordings: Control, Janet., and in between the two, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 – a 20-track, hour-long musical manifesto that became the best-selling album of 1990 and still holds the record for the most top five American singles to be spawned from a single album. It bounced off the back of Control, which carved a space for Minneapolis funk in popular music and defined Miss Jackson (if ya nasty!) as a recording artist. While Control was framed up as Jackson’s emancipation, Rhythm Nation processes the realities of the world as she explores it, unguarded from the elusive Jackson umbrella for the first time. Despite its unmatched accomplishments, I was not introduced to it through social osmosis like I was, say, Thriller or The Dark Side of the Moon. And that’s an unacceptable miseducation for music fans who came to age after Jackson’s spree of blockbuster records throughout the 1980s and ‘90s – because while Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are a trio that cannot be replicated, their influence can be heard in music for decades after release.

Once members of the Prince-curated outfit The Time, production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis pioneered Minneapolis funk – a new wave take on funk music that embraces synthesizers and tight electronic drums. Of course it could be argued that Jam and Lewis could have shot the sound into the mainstream by way of any adequate voice in the studio, but that theory would discount the symbiotic relationship between the duo and Jackson, who produced impressively evolutionary work with each collaborative effort. Jackson boasted the name and experiences needed to stick a red pin in Minneapolis, while Jam and Lewis distilled her thoughts into actualized musical concepts. When the city adopted Janet Jackson, they received a technically proficient, emotionally intelligent vocalist who, like her brother, could wrap its sound into a full-package spectacle. In the process, she emphasized popular music as a dazzling comprehensive entertainment experience of fashion, fun, and choreography – a philosophy upon which TLC, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and so many others would build their own careers.

• • •

“We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world without color lines.”

For as much as love and longing could be considered timeless concepts, so could inequality and struggle. They’re rewritten and relived every day, so the intense realism with which Rhythm Nation 1814 struck during its release still feels palpable in 2021, the era of hashtag activism: #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #LoveIsLove, and hell, even #FreeBritney could all pull touchpoints from it. These conversations of equality, uprising, and autonomy are ones that Rhythm Nation, a determined and perpetually pertinent record, underscores through a contemporary lens. Its first three numbers are stitched into its unmistakable mission statement, not at all willing to compromise for comfort: We must become one with education and morality to defuse the world’s conflict. The title track throws down a militaristic funk, while “State of the World” embeds drug-peddling, gang crimes, and poverty into a sticky chorus. Even “Black Cat,” a badass rock ‘n’ roll number, listens like a warning: After burning through nine lives without correcting his mistakes, the risky cat will meet his maker.

The album reacts to the 24-hour cable news cycle, which only magnifies systemic failures. It does not, however, feel as if it comes from a place of moral superiority. After all, we must remember that Janet Jackson was often framed as a shy, regressed prisoner of her own upbringing – a narrative that she has endorsed in roundabout ways. In a 1990 profile in Rolling Stone billed under “Janet Jackson: Free at Last,” she said, “We missed out on our childhood, getting to know what really goes on out there. It’s good because we didn’t get involved doing drugs and things like that. At the same time, it’s bad because once you step out there for the first time, it stuns you. I saw a lot of things I’d never seen before.” In turn, the childlike perspective in “Livin’ In a World (They Didn’t Make),” with its children’s chorus backing track and lament of crooked grown-ups, fits better than expected within a forward-thinking rhythm and blues record. News coverage of a Stockton, CA, playground shooting rolls atop the track’s closing moments, a foreshadow of similar tragedies to follow and a sobering reminder that Rhythm Nation 1814 could be framed as a protest record. 

