Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from the official Janet Jackson website

Miss You Much
by Matt Palmer, NYU '09
(June 2008)

"The thing that excites me...[is becoming] a better artist, deeper, truer to the things I find exciting," Janet Jackson told David Ritz in September 1993's Rolling Stone. "I hope to be an honest artist--no more no less." Being honest for Janet Jackson means trusting her natural instincts. Within six months time, Ms. Jackson and her musical soulmates, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, can crank out a classic album. Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, janet., and The Velvet Rope are Jackson's most thematically cohesive and musically impressive works--echoes of which can still be found in the new generation of superstars. Listening to Rihanna's singles "SOS" and "Umbrella" or Beyoncé's B'Day album, you'll hear the pop starlets' melodic purrs contrasting against heavy, urban backdrops a la Control. Performance-wise, watching Ciara, Britney Spears, or even her Superbowl buddy Justin Timberlake pop-and-lock it on MTV, you'll see Jackson's trademark street dance moves executed with precision (perfectly in sync with a bevy of background dancers, no less). Many are ready to dismiss her as a sex-obsessed, run-of-the-mill pop singer and more are ready to label her a poster child for indecency, but when Janet Jackson is on top of her game, she is a trendsetter, an icon, and an artist in the truest sense of the word.

Before Janet Jackson released her 1986 breakthrough album, Control, she already had a viable career. She appeared with her brothers in a Vegas show and a summer TV special at the age of 7. She was cast as Penny on Good Times at the age of 10, did Fame at 16 and released two albums: Janet Jackson and Dream Street. Both albums are inoffensive synth-pop. Filled with cutesy tunes with bubbly lyrics that almost anyone could've sung, the only thing that made them special was that they were sung by Michael's little sister. Janet had not yet found her voice. Not until she cut the manager out of Joe Jackson's father-manager title and hooked up with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis did her music become her own. Jam and Lewis were former members of the Prince spinoff band, The Time, and producers of R&B hits like Cherelle's "Didn't Mean To Turn You On" and The Force M.D.'s' "Tender Love." They gave Janet the edge she wanted, the funk she needed, and the real life experience she lacked. Growing up the youngest sibling in the richer-than-God Jackson family had its perks, but being in touch with reality was certainly not one of them. "We felt it was important to get her out of the protective fairy-tale life she had been leading," Jam explains. So the producers cursed like sailors, lent her a car to learn to drive her-damn-self around, and let her walk alone on the mean streets of Minneapolis. The latter led to some catcalls and whistles one evening, and Ms. Jackson confronted the offenders and made them back down. Oh you nasty boys.

On top of her newfound self-reliance, Janet Jackson had recently annulled her marriage to James DeBarge, so she had a lot to talk about. Jam and Lewis had already written many of the backing tracks on Control for Sharon Bryant of Atlantic Starr, but Bryant passed on them, feeling they were too funky for her debut. Control took six weeks to record and for the first time gave Jackson a hand in the lyrics, melodies, vocal arrangements, and even synth lines. It's no surprise she was so involved, because personality oozes from this record. Instead of playing the ingénue you'd expect from her thin, cooing vocal, she spends most of the album cleverly rejecting no-good boys unworthy of her affection. While the songs are danceable, they are far from vapid. On the brilliant "Nasty," you learn the steps to take if you want a chance with Janet Jackson. "I'm not a prude/I just want some respect," she explains. "So close the door if you want me to respond/Cuz privacy is my middle name/My last name is control/No my first name ain't baby/It's Janet...Ms. Jackson if ya nasty." The more talk-rapped than sung concoction is built around the violently aggressive beat and irresistibly cutting synth line. From her initial "GIMME A BEAT!" you know you're listening to a very different Jackson. Longer on Prince's grime than Michael's shine, this song, along with the title track, set a rebellious tone that relies more on undeniable grooves than undeniable melodies. Control sold five million copies, cranked out five top five singles, and spawned an army of imitators. Jackson was a small voice with a huge personality, the antithesis to Whitney Houston, pop's then-reigning queen. She offered a new urban pop hybrid that B-boys and valley girls alike could enjoy.

