In the opening scene of the music video for “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” the first single released from Janet Jackson’s 1986 blockbuster album Control, Jackson sits at a diner table with her choreographer Paula Abdul, who in a few years would become a hitmaker herself, with a sound very similar to Jackson’s. At the table, this dialogue exchange occurs:
ABDUL: What’s up, girl?
JACKSON: He stood me up again!
ABDUL: Well, what’s up with this guy? Do you really like him that much?
JACKSON: Yes honey, I love him! He is fun! He does a lot of nice things for me!
ABDUL: I know he used to do nice stuff for you … (cocks her head, looks at Jackson quizzically) But what has he done for you late-ly?
At that point, the hard, funky synthesized riffs of Jackson’s producer collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis kick in, and she’s soon having a dance-off confrontation with that errant boyfriend who’s walked into the diner. Jackson projects the image of a woman who’s fully aware of her self-worth, and who demands nothing less than total equality in her relationships: “I never ask for more than I deserve / You know it’s the truth / You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this earth / I’m telling you, no way.” This supremely confident, brash, take-no-shit persona was radically different from the one she projected on the two albums that preceded Control: her 1982 self-titled debut, released when she was just 16; and her 1984 follow-up, Dream Street. These albums both bricked on the charts, and their singles barely made a dent on the Billboard Hot 100. And, of course, this was all happening while her older brother Michael was conquering the world with Thriller. In truth, it seemed that Janet didn’t even really want to make these albums, which were full of innocuous bubblegum pop. She did them as a favor to her father, family patriarch Joe Jackson, who completely dictated her musical career.
At 19, Janet realized that if she was to have a successful music career, she had to take, well, control, and so she gave her manager-father the boot, moved from her Los Angeles family home, and went to Minneapolis so she could record with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, former members of the funk group The Time (and erstwhile associates of Prince, Michael Jackson’s main musical rival). For their part, Jam and Lewis were just starting their career as in-demand producers, and their sound owed some of its derivation to Prince, but their percussive synth-funk was even more spare and elemental. They were given a lot more time to pursue their endeavors thanks to Prince, who fired them from The Time when they were late for one gig after doing some production work for the SOS Band — and you thought James Brown was a tough boss. When Janet Jackson first met with Jam and Lewis, they didn’t start off straight away in the studio, but instead first talked about Jackson’s life experiences, using that as material for the album, which consequently is very autobiographical.
Control was a massive record, its first five singles making the top 5 on the Hot 100 — it’s practically a greatest hits album — and it opens with a one-two-three punch of stone-cold bangers. The title track asserts Jackson’s declaration of independence, in the midst of jittery, stop-start rhythmic funk: “I’ve got my own mind / Wanna make my own decisions / When it has to do with my life / I wanna be the one in control.” This segues into the overwhelming sonic crunch of “Nasty,” otherwise known as the birth of new jack swing, the R&B/hip-hop hybrid that would dominate the pop and R&B charts for the next few years. Based on Jackson’s experiences with street catcalling and sexual harassment, it climaxes with the immortal lines, “No, my first name ain’t baby / It’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” And this track is followed by the aforementioned “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” a thinly-veiled shot at Jackson’s ex-husband James DeBarge, a member of the eponymous Motown family act.
Control’s centerpiece is the sublime “When I Think of You,” Jackson’s first #1 pop hit. It may seem frothy and insubstantial compared to some of the album’s other songs, but it’s full of intoxicating sonic pleasures: the pulsating bass punctuated with piano, brassy Fairlight synthesizer stabs, and Jackson’s cooing declarations of total love ethereally floating on the track. It’s about as perfect a pop song as they come, and the accompanying music video by Julien Temple is an absolute, harmonious wonder, a riot of brilliant color and movement, a Hollywood musical in miniature shot to resemble a single take.
It’s impossible to overstate how influential Control remains to this day; Beyoncé, Rihanna, Paula Abdul, Ciara, and Tinashe are only a few of the artists who built their sound upon the rock-solid sonic foundation the album established. And, as it turns out, Jackson was just getting started. Her next release, 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, would double down on Control’s musical innovations and expand Jackson’s concerns from the personal to the political. And it’s in this way, this pointed evolution, that she would emerge from Michael Jackson’s shadow to become even bigger than he was.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.