With this release, Jackson proved that protest music doesn’t have to sound like it. Protest music doesn’t even have to protest: It can advocate for the overall betterment of humankind, closing gaps between us through the uniting power of universally infectious music. Jackson does not seek to solve catastrophe through her dance music, but rather start conversations in audiences across socioeconomic backgrounds without taking a morally superior slant. “I know a song can’t change the world, but if our music could inspire some of the people and make them want to join hands and begin to deal with a lot of social problems we have, then hopefully we can make some sort of progress,” she told an audience at a press conference for the record in 1989. She met youth where they were, from their vantage point, and pushed her vital messages to the record’s forefront. (Of course, the message goes down a lot smoother when it’s embroidered into succinct synthesizer jolts and revolutionized swing beats.) And for that, the album’s legacy has been immortalized in the Library of Congress, where Rhythm Nation 1814 was added to the National Recording Registry last year alongside a 1878 tin foil recording by Thomas Edison and a Christmas Eve 1941 address from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

• • •

“Get the point? Good. Let’s dance.”

In an interview to honor the 35th anniversary of Control, producer Jimmy Jam said, “I think she wanted to use music in a way to really unite people and to inform people, but never lost sight of that music should also be a place to have fun and to fall in love and all of those things.” Nowhere is that more evident than Rhythm Nation, where the music pivots its passion from the whole to the individual within seconds. “The Knowledge,” a pledge against ignorance, is separated from “Miss You Much,” the lead single that makes any listener want to imitate its sharp choreography, by only three seconds and the proclamation, “Get the point? Good. Let’s dance.” By that point, the album is roughly 15 minutes through its runtime. Front-loaded with the most unmistakable messages of her career, the album eventually relaxes into a set of just plain ol’ good Janet Jackson songs. There are hooks packed away into every corner of “Escapade,” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” is an enchanting reminder of love’s ability to endure. Then, before listeners realize they’ve been sucked into the album for nearly an hour, back-to-back ballads “Come Back to Me” and “Someday is Tonight” release like a parachute, allowing an otherwise frenetic album to float toward its closing in big, fuzzy synths.

The most decorated records are dynamic. Their creators should know where to complement the hard lines with the soft, sequencing a secular sermon into entertainment. They must also bear a vision: An evergreen mission statement that can be superimposed over its listeners’ own experiences. And of course, they must balance familiar sounds with a push forward in songwriting, not to be mistaken for any other products of their time yet not complacent among them, either. When an album can accomplish all those things, it earns the right to be named something as flashy as Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. It isn’t for the musically indifferent; No, in fact, we leave them behind to listen to their favorite Shaggy song. For those ready for its energy, Rhythm Nation 1814 is a powerhouse record that holds its own 30 years later, confronting 20th (and by extension, 21st) century societal deficiencies with as much force now as it did then. Chances that the world’s inequities will be solved in our lifetime are slim at best, but a timeless record like this surely will continue to push the needle forward in some capacity with each generation to discover it.

Rhythm Nation 1814 was released Sept. 19, 1989, under A&M Records.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Retrospective: The Best Damn Thing • Avril Lavigne

Benefitting from the guitar-wielding alternative rock women who ruled the 1990s, Candian singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne was the indisputable headliner of the alternateens – perhaps because she was a teen when Let Go, her debut record, was released in 2002. Despite a lukewarm critical response – Rolling Stone, for example, referred to her as “Ontario’s tiny terror” in its review – the record resonated with kids and teens and contains Avril’s career bests. Its front half is packed with timeless pop-rock staples: Hell, Twitter rediscovers that “I’m With You” is the best song created every three weeks and floods my timeline with the same video snippet each time. Before the album campaign could close out, though, she had already sneered at her own accomplishments. In a 2003 Rolling Stone article, this one profiling her as “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” Lavigne said, “The songs I did with the Matrix, yeah, they were good for my first record, but I don’t want to be that pop anymore.”

Avril Lavigne didn’t want to be a pop artist, but more importantly, she definitely didn’t want to be punk. Arguing against a “punk” label in a studded bracelet and black “Queen of the Universe” shirt, she said in an early (and forever iconic) interview, “I think that I’m just a rock chick, and I like to rock out. I like to throw shit around. I like to go nuts. I like to lose myself on stage.” A few years later, she returned to the public eye after two completed album cycles in a nearly unrecognizable reinvention involving bleached hair, flashy tank tops, and heavy black eyeliner. She described herself in a different fashion by then: “I was just touring for two years straight, and I really felt like, you know what, my next album needs to be fast. Because if I’m going to spend the majority of my life out on the road playing these songs every night, I want to have fun. This is the kind of music I like. I’m the kind of girl who likes to have fun. I like to dance,” she told ET Canada. The Queen of the Universe had pivoted on her anti-pop punk platform and gunned straight toward the genre.

