Rewind: The Declaration Of Janet Jackson's Independence

This is 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. 'Cause it`s all about control...and I've got lots of it.
Too easy it is to give Madonna the credit for reinventing the 'disco diva' for the 1980s. Too easy it is to say Madonna was the sole influence towards a future bumper crop of female vocalists who would peg their stance on having a mind for business, and a bod for sin. Too easy it is when Janet Jackson is standing there, tapping her foot, tossing a look with lots of side and lots of eye.

Stiff competition Janet gave Madonna when Control emerged in 1986. Not only was Janet, 20 years young, a talented singer, songwriter, and dancer like Madonna, but she also had whip-smart wit and a tendency to not just turn the boys on, but turn them off as well. Sure Janet's 'luck' of pedigree benefited her, and made her more acclimated to the pop market, but she still had to work at convincing a leery public that she wasn't just aping off the shadows of her well-known brood of brothers --- and work at dispelling doubt she did.

Far from being coy or subtle, Control is where Janet Jackson's restlessness is quelled by a lioness roar. Unlike the funeral processions of Adele that dread the maturing process, Janet approached her roaring twenties with a funky and fussy finesse. If any type of tear was shed over the lost of adolescence, Janet's salty liquid orb was over the sheer optimism at what laid ahead for her as she came of age.

Growing up in the spotlight as the youngest in her famous family no doubt prompted the eager urgency as its difficult to have people pinching your cheeks telling you how young and cute you are, when your mind and hormones are telling a different story. Not wanting to be caught in the limbo of child and adult for any longer, Janet decided an act of rebellion was in order. Rebellion came in the form of marrying  DeBarge member, James DeBarge at the ripe age of 18, the hope that a little band of gold would be her ticket to automatic adulthood. A few months and a quick annulment later, Janet realized that marriage wasn't what made one into an independent adult, nor did it give her the detachment she sought from her familial ties. She had dove head first with eyes shut, all without looking at the growing young woman in the reflecting pool who needed more time to learn about who she really, and truly, was.

For Control, Janet opens her eyes, looks around and realizes that if she was going to get to adult, and have everyone else turn to the next chapter with her, she would have to set her independence on her own terms and without influence from outside sources. Still, a lot was at stake for Control to achieve for Janet beyond breaking away from her famous family's namesake and the managerial tutelage of her autocratic father, Janet had to also prove that she was also a separate entity a part from her elder, more-celebrated brother.

Though Thriller had cooled its jets by the mid-1980s its success hadn't buckled, nor had its influence as the album had altered not just the Black music paradigm, but hopped, skipped, and Moonwalked all over pop culture, making Michael Jackson become one of the main reasons why crossover success for Black-American artists is possible to this day. Such pioneering accomplishments had the littlest Jackson meeting with high expectation. She didn't necessarily have to follow the exact pattern, but she did have to uphold it and then some. To say the pressure wasn't on, clocked to high, is a misdiagnosis.

Control, in a sense, is the real "debut" of Janet Jackson. Not to dismiss her 1982 self-titled debut (and the belated disco era dazzle of "Young Love" and New Wave coolness of "Come Give Your Love To Me" that resides on it...), but Control isn't methodical, work-shopped fiction. On it she's not being pulled by strings or sweetly singing material that does little to reflect her personal viewpoint or extinguish her personality. On Janet Jackson and 1984's Dream Street, Janet wasn't really Janet, she's just chewing bubblegum and still looking at her Diana Ross posters, still waffling between being a serious music artist and portraying fictional characters on popular sitcoms like Good Times and Diff'rent Strokes, and the television adaptation of the hit film, Fame. Her individual being hadn't come to fruition quite yet, and she needed a nudge toward discovering herself in the midst of her artistic talent.

That nudge came from former Prince protégés, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Decked in tailored suits, shades, with fedoras atop juiced jheri-curls, Jam and Lewis had bad boy appeal from the outset, the contrast stark next to Janet's soft pop cherub appearance. Out to 'corrupt' the Michael's little sister Jam and Lewis appeared to be, but Janet had been enamored with the swag and sound of the twosome since the age of 16 after she had witnessed them in concert during their stint as key backing players of the Morris Day-led ensemble, The Time. Jam and Lewis were later infamously booted from the group by Prince during a 1981 tour, but the two took the lemons and made lemonade and forged ahead as a duo, tapping into their own brand of the "Minneapolis Sound", applying the sound's mechanical mélange of funk, soul, and New Wave to a series of up-in-coming R&B talents, namely Alexander O'NealThe S.O.S. Band, and Cherrelle.

