So, here I was ready to blog again after a really long time. I was ready to go on writing an extensive thing on the entity that is Beyoncé and how obsessed and in love I am with her new “visual record” that surprised the music industry and fans alike. Mark my words when I say that Beyoncé has most truly created something that is bucking what is trendy and really delving into her artistic self in ways that no one has seen before. Do yourself a favor – explore it.
But this blog isn’t going to be about Beyoncé. I wanted to write about Janet Jackson.
Yeah, remember her?
She has come up in conversations a couple of times this week with friends of mine (Hi Michele and Olive!) that it’s made me think back to who she is as an artist and what her music has meant to me. As I kept thinking about her, a few things became clear :
1) She was a big influence on a lot of kids (and girls) of my generation. And I think her contribution to music and pop culture goes unnoticed somewhat.
2) Her music was relevant and interesting and she too was bucking the trend that was before her during her era of domination.
(or should I say rhythm nation)
When I was 14 years old, I wanted to marry Janet Jackson. She was my first celebrity love, my first artist that adorned the walls of my room, the first concert that I had ever seen. She was the coolest thing on two feet – she was beautiful, she could sing and man, could she dance! While I loved her “older brother” and his epic role in my music loving life, there was something a bit more down to earth about Janet – a bit more on my level. She wasn’t trying to take over the world like her brothers did but rather just trying to make her mark her own way.
With Control (her first “real album” came out – much like how Jagged Little Pill was Alanis Morissette’s “real debut”), even as a kid you knew that there was no messing with Janet Jackson. For me, I only appreciated these songs more so when I was a tiny bit older but it was still in my consciousness. Everyone knew every song that came off of that album – the title track, Nasty (where she did that crazy back flip in the video!), What Have You Done For Me Lately and of course the lovely and catchy When I Think Of You. I do love all of those songs immensely – and they symbolized an artist trying to forge her own path and create her own voice (again, another connection to JLP?) – but for me it was the last single that came off of that album that really resonated with me.
As my other good friend Trish mentioned, in this day and age of wrecking balls and naked sledgehammer licking, here is an example of someone who was sexy and completely clothed at the same time. Go figure – THAT can actually happen.
Rhythm Nation 1814 (Nerd alert: R is the 18th letter of the alphabet and N the 14th) was the record that did it for me. Top of her game AND making a statement about the world – making you dance and think at the same time. And, good god, the dancing! The videos! To this day, whenever I hear Escapade, I get the hugest smile on my face, and I’m that 14 year old kid again. Her Alright video introduced me to Cab Calloway (and Heavy D for that matter) and she was pushing herself musically still. I mean, Black Cat? Kinda simplistic song but was anyone expecting a hard rock-esque song coming from Janet Jackson? That crunchy guitar riff is still pretty great. The last single to come off of this record was Love Will Never Do (Without You), the video that really shifted gears for Janet as a video artist, I think. All of the video singles prior to this one were quite dark or shot in black and white (Miss You Much, the title track) or a little goofy and fun (Alright). Then this one (which launched the careers of both Antonio Sabato Jr. and Djimon Hounsou) featured a very laid back, naturally paced video. No big dancing – just moving. Now, don’t get me wrong my pubescent self was very much speechless with this video, but again there was a sense that Janet Jackson knew exactly what she was doing and where she was heading.
And then came janet.
This was the album that cinched the deal – she hit every single mark with ambition, vision, drive – everything. The universe was aligned with this album. There are some similarities I find with this album and Beyoncé’s latest – both Beyoncé and janet. affirm a voice, feature strong women at the top of their careers with different genre bending songs, claiming their sexuality and proudly singing about it, and pushing the limits to their creativity. There’s a fearlessness here and it’s breathtaking. You want old school R&B? Here’s That’s The Way Love Goes. You want modern R&B? Here’s If. You want opera? Here’s This Time. It’s still the only album I know that has both a famous operatic singer (Kathleen Battle) and a famous rap voice of a generation (Chuck D). janet. soars with every song. It’s a journey into a woman at the top of it all – showing the world that she is not just “Michael’s baby sister”.
So how do you follow-up mastery? With another but in a completely other vain.
The Velvet Rope surprised everyone – this wasn’t a straight on dance or R&B album. This was something else. This was an artist delving into herself – using music as therapy. It’s the darkest, most interesting Janet Jackson album I believe she will ever release. I think this is most known for Together Again (which don’t be fooled by its irresistible beat – the song is an ode to the friends that Janet has lost) but songs like What About hit you in the gut and stay with you for a while afterwards. (Memorable lyric : What about the time you said you didn’t fuck her, she only gave you head…) She was also asking questions about sexuality and pushing gender roles. Her decision to not change the pronouns in Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s The Night turned a lot of ears upside down. Mine were completely intrigued.
Also features the most creative use of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. And this video is GORGEOUS:
Now here is where things get a little fuzzy. And I find this is where Janet Jackson can be compared to Madonna where album releasing is concerned. With The Velvet Rope (and for Madonna it was American Life – another genius record), I believe fans were a little scared and didn’t entirely embrace this darker, serious Janet. So, her follow up after this was All For You.
All For You as the title suggests, is for her fans. Sort of like a “Hey Everyone – I’m still lovable Janet! Remember!” There are some really beautiful moments on All For You (Someone To Call My Lover, Son Of Gun with its interesting take on using Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain) but it’s a “fan forgiveness” record sort of I think. Definitely not shabby – but there was something a little missing after the weight and multi facets of The Velvet Rope.
Then the Superbowl fiasco happened – and Justin Timberlake got off scot free, and Janet Jackson got burned at the stake. And in the midst of that, she released Damita Jo. Following that was 20 Y.O. and finally Discipline (featuring the horrid song Feedback which also features the most weirdest and most disturbing lyric –
I’m heavy like a first day period.)
By the time those albums came out, I lost interest in Janet Jackson. She wasn’t appealing to me anyone – appearing as though stuck between wanting to cater to what the current audience flavor is (Hello, Madonna!) rather than evolving as an artist. I would never slag on her whatsoever because of what her influence has done for me as a music listener. But I must admit that there is a part of me who is waiting to see whether she can return to great heights once more like we all know that she can.
It’s been 6 years since her last album – and we all know that lots has changed for her in her life and the music world as well. One can hope that there’s more greatness ahead. That 14-year-old boy believes that.
MY JANET JACKSON PLAYLIST
1. The Pleasure Principle
2. When I Think Of You
3. Miss You Much
4. Rhythm Nation
6. Love Will Never Do (Without You)
8. That’s The Way Love Goes
9. New Agenda
10. Got ‘Til It’s Gone