Control worked past its political moment by contending that definitions of control don’t have to mesh with neatly prepackaged ideas.
Janet Jackson’s third album emphasized her own control over its composition, production and overall branding. Her newfound autonomy was (and continues to be) significant. Independence doesn’t come easy to major-label musicians, much less black, female pop stars in the ‘80s. Consider also the fact that Jackson had to crawl out from under the shadow of her manipulative father and extremely successful brother to assert her power. But it’s also important to highlight how the album redefines control and provides a key political intervention near the end of the Cold War era.
If you were to listen only to Control’s first half, you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole album is about Jackson’s desire to dominate, as she sings“I’m in control, never gonna stop/ Control, to get what I want” in the chorus of the title track. But the album’s back half finds Jackson asserting that submission to romantic impulses and potential lovers is powerful in its own right. This isn’t Jackson trying to soften the edges of her fierceness to make the record more palatable, as has often been assumed and sometimes mocked. Instead, it represents Jackson exemplifying the kind of authority that gives in without erasing human will.
This is clearest and most stirring on “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive.” The concept here is that Jackson is crushing on a boy from a distance and trying to overcome her nerves to introduce herself to him. “Someday I’ll find the nerve/ To talk to him and stop acting so reserved,” she declares. But she doesn’t meaningfully achieve this goal by song’s end. Instead, she panics at the thought of being alone with him when she drops by his place and blurts out that she must have the wrong address. “There we were, all alone,” she nearly shrieks, while her voice trembles with excitable imagination. This desire is almost entirely out of her control—and her recognition and embrace of this fact provide her with an elemental kind of power. The song is bursting with willfulness (she’s the one pursuing him, after all), but she very purposely refuses to move things forward, especially since she might find out that he’s a nasty boy anyways.
Control was progressive in its black feminism and, even amid the excess of the ‘80s, was only interested in wealth if it transcended the dullness of accumulating objects. “Where’d you get the idea of material possession?” she asks on “The Pleasure Principle.” In even asking such a question, she finds a middle ground between American opulence and Soviet austerity. For Jackson, capitalism doesn’t have to mean incessant, worldly gain—it could just open up some space for emotional honesty in its most danceable forms. This doesn’t fit neatly with recognizably political music from the period—it’s not punk, protest music or message-driven hip-hop—but it provides a template for how a pop record can subtly broach the political through a nuanced representation of the personal.
It seems no mistake that the videos Janet Jackson released to promote Control take place in quintessentially American settings: a diner, a movie theater, a suburban home, a back alley. In the wake of the album’s release, a decidedly mechanized idea of pop music began to emanate from these locales. American industry was groaning, but its machines suddenly came to ebullient life in its mainstream music. Proto-new jack swing tracks like “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” still sound as if they’re echoing through the very warehouses that Reagan’s vision of America had abandoned. The album’s sonic palette doesn’t connote emptiness, however, but excitement about the creative potential of a new kind of industriousness.
Control worked past its political moment by contending that definitions of control don’t have to mesh with neatly prepackaged ideas. It’s an album that understands, perhaps better than any other, that industry, art, sweaty desire and creativity can intertwine anywhere—especially when the worker takes up power for herself.