When Janet Jackson returned to the studio with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in September of 1988, they all knew they didn't want to make Control Part Two, but they didn't really know what the concept of the album would be. After recording the backgrounds on some songs, Jackson returned to Minneapolis in January 1989 and worked intensely on Rhythm Nation 1814 for four months. When they were in the studio, the three of them would watch CNN a lot and see endlessly depressing news stories about the nation's ills that would inspire the theme and four tracks on Rhythm Nation 1814. On paper this may sound like the most cornball idea that anyone could have, but she's a Jackson--corn is in her blood. She's also the Jackson who's in touch with reality, however, and somehow she pulls off the socially conscious material. (Exception: the insipid and overwrought "Livin' in a World (They Didn't Make)." A children's choir? Really?!) Thanks to Jam & Lewis's jumpy, sample-heavy production, her honeyed vocal delivery, and the soldier-chant choruses, "Rhythm Nation," "State of The World," and "The Knowledge" sound modern, cool, and accessible. The anti-drug, pro-education stance of these songs was called vague and clichéd by some, but I can't imagine the songs working any other way. In addition, the non-change-the-world-through-music songs on the record are among the best in her career: the sleek, bouncing "Miss You Much," the fiery "Black Cat," and the summer stomp of "Love Will Never Do (Without You)."

The launch of Rhythm Nation 1814was planned to include a television special, but Janet Jackson, always one to go above and beyond, decided she'd prefer to make a film, a tele-musical to be exact, to introduce her new music. "Black Cat" and "The Knowledge" are featured while "Miss You Much" and "Rhythm Nation" get the full video treatment in the 30-minute black-and-white mini-movie. While most of the film's narrative is absurd, the entertainment value of the musical performances, featuring Jackson and her dancers hitting precise dance moves in army gear and leather boots, more than makes up for it. Even more compelling is the making-of-the-film documentary that follows. Watching her onset with the dancers and future or then secret husband Rene Elizando, we see a soft-spoken sweetheart much more vulnerable than the no-nonsense lioness of her videos and her performances. For whatever reason, this dichotomy of amiable cute girl and strong woman in control made Janet Jackson all the more interesting. Is she really who she seems to be in videos or is it just an act? Or is the meek thing just an act? It was a stark contrast to the always-brazen Madonna, and Jackson's dichotomy is distinctly female, and one that works in this business.

Rhythm Nation 1814 produced seven top ten singles (would be eight if radio hit "The Knowledge" had a physical single attached to it), a sold-out arena tour, sextuple platinum status, and an unprecedented $32 million deal with Virgin Records. She was a megastar--every song was a hit and every video an event. With Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson proved that Control was no fluke. She was an artist built to last.

Her next move, hinted at in Rhythm Nation 1814's final video "Love Will Never Do (Without You)", was janet., a lush, slinky disc dedicated to the celebration of sex. When Jackson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis sat down and discussed the theme of the album before recording, they were all on the same page. She had lost weight thanks to her grueling Rhythm Nation tour, so Jackson was more comfortable with her body, and she was also content with her marriage. "We were all in very happy relationships and we were in love, not only with the people we were in relationships with, but with life in general," explained Jimmy Jam. "janet. was about a confident, sexy woman in touch with her feminine side. That was what she was feeling at that time, so our job was to enhance that." Her iconic Rolling Stone cover shot by photographer Herb Ritz told us everything we needed to know about the album. With only her husband's hands covering her bare breasts, it was clear Janet Jackson wasn't afraid of her sexuality.

Even more than in her previous collaborations with Jam and Lewis, she touches on many different genres in this eclectic, optimistic collection. Electronic dance on the vocal sample based "Throb," hip-hop with "New Agenda" featuring Chuck D, and Mariah-esque balladry on "Again." That she also had been thinking about the '60s is made clear by her version of Steve Cooper's "What'll I Do," the Beach Boys' surf sound of bonus track "Whoops Now,", and the Supremes samples on "You Want This" and "If." Lyrically, the album makes all of Janet Jackson's wet dreams come true. Be it the Valentine's Day lovemaking of "That's the Way Love Goes," the doin'-it-in-a-bathroom-stall appeal of "Throb," or the candlelit ode to voyeurism called "Anytime, Anyplace," Janet Jackson discovers physical gratification to the extreme on janet.

When deciding on janet.'s first single, Jackson and her producers didn't see eye to eye with the label. The label wanted "If" to grab everyone's attention, but Jackson rightfully worried the song didn't really represent the album as a whole. "I didn't want to break down the door, just slip through the side," Janet explains. "We thought this easy-to-get-with groove--real gentle but real sexy--would be a warm way of kicking things off." "That's the Way Love Goes" made a spectacular introduction. Jam, Lewis & Jackson's production is so artfully contained that it warmly washes over you and draws you in. As panned, pitch-shifted whispers keep things eccentric and exciting, the soothing bass line, ambient synth pads, and funky guitar create a groove so undeniable it shouldn't be muddled with by a complex vocal. So Janet always acts as just another instrument on the track, and the house party video provides a perfect visual for the jazzy production. During the pre-chorus, a new chord progression lifts the listener up to expect a huge, pop chorus, just to be gently eased back into the familiar groove the verse is based on. The feeling of yearning and desire that the lyrics portray is evident in the arrangement, and executed skillfully.