So the story begins of Avril Lavigne’s most and least popular album: The Best Damn Thing, a blockbuster record that topped the charts at the price of a public image schism. While she told The Guardian in 2019 that the record was not a product of industry force and insinuated she’s still happy with the work from its booze-soaked sessions, it’s easy to see where someone might insinuate interference from her fresh contract with RCA Records: A young, established recording artist is handed to a new label and gets a coincidental image overhaul as she crests into her early 20s. Surely that could be suspect. Media coverage, meanwhile, had profiled her as a much more stubborn and focused musician than she was, despite her quotes within each article that reflected a constant state of artistic flux. (I mean, c'mon... one year before Let Go was released, she was covering country-pop staples in a bookstore. I feel like we were all tend to forget that a "rock chick," she originally was not.) We as her audience were primed unfairly to believe Avril Lavigne would never "sell out" – so how could The Best Damn Thing happen?

•  •  •

The answer is quite simple, of course: Enter aspiring actress Melissa Vandella, a young woman with almost – and I cannot stress this enough, almost – identical features to Avril Lavigne. According to internet folklore, Melissa was the stunt double chosen to replace Lavigne after she committed suicide in 2003. (And no, her passing didn’t make any headlines. She was a very private person. You’re a fake fan for even asking that!) Lavigne left behind recordings of a darker rock album for the record label to release, so Melissa would promote 2004’s Under My Skin under Lavigne’s name. She toured with a higher soprano voice, appeared in photoshoots with slightly different freckle patterns, and signed autographs in a sharper penmanship. (Nice try! The real fans noticed.) The experiment was so profitable that the new Avril would continue, and when Melissa was finally responsible for recording her own material, she required an Avril overhaul: The perfect explanation for the resulting album, The Best Damn Thing.

Now, of course the Avril Lavigne replacement theory is asinine online fodder, allegedly originating from Brazilian fan sites. But it also underscores the cultural whiplash she delivered with The Best Damn Thing – and for good reason. Until the record, she had been wedged into pop culture as the “real” musician opposite a class of sexual pop singers. She was hailed as the moral high ground with a guitar yet profiled as a teenage miscreant eating cereal off a skateboard on a hotel room floor. It was time for an Avril Lavigne song like “Hot,” a phenomenal pop song that contained guitars and lyrics about being, well, hot and bothered. Contrary to the popular narrative that told girls they could be only a Britney, a Christina, or an Avril, she proved that all could be accomplished at once. Avril Lavigne as a sexual being was not a surprising development, but Avril Lavigne embodying a punk brat was what launched a year-long takeover of award shows, music charts, and popular fashion.

Lavigne’s hot pink makeover roughly coincides with pop music’s rejuvenation of pop punk – the perfect climate for a rock-informed pop artist to rebuild a viable stage within the mainstream. The artist who rebuked (or at the very least, didn't feel welcome in) punk became the face of it: Married to and collaborating with Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley, Avril merged into her now ex-husband’s territory the same wild year that Paramore smashed through with Riot!, Fall Out Boy swerved into Infinity on High, and Metro Station dropped their debut (and only) scene pop record. All hail those scene kids: Oversized cargo pockets and trench coats were out, giving way to punchy neon highlights and circulation-inhibiting skinny jeans. As the movement's established headliner, Lavigne split the difference between authentic punk and pop appeal: While Blink 182’s Travis Barker was called in for drum work and Whibley was involved to a degree, pop-rock producers Butch Walker and the now-dishonorable Dr. Luke carried the bulk of The Best Damn Thing. The result was a well-executed, sorely underappreciated pop-punk milestone worthy of vindication.

