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.

No comments

Post a Comment

© Aural Fixation