Jam and Lewis' production reign during the 1980s and beyond almost reads like an elaborate revenge plot against Prince, and in some technical senses it was. The two are of the most well-known "protégés" from the Paisley Park factory, and really, "protégés" is a loose term for them, as Jam and Lewis had their own ideas and their own distinctive sound that diverged from Prince's greatly. While most of Prince's disciples were never truly allowed to let their own personalities breakthrough, Jam and Lewis' sound brand was so pliable and innovative enough that it was able to ease well into a wide-range of genres, even at times, improving upon an artist's aesthetic.

It bears mentioning that Jam and Lewis were responsible for transmuting The S.O.S. Band from a archetypal female-fronted post-disco act to a hit-laden chilled-out electronic soul act, just as much as they thawed out The Human League, and steered Cherrelle into making funky dancefloor burners that wore their female empowerment on its sleeve. Jam and Lewis had made even Pia Zadora at one point sound credible, making it clear that they were the "Secret" element, the architects of sound whose musical intellect and penchant to change the conversation of any artist they got their hands on was an ideal framework for Janet to mature into her music, and their entry would prove to be the smartest and most adult decision Janet made for her career. In telling Spin in 1987, Jam and Lewis were all she had her eye on when it came down to pressing the reset button on her music:"I wanted this album to be my success, not my family's, and Jimmy and Terry helped me get it." 

Get it they did.

After moving to Minneapolis and getting acquainted with Jam and Lewis, their "Minneapolis Sound", and their Flyte Tyme crew (which included other Time members Jellybean Johnson and Monte Moir), Control became a reality. Released in early 1986, the album did fairly well chart-wise even for its #102 debut position, as by the end of the year it had reached gold status, finding placement on the top of the Billboard and R&B/Black Album charts. Such success lent critics to raise a curious eyebrow, as they were interested in not just Michael's little sister, but Michael's little sister who had come out to spread the news she might be a Jackson, but not the Jackson you think she is.

As far as debut albums go, close to perfection Control is. Every element that is meant to push Janet forward as an entity outside of namesake works.

It's true success lies in the merging of Janet's passion towards her mission, and Jam and Lewis' studio mastery at allowing Janet to discovering her true person within the melodies. Elaborating to Spin, Janet said, "What you hear on the album is a result of all the jamming that they did right in the studio. All the music is pretty much them. But the lyrics, the vocal arrangements, the keyboards, the synthesizers, that's where I came in." Janet knows what she wants, how she wants to say it and convey it, and Jam and Lewis are happy to oblige, and the combination of their working repertoire bears an electrifying product.

Time isn't stalled in asserting Janet's new declaration of independence, as after Janet in a feather-soft voice asserts her purpose ("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...") the title track blasts in, passionate and humble, but still with grit and edge, riding high on synths and digitized R&B beats, Janet gaining more and more confidence as the song churns along. By the time the song ends we know she's got her own mind, she wants to make her own decisions, and she wants to be the one in control, dammit, so for the rest of the album we need to sit down and shut up, as Janet's got the floor.

(There's a neat Easter egg in the "Control" video where actress Ja'net DuBois, who played Janet's TV adopted mother on Good Times, makes a cameo as Janet's concerning mother. This a wink to further push that Janet had liberated herself in more ways than one.)

Boasting brash keyboards and latticed percussion, "Nasty" is Janet continuing to not bat her eyelashes or play cutesy. So ruff, so tuff, "Nasty" is, as it scowls and pounces, easily clawing its way to the #3 position on the Hot 100. Janet would divulge in later years --- and after numerous misinterpretations that this was a man-hating anthem --- that "Nasty" came about when she had felt powerless against a group of men who were harassing her outside of the Flyte Tyme studios during the recording sessions for Control. For its equally rowdy music video, which featured choreography from a then-unknown Paula Abdul (who also made a brief appearance in the video), Janet re-scripts her ordeal, capturing the ultimate feminist fantasy of 'taking back the night'.

Throughout, Janet tosses attitude and literally breaks up the bromance as she struts confident down a city street, not afraid to dance among the large gathering of guys, later on dancing with them as equals. You can't help cheering her on when she puts her foot down and gives an acidic tongue lashing for simple chivalry ("My first name ain't baby, it's Janet if you nasty!"), gaining full authority of the situation. In this moment, and forever more, she's Miss Jackson, sexy and aggressive, and she was for real.