•  •  •

Although framed as an awkward elbow jutting from her discography, the album skewed the trajectory for the rest of Lavigne’s career. The album to follow it, Goodbye Lullaby, was delayed well into 2009, allegedly until she could supplement the original record with songs that could compete with its predecessor’s energy and radio airplay preferences. In fact, each of her albums since The Best Damn Thing has contained a jump-scare to recapture the energy of “Girlfriend,” the global smash of a lead single that would redefine her artistry. With a drumline fit for a high school marching band and catty lyrics that began as a joke while intoxicated, “Girlfriend” ushered in a permanently perkier, more superficial variant of Avril Lavigne that contrasted her teenage persona. Whatever the means or reason, the abrupt evolution worked: According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, The Best Damn Thing was the fourth best-selling album around the globe in 2007. 

In a documentary covering the record’s production, the studio is run like a frat house. There seems to be a mutual understanding between all parties involved that the record was to be playful, if not a big inside joke: Shots and skateboard breaks almost become as important as the project at hand, leading to an obsession over referencing limoncello in “I Can Do Better” (Spoiler alert: She gets her wish!) and a burping fit before the recording of the title track’s cheerleader chant. The resulting product, frankly, is much ado about nothing: "Some of the songs I wrote didn't even mean that much to me. It's not like some personal thing I'm going through. They're just songs,” Lavigne told MTV before the album’s release. And if a listener recognizes and agrees to the album's mission statement, it's an irresistible fireball of fun from front to back. The most disruptive tracks,  “I Don’t Have to Try” and “Everything Back But You,” very well could be parodies of hard rock, while something like “Contagious” features a sarcastic vocal lick without losing melodic consciousness. 

Through a retrospective lens, Avril Lavigne’s career has proven to be malleable under the crunch of label compromises. No matter how great, her debut reflects the pendulum swing from acoustic adult contemporary to gentrified nu-metal that occurred throughout its curation; the sessions for her second album were crunched into six months, just for its second single to overshadow Arista Records’ pick for a lead single; and label-pleasing concessions can be identified easily within most of her later albums. In comparison, The Best Damn Thing is a justifiable effort that doesn't suffer from the same issues: Albeit brash and goofy, it’s her most coherent vision. Even the ballads – the emotional linchpins of any Avril Lavigne album – interlock into the otherwise chaotic vision as memorable anchor points. Sure, it may be the flat-ironed, pink-highlighted, chrome-studded monument toward which she would backslide for future material, no matter if the age-inappropriate outcomes were not in her best interest. But it also may be the most compelling, consistently enjoyable release of her career.

The Best Damn Thing was released on April 17, 2007 under RCA Records.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Review: Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land • Marina

“I know exactly what I want and who I want to be. I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine. I'm now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy,” Marina Diamandis declared on her debut record, The Family Jewels, over 10 years ago. The record kept American celebrity culture at an arm’s length, both admiring and criticizing Hollywood’s outrageousness. Just two years later, she became an immersion journalist in the very subject with Electra Heart, a concept record made for and by the American pop music machine – and if convincing emulation was the goal, the record was a success. But since she split her career into two polarized halves in its infancy, Marina Diamandis has become the perpetual pop music pendulum: Each record to follow has teetered between ironic criticism of superficial culture and sanctimonious social experimentation within it. How exactly was someone like Marina to correct her own pinballed trajectory?

Well, something like Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land might do the trick. Marina’s fifth studio record, it refocuses the songwriter as a social commentator via snappy pop songs: Its title track whips out a breakneck drumbeat with which Diamandis must keep pace as she rattles through her lyrics. That’s a common theme in the record’s front half, where the album is most ear-catching: Though it suffers from a nonevent chorus, “Purge the Poison” barrels along with a similar intensity as she recounts society’s failings without much analysis. As the album turns the corner around the booming “New America,” however, it hits an emotional wall from which it never recovers. The album stumbles into its latter piano ballads, all of which are fine listens at best while suffering from a strange disconnect from their counterparts’ shiny activism. It’s a lopsided attempt to remedy Diamandis’ identity crisis – but a much more admirable one than the last.

Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is available now under Atlantic Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall