Saluting the anniversary of Janet Jackson’s classic career defining set
Thirty years is a long time. Especially when you’re a sex symbol for that whole stretch. Yet, Janet Jackson was my girlfriend way before February 4,1986, the date her classic third album Control, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, dropped. Well, she was my girl in my head at least. Come on though, she said “My first name ain’t Baby…it’s Janet…Ms. Jackson if ya nasty!” How could I not fall in love with her?
Prior to the 10-track opus’ release, I watched her as a pre-teen Penny Woods on the 1970’s sitcom Good Times and thought she needed me to protect her from her evil a** mother. I also wished I was Todd “What You Talkin’ ‘Bout Willis” Bridges when she was his love muffin Charlene Duprey on the hit TV show Diff’rent Strokes. But then the ‘80s showed up and Janet went hard into her solo music career and starred on the Debbie Allen-led dance drama Fame. By then I was staring at her first album cover, 1982’s Janet Jackson. Her bright eyes,wet hair and luxurious smile emerging out of the water were perfect for my developing passion for Michael Jackson’s youngest sister. The music didn’t move me much, but her feather light vocals touched my soul. Or so I thought. Even her second album at the age of 18 in 1984, Dream Street, should have done more for me (she was still fine though!), but it didn’t; it felt like the continuation of the first. Both had short and sweet tracks, lacking her fingerprint as an independent-thinking artist. This was back when albums were under 10 tracks and maxed out at 38-minutes long. Plus, Papa Joe Jackson was still running her life at the time.
With all of her family-name fame and rising TV star status, Janet didn’t have a musical definition. While her mega-star brother managed to somehow emerge from childhood star to adult mainstream powerhouse with his debut album Off The Wall and his follow-up record-breaking Thriller, Janet was supposed to have hit her stride on album three by now. And with the massively hit-soaked Control LP she had found her gangsta groove. Third time was indeed the charm for the now 20-year-old.
Unlike her previous offerings, where Janet was performing the words and feelings of others, Control was a stake in the ground that this was her life as an adult and that she was probably f**king (or having those thoughts). Before Control, Janet’s real life hadn’t been lived enough to take her voice past skill and into relatability. But with Control, she was fresh out of an annulled marriage to James DeBarge of the singing-star Debarge family. Janet, also rumors of family drama and secret relationships to deal with and angst to let off against critics, all while wanting to stake her claim as the other multi-talented Jackson. All fodder for thought provoking songs like the title track. Her intro talk lays it all out: “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say, control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. Are we ready? I am. Cus it’s all about control…and I’ve got lots of it.” Then the new wave of funky basslines, cowbells, sharp snaps and synth stabs clash to make a rhythmic pool of paradise to empower the newly-established young adult.
The songs throughout the album lament a feeling of needing space to make the moves in love, albeit unrequited (“He Doesn’t Know That I’m Alive), lurking (“What Have You Done For Me Lately”) or all-in(“When I Think Of You”). Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis brought out the sounds that would help usher in what led to the digital soul and live instrumentation fusion that dominated the rest of the 80’s, clearly lifting and evolving that style from their days of rocking with The Symbol known as Prince.
As much as it’s about the sonic ruling of Control, the visuals were the hammer. A beautiful and bouncy Janet was shaping the look of how R&B-tinted pop songs could be experienced visually. The dance machine that she would become on later albums was birthed in scenes like “When I Think Of You.” The street chaos and mass choreography, mixed with Janet’s super glow and bootyliciousness (not to mention big hair) defined the times. So much so that the main vein of music video kingdom, MTV, had to play all the videos from Control, as she was the face of a new hip generation. Think about the sultry “Let’s Wait Awhile”, where the black-and-white video depicts a blue-balled Taimak, star of cult classic 80s film, The Last Dragon. Janet was telling dude to hold up on the sex as it would be worth the wait.I think I would have to do as he did as well, and just freaking wait. But the message was important to young women that were unsure if they wanted to make that plunge. I wonder if an artist these days could make such a strong statement a commercial hit.
Which brings us to my favorite: the “Pleasure Principle” video. This one was out before I had cable. So I had to go to the local bowling alley video jukebox and deposit 50 cents to see Janet do damn-near martial arts infused dance moves in those tight a** Guess jeans. Trust I was emptying out my piggy bank everyday that summer. She personified making themed visions the height of their purpose, to sell records and push creativity. The “Pleasure Principle” video made solo dance scenes a “thing” to do, as Janet shook and jooked, and kept our attention. And the “Nasty Boys” clip was just epic in concept and fraternity energy, offering a glimpse into our new star’s humor.
Basically, Control is the sh*t that can’t happen anymore. Why? Because when will we get another youngest sibling of 10, fighting for her own identity while crafting her skills in TV alongside a brother who is an uber star in his own right? The pressure. Yet, she still found a way to be a monster success and icon, amid the low-key hate and high-key praise.
Awards and accolades aside—three Soul Train Music Awards and six Billboard Music Awards, four Grammy noms—Control spawned seven singles as a 10-track album. Read that last part again. Also, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis won the 29th Annual Grammy Awards category for Non-Classical Producer of the Year with Control.
All of that is cool, but back to my 30-year long love affair with Janet. It really happened at the 3:53 mark of “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)”. Listen to that and tell me who’s nasty.