"Nasty" was a turning point, and not just for Janet as R&B music itself also benefited from the recourse. "Nasty" has an accurate reputation for being the first taste that the public got of the New Jack Swing sound, a sound movement that would steer Black music away from electronic funk to an edgier, industrial, hip-hop influenced sound that screamed Black machismo. Such raw masculine fervor is why the face of New Jack often is associated with the bad boy smirks of Bobby Brown, stylish fade coifs of Guy, and the wounded loverman croons of Babyface and Keith Sweat. Women, though present, didn't factor into the genre until Karyn White, Pebbles, TLC, and even Abdul herself came into focus, but often times they weren't lauded with similar accolades or taken with such seriousness as their male counterparts. "Nasty" can be argued as the first successful New Jack record --- and by a woman no less --- as it changed the sheets on R&B's soundbed for the remainder of the decade, predicting the course of the genre's aesthetic in the later decades to come.

To a lesser extent, 'filler' track, "You Can Be Mine", keeps "Nasty" and its message sharpened, as Janet amid a web of fanfare synths lays claim to a guy who catches her eye, voicing that he could be hers if he'd just make a move. Less forgiving, Janet severs the olive branch on the impressive #4 chart-topper, "What Have You Done For Me Lately" as she once again challenges the men folk, only this time she's side-eyeing her current beau, chastising his trifling behavior and measly excuses, wondering where the mutual love has gone.

Culled from an idea Jam and Lewis were working on for one of their own projects, "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" is no doubt a blunt kiss-off track towards Janet's ex-husband, and the video plays into such shade, once again evoking a battle of the sexes with Janet dancing all over a handsome face, playing soft and hardball to a tee.

Of all the songs present, "What Have You Done For Me Lately" is Janet's most "sista girl" moment, its tone evident right when that comical opening monologue starts. The snap and swing of the song's phrasing falls in line with the intent that Janet, Jam, and Lewis wanted to make Control, "the Black(est) album of all time". Reciting to Rolling Stone in later years, Jam would confirm that they all wanted Control to not only appeal to a crossover market, but that it'd be an album found "in every Black home in America".

Control does relish in its unapologetic Blackness by way of mode --- it's far from sterilized soul, no never mind what the heavy artillery of synths present --- but it in large focuses on the oft ignored power of the Black American female. If you listen closely, the album for all of its fierce directness and awareness of a patriarchal society, plays like an musical affirmation to the thoughts and feelings that Black women as a collective have, bringing forth these ideals to the mainstream. Though not scholastic by any means, and nowhere near as deeply reflective as a piece of prose penned by bell hooks or Audre Lorde, Control gives a pop peppered Cliffs Notes look at the anatomy of the Black woman without the one-dimensional stereotype. Unlike her peers, Whitney Houston and Anita Baker, Janet didn't take the softer route when it came to expressing the facets of her femininity, she was direct that she was a woman first, Black second, and that there would be no slumbering on her watch about that.

Hyperbole such theories could be as Control is really for Janet herself to express her own individuality and harness her identity outside of familial influence, but over the years Control harbors special meaning for those who feel they are female and Black, as Janet asserted that a Black woman could be sensitive as she was tough, resourceful as she was gaining scholarship, and that just because Madonna was out there being sexually and personally empowered in her music didn't mean that a woman of color wasn't and couldn't express the same ideals. It's why Madonna kind of chewed her nails for a moment --- as for all her awkward race talk that made her want to appear 'down' --- she didn't possess the Black woman narrative, and thus couldn't speak for or with Janet.

Loud and clear Janet was about her love for being a Black woman, and her hunger for control was written bold across the album, but what's interesting about this album is that it's not just about those things. Staking claim on her independence doesn't mean she out there trying to talk down to her parents, going on reckless alcohol-fueled nights on the town, or having sex out of view from parental hawk's eyes --- those things don't make you an independent adult --- but with age and maturity, Janet now has choices and options, she has to walk her talk and make conscious decisions.

"The Pleasure Principle" is where Janet is thinking things through about what type of 'nasty boys' she's wanting to spend her precious time with. Calling someone "picky" is a knee-jerk reaction to those who just have standards. I've heard it many times, all said in my mother's guilt-riddled voice ("You'll end up alone, you'll be so unhappy!!!"), but Janet being a recent divorcee knows that what may look good on paper doesn't translate to "love of a lifetime". Some ground rules are put in place during this moment as Janet notices how material and superficial the guys around her are, and swayed she isn't by the smooth talk or the good looks. You can picture the guy, with a Carlton Banks smirk, dripping with '80s semi-yuppie charm, and Janet closing the door on his smug face. She doesn't have time for that kind of deception.

