Originally published on So So Gay on 19 September 2014.
Ever since her right boob caused a completely proportional and not at all hysterical collective pearl-clutching in America, Janet Jackson’s presence on the music scene has increasingly diminished as the years roll by. It’s perhaps easy to forget – certainly for the One Direction-obsessed yoof of today – that Ms Jackson is a trailblazing, record breaking, multiple award-winning, inspirational artist, absolutely on a par with go-to icons like Madonna. Perhaps where she went wrong was by not taking an arty, monochrome photo of said boob and publishing it in a book for posterity.
25 years ago this week, the youngest sibling of the Jackson family released the seminal album Rhythm Nation 1814. While technically her fourth studio album, it’s generally perceived to be Janet’s second due to third album Control catapulting her into the upper echelons of the charts and bringing with it worldwide success and acclaim. So how to follow an album like Control? With an even better album that dominates the charts, breaks records and receives nine Grammy Award nominations, of course. Simple!
Leading the charge in August 1989, the timeless classic ‘Miss You Much’ signified that Janet, who had initially been hesitant about pursuing a career in music (!), was clearly seriously about this singing malarkey and Control wasn’t to be a one off. Even now, the crisp, new jack swing sound courtesy of Janet’s long-term producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, makes for an arresting and undeniably infectious hit song. It quite unsurprisingly topped the charts upon release and also initiated a record-breaking run of singles. Not only did Rhythm Nation 1814 become the only album to ever have singles that topped the American Hot 100 in three separate years (‘Miss You Much’ – 1989, ‘Escapade’ and ‘Black Cat‘ – 1990, ‘Love Will Never Do (Without You)‘ – 1991), but it also managed to have a record-breaking run of seven consecutive Top 5 Billboard hit singles – a feat yet to be bested.
After declaring her independence and carving out a fresh musical identity on Control, Janet turned her gaze to the world at large for some of the material on Rhythm Nation 1814. While the social injustice-inspired tracks ‘Rhythm Nation‘, ‘State of the World’ and ‘The Knowledge’ may seem a little naive when viewed with the cynical eyes of 2014, like many young adults Janet Jackson saw problems with the modern world around her – even if she was a member of one of the most famous and successful musical families – and music was her tool to make a difference. Clearly a pop banger was never going to render the UN obsolete, but it was an admirable and personal attempt by a growing artist to do something with the platform she had attained.
Along with these musings on human society, part of the brilliance of Rhythm Nation 1814 is how it sat them alongside more straightforward songs about love, such as the aforementioned ‘Miss You Much’ and the unstoppable joy of ‘Escapade’, while also including some more sensual songs (‘Come Back to Me’, ‘Someday is Tonight’) that opened the door for the full-blown exploration of her feminine sexuality in her following studio album, the similarly critically acclaimed Janet.
In many ways, Rhythm Nation 1814 acknowledged that music fans – and people in general, for that matter – are multifaceted beings who think about many subjects, both deep and superficial, who can want to change the world but similarly love to dance. The record also successfully developed Janet’s repertoire as singer, dancer, all-round entertainer, who was furthermore capable of delivering songs with something to say. The album’s striking visual concept and accompanying tour also moved Janet to fashion icon status with her strong military outfits that inspired an army of young women across the world.
Jackson’s warm, soft and understated vocals perfectly complemented the more jagged and harsher tones that identified this musical era. Full of killer hooks and lush production values, Rhythm Nation 1814 is a mind-boggling achievement for the then 23-year-old Janet. Even at just over an hour in length, it’s a body of work that runs so seamlessly and sublimely that when Janet sends the record out with the closing bookend of ‘Interlude: Livin’…In Complete Darkness’ it still feels too soon. To quote a similarly disappointed sounding Janet in the last few seconds of ‘Miss You Much’, ‘That’s the end?’. Thankfully, this is why the Baby Jesus invented the Repeat All button.
Standout Tracks: ALL. OF. IT.