It was 1986, I was in my cousins car, protesting about the fact that I’ve been relegated to the backseat. Riding shotgun is one of his friends, who is at least six years my senior, who seems bemused by my predicament. In his attempts to shut me up, he mysteriously reveals a mix tape from his shirt pocket and forcefully inserts the cassette and cranks up the volume. I don’t know what to expect with the speakers inches from behind my head. The thump of piano keys startles me. It repeats a few more seconds before a really cool bass riffs gets my attention. Before long the blaring sounds of trumpets exasperates my hearing. This was my introduction to Janet Jackson and her song When I think of You. The song itself some three minutes later would play out as a carefree love song with 80s dance tones and still to this day it’s the first song that comes to mind when I think of Ms. Jackson (pun intended). In truth, when I really think about it, Janet had me at “ooh baby” with her sweet vocals just shy of the opening minute.
If you think about it, there would be no Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) or even Janet (1993) without the release of Control. I know it’s such an obvious statement to make but really Control was for the then-19-year-old Janet Jackson, who lived in the huge shadow of her brothers (namely Michael Jackson), the breakout album that she needed to distance herself from her famous family. But not only was she distancing herself from her family creatively, her album Control would go on to help reinvent mainstream dance pop and alternative R&B.
Beginning with the title track, the spoken proclamation, often referred to as Jackson’s self-emancipation, speaks of taking control of her own life. For her whole adolescent life she did what her father told her. But for Jackson change was in the wind and her first awe-inspiring leap of self-assertiveness came when she fired her father as manager. And if that wasn’t enough, with her career all but stalling she moved from LA to Minneapolis and put her faith in producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy “Jam” Harris who provided the sonic punch of Control.
In a recent interview, Lewis and Harris looked back at their long celebrated career as producers and couldn’t believe how fearless Jackson was in putting herself out there. In short, Jackson’s six week collaboration with the duo in the studio would yield amazing results which saw Jackson willingly embrace almost whatever the duo threw at her. Importantly, the songs on Control, released in February 1986, would reflect Jackson’s state of mind and the things that were most important to her such as issues about sexual harassment, self-love, safe sex and abstinence.
Fun fact: In an awe-inspiring run stretching out over almost a two year period from January 1986 to November 1987, Jackson released seven singles from the album. “What Have You Don’t For Me Lately”, “Nasty”, “Control”, “When I Think Of You” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” all made the top 5 on the Hot 100. “The Pleasure Principle” climbed as high as #14 on the Hot 100 and while “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” didn’t actually chart in the US, it became a sensual slow burn favourite on adult R&B radio.
There are plenty of reasons to revisit Control on its 35th anniversary this year. And since it is an album about independence, there is no better places to start with the title track. However there are two other tracks that exemplify Jackson’s then-newly found strength of character. The first is the angsty What Have You Done For Me Lately which still resonates with listeners, especially anyone whose been taken for granted. Interestingly, it almost didn’t make it on to the album. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had hoped to save this gem for their own record but were at the last minute compelled by the record label to provide one more track for Jackson. The second track worthy of our attention is Nasty in which Jackson demands “Gimme a beat.” Its driving ‘nasty groove’ is as fierce and defiant today as it was yesterday. Lyrically, Jackson shines here in particularly in her takedown of deadbeats and perverts where she reminds them: “So close the door if you want me to respond/ Cause privacy is my middle name/ My last name is control/ No, my first name ain’t baby/ It’s Janet… Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.”
For Jackson and her independence party, there was no looking back now. Even on the albums fifth track, The Pleasure Principle, she addresses self-standing issues after a relationship goes bad, all the while lamenting that she deserves better.
Of all the tracks to actually go number one, it was unsurprisingly the carefree and lively When I Think Of You. Billboard writer Kenneth Partridge once said you should “never underestimate the power of a gushing love song.” He was of course talking about When I Think Of You. As I mentioned earlier this song was the beginning of my fleeting teenage crush on Jackson.
Interestingly, themes of love and lust are ever present on the album even on the next to last ballad Let’s Wait Awhile, in which Jackson implores her lover that working on their relationship was more important than getting in bed. It’s a song that at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s was commended for its meaningful message.
While nine songs almost doesn’t sound enough on an album full of various moods and sonic bliss, all good things unfortunately still have to come to an end. That said, the album closes with a warm synthesizer playing with a romantic interlude softly spoken in French before Jackson reminds a love interest how quickly things can move. Jackson’s song Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) could also be easily interpreted to reflect our own journey with Jackson through nine sleek and ambitious tracks. It’s a sure bet most listeners still today have a riot listening to Control. There are plenty of dance numbers and anthems to give anyone the courage to strut around with confidence. From beginning to end, Control is an astute assessment of everything that is great about Janet Jackson, as she meticulously colours her world red with life, love, courage and passion. In short, the results are breathtaking by any standard.
It’s a fantastic album and I loved all the hits it generated. It was so new, refreshing and exciting upon its release, and no surprise that it – and Janet – became so successful. I love her follow up album “Rhythm Nation 1814” too.
I understand Janet took the template of ‘Control’ and amplified everything to the max on Rhythm Nation 1814. I remember reading your feature on Rhythm Nation 1814. It is arguably her finest work. So many great songs on it. “Black Cat” is a sentimental favourite of mine.
Nice post Robert.
Pretty sure the 1986 me thought… first – Michael’s little kid sister from “Good Times?” No thanks; second – wait, now she’s all grown up… and she’s beautiful; maybe I’ve been too dismissive; third – yes, yes I have been. Wow, she’s talented.
Occasionally I like to conduct a test with my 24 year old co-worker by quoting a particular lyric from a song before she was even born, and if she knows it then it loosely tells me how well a song/record has held up and the influence (if any) it still holds in pop culture history. So I said… “No my first name ain’t baby, it’s…” And she replied “Janet. Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.” It’s always reassuring for me that great lyrics never age!
Wow, what a great sounding board your co-worker is.
Jam and Lewis are great – I tried to track down a bunch of their stuff a while back.