The Time disciple, Monte Moir is responsible for autopsying such deception, culling the song's ideas from Janet, and placing them into a sterling frame of stark funkiness and drum machine nirvana, making for one of my favorite songs on Control. Though just as assertive as "Nasty" and "What Have You Done For Me Lately", "The Pleasure Principle" reached #14 on the pop charts, making it the sole single off of Control that didn't make the top 10. Yet, as a consolation prize, its video bests all the other videos from Control's visual cannon.

"Pleasure Principle's" video could've written itself due to the storytelling lyrics, but its victorious in its surprise at displaying Janet alone in a loft-warehouse, executing a free-form ballet that is one of the slickest and best dance routines put to video. No fancy wardrobe is even needed as Janet is casual in an over-sized tee, jeans and Adidas low-tops, coming across as the coolest chick on the block. Notorious it is also at being the one Janet video that caused a lot of broken vases and furniture (and angry parents) in homes across the World. Case in point: there is a wobbly dining room chair in our house that didn't survive "The Battle of The Pleasure Principle Moves" thanks to my piss poor dance skills as a kid. (Sorry, wasn't Dad this time.)

Some of the coolness of Control wanes a bit when "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive" needles in on that unmistakably '80s sax. This isn't my particular favorite moment on this set, in fact, its the album's one flaw as it is devoid of all of all the assertive nature this album trumpets so loudly. An insecure, kind of frazzled devotion to love it is, which cracks Janet's warrior princess crown a bit, but the only nice thing I can say about it is that Janet does hit some angelic high notes on it. The song surprisingly works best when sung by others as Dev Hynes-alter Blood Orange and indie pop group, New Look have both released unique, crisper reinterpretations of it to better effect. Still, this song escaped from Janet's Dream Street album and I want it to go back there.

Sugary sweetness with a splash of defenseless works best on "When I Think Of You", a charming number that sprinkles a little sugar and has Janet's heart aglow with the prospect of being in love. A far cry from steamy bedroom numbers Janet will be known for, but it's the mother to tracks like "Because Of Love" and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)", where Janet just relaxes in the throes of romantic bliss, in love with love.

As much as Janet has demanded a right to not be pampered or disrespected, she still wants to be loved, and tenderly so. Sexual liberation as a metaphor for artistic control is not a unfamiliar function in pop music, but "Let's Wait Awhile" and "Funny How The Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)" make for an interesting suite as the former puts the brakes on engaging in sexual intimacy, while the later is about giving in and fully blossoming amid a sensual act of love making. The choice for this is crafty, and maybe I'm reading too much into it (as I often do when it comes to track sequencing...and life in general...) but I love the contrast, the conflicting duel of emotions, because whether she's letting her guard down to a lover or not, Janet is once again still in control.

It's why I disagree with writer Margo Jefferson when she passed off Janet as "the hardest-working sex toy in show business" in her critical essay, On Michael Jackson. Um, did she even listen to this album? Did she hear the transitional poignancy of these two songs? I often wonder if that particular reaction is just a impulsive retort to that infamous SuperBowl incident which gave everybody the eager chance to wag their finger at a woman who was always an easy target of sexual ridicule. It was quite hysterical how prudish and holier-than-thou America got in 2004, and disappointing how Janet's treatment of the incident fell squarely on her shoulders, while her male "accomplice" Justin Timberlake came out unscathed (though a recent Twitter drag corrected such ill, unleashing 12 years of pent-up anger, with still no apology from Timberlake himself). True, Jefferson is just serving her opinion, and like most social and culture critics she no doubt believes mainstream female pop musicians aren't worth defending, but her comments are still female-on-female shaming at its worst.

On "Let's Wait Awhile" Janet isn't twisting her purity ring with worry on her left hand, making some grand declaration of abstinence. None of the sanctimonious virginal jargon is uttered, nor does it turn into the type of pseudo-Christian rhetoric you hear when you live buckled in the Bible Belt. From a aware, and mature position Janet is coming from with the song, as she's honest and responsible enough with herself to know that she's not ready to become intimate. Yet, when she decides to become intimate on "Funny How The Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)" she's a willing participant, enjoying the pleasure her lover brings her to where she asks for another go 'round. To switch on and off in lust, wasn't a contradiction, but a normality, a true naturalness, to embrace intimacy at this mature level.

