Prejudice? No! Ignorance? No! Bigotry? No! Illiteracy? A tad. Okay, the last thing Janet Jackson should be expected to do is live down the socio-political stances at which she arrived after watching marathon sessions of CNN as an impressionable 22-year-old. So it’s mordantly lucky for her that she’s never had to, and that, in fact, the best thing she ever did for her career was pay lip service to weighty concepts her thin voice and naked Minneapolis sound could only barely support. So even as Janet’s four most recent albums have all fallen against at least one or two of the aforementioned vices she railed against in “The Knowledge” (one extra if you ascribe to the bigotry of soft expectations), somehow her gutsy argument that gunning down children in a school playground is, you know, bad news manages to resonate as a rich, complex truism thanks to the fresh ebullience of its delivery. Call it the nature of the genre, or simply credit Miss-Jackson-If-You’re-Nasty, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and MTV for all hitting their stride at precisely the same moment, but the perfect storm that is her 1989 masterpiece, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (celebrating its 20th anniversary this fall), proves that, in the youth-oriented world of pop, it’s both more enduring and more endearing for a kid to play older than their years than for the middle-aged to act like they’re still 20 Y.O.
When Control ruled the radio, new jack swing was still in its infancy; of that album’s singles, only “Nasty” really helped draw up the new jack blueprint. By the time Rhythm Nation dropped, the genre was unavoidable. Jam and Lewis responded by subtly refining their signature, Grammy-anointed sound. They filled out their bottom end, swapping the popping funk basslines of “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” with neo-One Nation Under a Groove thwomp-and-wiggle maneuvers on “Rhythm Nation” and “Miss You Much.” They loosened their rigid backbeats in acquiescence with new jack’s standard three-on-one swing, most notably on “State of the World” and “Alright.” They added actual weapons to their already volatile artillery, hardening the percussive textures with gunshots and breaking glass. They bought samples, most notably injecting Larry Graham into the foundation of the title track and looping Lyn Collins all over “Alright.”
And in a move that truly turned their production for Janet into a genre unto itself, they souped up the synth-assisted, New Edition-style background vocal harmonizing. They essentially turned Janet into a one-woman boy band. (Her opening “five, four, three, two, one” is nothing if not an assisted pubescent plunge.) Jam and Lewis’s work on Rhythm Nation expanded Janet’s range in every conceivable direction. She was more credibly feminine, more crucially masculine, more viably adult, more believably childlike. This was, of course, critical to a project in which Janet assumed the role of mouthpiece for a nationless, multicultural utopia. Jam and Lewis helped sell Janet’s notion of a consciousness raised.
And did we ever buy it. Rhythm Nation‘s brawniness was greeted with similarly strapping sales, uniting product and commerce in that best-of-both-worlds way only pop can. Including the radio-only release “State of the World,” no less than eight of the album’s 12 songs were turned into singles; only one of the remaining four tracks was uptempo (“The Knowledge”), and the remaining castoffs were predictably ballads. All of the charting singles went at least Top 5, and most hit the bull’s-eye outright. “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” the album’s record-setting seventh single to land in the Top 5, managed to top the charts as a single nearly a year and a half after the album was initially released. The Control-eclipsing success of Rhythm Nation paved the way for Janet’s blockbuster multi-album deal with Virgin, which resulted in the understandably plush and lusty follow-up, janet., the orgasmic nature of which led to both Janet’s best-ever sales and, not coincidentally, a sharp and steady post-coital decline ever since.
Which is not to say sex was absent from either Control or Rhythm Nation. Perhaps she just couched it better early on. Like every other significant album she ever made, Rhythm Nation closes by stretching what seems to be baby-making longueurs across multiple songs. Certainly I remember myself 20 years ago perpetually losing all interest in the album once it reached “Black Cat” (not being much for rock stomps, I will say Janet did the electric guitar much more favor when she applied it liberally to the bridge of 1993’s “If”). It was shocking to return to the album in my lovelorn 20s and 30s and come upon “Lonely,” much ado about steamy, and perhaps the second sexiest song about not getting any—or, at any rate, not getting any outside of pity sex—I’ve ever heard, the first being Juicy’s “Sugar Free,” from which Jam and Lewis obviously ripped the template for “Lonely.” “Come Back to Me” smartly obscures Janet’s nondescript pillow-talk delivery within luscious folds upon folds of gut-wrenching chord changes, topping the tragic, plunging bridge with a soaring, cinematic outro that leaves Janet speechless, admitting, “I don’t know what else to say.” It’s the quintessential song in the key of heartbreak, but its despair leaves listeners properly stripped and ready to receive the pornography of “Someday Is Tonight,” which I’m still not sure I’m old enough to listen to.
If sex stops the album in its tracks, it’s appropriate that the rest of the album dances without any overt eroticism (especially apparent in the music video clips for the militant “Rhythm Nation” and the playfully chaste “Escapade”). Still awaiting the breakthrough orally fixated choreography of “If,” Janet’s Rhythm Nation project saw dance as a movement in both senses of the word: an athletic extension of ones own socio-political force of will and a great uniter…no, make that obliterator of races, genders, creeds, even—as when she dances with Cyd Charisse in the video for “Alright”—eras. The first half of the album’s side one keeps the BPM at an aerobic pace without even once cracking a smile or putting four on the floor. Uptight begets upright, and there ain’t no acid in this house. Ain’t even no house in this house. “Get the point? Good” isn’t exactly a punchline, but the drollness with which Janet punctuates her three-song State of the Nation address is almost unknowingly irreverent. How could it not seem so in comparison to the title track’s completely stone-faced intentions? Janet’s dance nation is a hard, angular, geometric battle plan, and as the title track’s stunning, monochromatic video clip confirms, the schematic first calls for an almost Zen-like transcendence of self.
Pretty out there for a pop divette, but having said her piece, she quickly snatches back her control, her name, her still flowering iconography, and her perceptibly hardening abs in time enough to fill out the remarkably tight midsection of her album with the most winningly good times of her recording career. “Miss You Much,” the album’s kickoff single, is the appropriately sweet-and-sour bridge from efficacy to escapadery. Speaking of which, the Minneapolis-citing “Escapade” is as much a worthy successor to the almost cloyingly cute “When I Think of You” as “Love Will Never Do” is a monumental forerunner to Janet’s impending tease epics “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Go Deep.”
And then there’s “Alright,” a warm, relentless surge of synthesized ecstasy that brings those nine-foot stacks of background vocals front and center. Having only managed to scrape its way to fourth place on the Hot 100, “Alright” may have been the record’s comparative flop single, but comes as close as anything Jam and Lewis ever had a hand in (outside of the Time) to defining their pop-softened brand of the Minneapolis sound. It’s also the sunny antithesis to the bleakness of the album’s opening misery suite and the definition of pre-sexual bliss that resonates even as the album inexorably winds up giving it up in the final stretch. Given that Janet’s pop narrative achieved true Cinderella dimensions with the coronation of Rhythm Nation, it stands to reason that clock chimes open and close the album. But Janet’s journey from political outrage to blossoming womanhood to pop nostalgia to shivering post-coital withdrawal is no fairy tale. If she begins the album reveling in the triumph of her will, she ends it in complete darkness, considering the notion that the world would be better if everyone were blind. Sounds like maturity to me.