At 8 million copies sold, janet. is Janet Jackson's biggest album and the one that cemented her as a pop mainstay. To commemorate/capitalize on the event, A&M released Design of a Decade: 1986-1996. Only one janet. track, "That's the Way Love Goes," appears on the album because of licensing difficulties, but the sunny bonus track "Runaway" still led the record to double-platinum status. Her next studio record, 1997's The Velvet Rope, would be a stark contrast to this upbeat collection. Recorded through a very tumultuous time in Jackson's life, this album was the most difficult for her to make. Leftover pain from her childhood had finally caught up to her, and she called The Velvet Rope her therapy. "It took six months to record this album, but I feel it has taken 31 years," Jackson explained.

"It was a real struggle with myself. It was really hard. There were times when my friends came over and we did nothing. There were times when I would get on the phone with them and by the time they got there, I would be so down in the dumps that I would walk away from them so that I wouldn't bring them down. I would go upstairs and cry . . . I felt like I was going crazy."
The art for The Velvet Rope features Jackson in a skin-tight, reflective dress, nipple ring exposed. With curly, dyed red hair covering her face and drastic mascara on her eyes, she rarely flashes her signature smile. She looks like a different person than the bubbly woman you see in the "Runaway" video. While it's her most musically compelling work and most cohesive album to date, it also remains the hardest to listen to. Entering The Velvet Rope is entering the twisted, schizophrenic thought process of a depressed mind, and it doesn't lend itself to casual listening. While the album has its light moments, like the dance-centric celebration "Together Again" and the electro-funk, anti-homophobic "Free Xone," the party is surprisingly short. Setting the mood are the slow burning, techno-R&B grooves and self-reflective lyrics. "Velvet Rope," "You," and "Got 'Til It's Gone" explain the overarching themes of loss, blame, and feeling like an outcast with R&B keys and basslines with thin, flanging percussion. The album is atmospheric, swirling, nearly hypnotic, reaching its mesmerizing peak with "Empty," an electronic ballad with staccato percussion, swirling bells, and cut samples. As the claps, pads, computerized voices, and karate-lesson (?) samples layer themselves on top of Jackson's cool vocal, the soundscape puts the listener in a trance before he or she enters the second half of the album. There we find Jackson at her most lonesome, but the thunderous "What About" is astounding. From the opening waves, chirping birds, and reversed rhythms, you expect the song to be a sleek slow jam chronicling a wedding proposal. Luckily for the listener, the would-be-groom is a complete douche bag and has screwed Jackson over more than once. The chorus details his infidelity and abusive behavior with overloaded guitars and screaming, orchestra hits and syncopated rhythms. It hits you like a ton of bricks, and the genre-bending energy fades as quickly as it surges. When the final chorus moves from what she thinks to say to him and to what she actually does, you can't help but beam. She's still in control.

Janet Jackson's success is based on her honesty. With these four albums, she trusted herself with the theme and the content, and that's why they worked. Since then, her career has been littered with some hits, some misses, some Superbowl fiasco, and some commercial disappointments. I thought All for You and Damita Jo didn't live up to the impossibly high standards she set for her albums due primarily to their lack of a focused theme, but 20 Y.O. actually worried me. At least Damita Jo sounded like a Janet Jackson album--there were glimmers of sass and personality in some of the dance tunes. 20 Y.O. could have been sung by anyone. Maybe it's the warmed-over beats that new beau Jermaine Dupri provided, maybe it's her increasingly nondescript, whispery tone, or maybe she, Jam, and Lewis have just become a stale team. Somewhere along the way, she started believing the soft-spoken sweetheart was all she had to offer, but when Janet Jackson has something to say, she can make some inspired music. On Discipline, "Feedback" and "2nite" could actually be hit singles worthy of Jackson's legendary status, but the album still fails to make an impact thanks to the I-still-have-sex theme that has dominated all her releases this decade. At this point in her career, there's plenty she could say--she just needs to trust herself enough to say it.

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