"Funny How The Times Flies" is Janet's 'Sade moment' for sure, as it moves at a slower and steamier cadence purring provocative, as it lounges in afterglow. From an aural standpoint, "Funny" is also where Jam and Lewis flex knowledge on how a soulful 'ballad' works. As much they become known for their funk workouts, Jam and Lewis really turned the slow jam into something past filler in the 1980s. Their previous concoctions like Cherrelle's "Will You Satisfy", Alexander O'Neal's "If You Were Here Tonight", and Dynasty's "The Only One", while underrated, are a far cry from the over-sexualized lyricals we hear too often today as they are songs that possess depth within passion, within sentiment.

Janet may be adopting Donna Summer-styled moans and groans of pleasure, mumbling French nothings in her lover's ear, but like Summer did a decade ago on the seminal, "Love To Love You Baby", she does every innuendo-filled line without sounding cloying and cheap. It would take a few more years before Janet teased with even greater titillation ("Twenty Foreplay" and "Anytime, Anyplace") and expressed her sexuality in even grander, more risque gestures (1993's .janet), but "Funny How The Time Flies" is where her reputation for sex kittenism begins and where Janet puts distance between her youth on the sexual tip.

She's now W-O-M-A-N with fanfare, the circle of control complete.

+ + + +

This year I have closed the curtain on my twenties, turning 30 years-young, and sharing age with Control. While Rhythm Nation and Velvet Rope are my two favorite collections from Janet, I still feel that Control molded and shaped me more so, and even today, continues to do. The first time I listened to Control was at 10. I had pulled the album out of my father's record collection and at first listen, the music, the vibe took me completely off-guard. At that age I hadn't formed the correct words, organized the right thoughts towards the events that unfolded in front of my young eyes.

Feminism, gender inequality, rape culture, body autonomy, personal agency, independence  --- those terms weren't in my growing vocabulary just yet, but introduced to them I had been, from how teachers blew off my concerns over a boy pulling my braids, to when I was called 'bossy' when I demanded the girls be allowed to play during a 4th grade baseball game, to when I was harassed in high school by a boy who took my "no" as "you're playing hard to get", to how I felt oftentimes finding myself the only Black woman in a room of white faces. Still I hadn't formed 'eloquent' words and thoughts in order to express myself and often times I remained quiet because of this.

Then there was this thing about "independence".

As much as I was a huge Michael Jackson fan in my youth, finding a big sister muse within his sister, Janet, proved to be a special, almost life alternating case for me. She was speaking on my 10-year-old level with this album, she 'got' my impatience of wanting to 'grow up', to be taken serious (yes, I was a very serious 10-year-old) as an only child who was often surrounded by lots of adults. Pairing this album with Spice GirlsSpice, TLC's Crazy Sexy Cool, and Mariah Carey's Butterfly, Janet became yet another big sister in my head, who was teaching me about the early expectations of womanhood and the current undertones I was becoming privy to.

Still, I was listening to Janet in a backwards fashion, and it was an interesting, almost jarring position to be in, as by the time I put the needle on Control, Janet was IN control. She was sexually awoken and had expanded upon her style and sound, ruminating over deeper social themes and personal matters. So to see her actually gain control 10 years later from the initial declaration gave me clearance that yes, it was possible for a woman, a Black woman, to assert herself and demand to be heard and respected, and to fight for her own independence.

At the time that I bought my own copy of Control, I had also recently purchased Velvet Rope. As Janet was 30 at the time of Velvet Rope, despondent and a little dejected over fame and her personal life, I listened close and heard that she still felt the need to not prop up the white flag, she still had that wide-eyed 20-year-old inside, cheering her on, even when the rainstorm raged in her mind. This is why I retain such a fierce devotion towards Janet and her music, she was often showing in her own way how to fight for your space, your identity, when life knocked her down, she still managed to regain the utmost control.

Of course I know, now, this is a pop star image to sell, an image to give an impression. Janet will be richer and more connected than I'll probably ever be, but I always feel that Pablo Picasso is right in saying that art is the lie that helps us realize the truth. Whether Janet meant it or not, was acting like the pop star she is where fantasies and illusions are sold to the highest gullible believer, there was some truth to the method, truth in her actions, and truth to the declarations of independence.

It's remarkable that Control, 30 years later, still evokes such emotion, such liberation within it's frame for those like myself who just wanted the permission to own our own way.
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