Jackson understands better than most the intricacies of human emotion, and being an innovator and black woman in entertainment certainly deepened her perspectives.
The word “iconic” gets used a lot thanks to the advent of stan culture, but it is applicable and appropriate when addressing Janet Damita Jo Jackson. Never one to stay in the shadow of her famous siblings or adversity, she pushed herself to icon status seemingly through sheer force of will. Along the way, she served as a role model for black women, a fashion trendsetter and a sonic innovator. Her sound can be heard in acts ranging from Tony! Toni! Toné! to Madonna to J-Pop icon Namie Amuro. Thirty years after the release of her landmark Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, her influence remains a powerful force in pop culture.
The Rhythm Nation look, sleek yet imposing, ranks among the most distinctive outfits in music history, as identifiable as a Beatles bob or Britney’s red jumpsuit. Yet it stands as just one of Jackson’s own signature appearances, a look book including the Janet. cover and her Poetic Justice box braids. She accomplished all of this before age 30, and even afterwards she only continued her climb. Nearly a decade after Rhythm Nation, The Velvet Rope arrived to rave reviews and only further cemented Jackson as one of popular music’s most legendary acts.
In the following years, Jackson’s output stayed as catchy and insightful, even when unsightly figures attempted to bring about her downfall. Damita Jo and Discipline feature cuts that made it to this list, one of them even making an appearance in an ANTM promo. Yet it took until the mid-‘10s for public opinion to swing back to her favor—and it came roaring back. Getting Jackson to play the Super Bowl Halftime Show after the infamous 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” now seems as urgent as getting Missy Elliott her overdue MTV Vanguard Award.
A retrospective reveals a prolific catalog whose contents are layered with more than just surface-level meaning. Tracks such as “Young Love” or “If” sport bouncy, upbeat tempos that belie tints of sadness and longing. Jackson understands better than most the intricacies of human emotion, and being an innovator and black woman in entertainment certainly deepened her perspectives. Her songs all carry those same complexities, and it’s why they resonate so strongly even decades later.
17. “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” (2004)
A whisper “This is sick” ushers us forward into a subtle construction, a sonic architecture that seems cohesive and crisp but which involves layers of rhythmic elements, all moving in unison and built around a sample from Herbie Hancock’s “”Hang Up Your Hang Ups”. Yet each element also retains an individual presence in the mix, bringing together elements of electro-funk and dancehall pop, as well as the swing beats Jackson and her producers so favor for her singles. Lyrically, a cluster of metaphors compare a range of experiences to choreography and dancing: “Jerk it like you’re making it choke/ Break it like you’re breakin’ a code/ Drop it till you’re taking it lower …” and the song continues Janet’s meta-compositional practice; singing about singing and dancing, songs that draw attention to their content as songs, invocations to enjoy the text one is currently enjoying.
“All Nite (Don’t Stop)” was the third single released from Damita Jo and the one, it was hoped, that would break the puritanical blacklist after the 2004 Super Bowl moment. And, as a career saver, there’s no better; crisp production from the Swedes Bag & Arnthor and a stunning video to match, followed up with live performances on “SNL”, “Good Morning America” and “On Air with Ryan Seacrest.” It wasn’t enough – the single foundered in the charts with little support, peaking at No. 33 on Billboard’s Mainstream Chart. Yet, the song has endured and is widely – and justifiably – recognized as the strongest song on the album.
16. “Young Love” (1982)
Though Jackson disregards much of her earlier material, certain moments still stand out among her solid repertoire. Admittedly, few of the songs from her debut album hold any staying power, but the upbeat “Young Love” absolutely does. “I may be young, but I’m not foolish” gave listeners their first glimpse of the woman who would “take control” only four years later. Here, Jackson glides along like a young teenager going through their first crush. In the midst of infatuation, however, “Young Love” still keeps one foot on the ground, more proof of Jackson’s maturity and pluckiness as not a persona developed for Control but an integral part of who she is. The interpolation of “Ring around the Roses” in the chorus further hints at trouble in paradise, at least if you believe the rhyme refers to the Plague.
Despite knowing the risks involved, Jackson plunges headfirst, not necessarily unafraid of getting hurt but certainly fearful of missing her chance. Horns and disco violins further animate her adolescent passion, something everyone who’s ever experienced puberty knows all too well. It’s a testament to Jackson’s talent that even if her heart wasn’t totally in “Young Love,” the appeal and relatability still was.
15. “Strawberry Bounce” (2004)
In a moment, some 9/16ths of a second apparently, “Nipplegate” just about undid a career’s worth of work for Janet (yet, of course, left her male co-performer unscathed). The album Damita Jo which followed in 2004 was, at least in part, her carefully crafted, and justifiably furious, response to the event and, as a consequence, sex and body-positive messages abound. “Strawberry Bounce” is a glorious, up-tempo example of exactly the kinds of genius Jackson can muster when driven and, for all of its consistent and unwavering through-line, the song manages to balance superficial fun with a message that is delivered entirely seriously.
Launching with the bouncing bass drum and Jay-Z-sampled word “bounce” from his “Can I Get A…”, the song’s playfulness sits with the toy piano-like chimes that tinkle throughout, while a half-whispered “I like to make it/ You know I’ll make it/ (Now can you take it)” eases us into the song. This is a vocalist entirely in control of not just her sexuality, but how that sexuality will be received and interpreted: “Don’t trip/ You know you want to watch this/ I’m a pro you won’t be disappointed/ Gonna leave you beggin’ for more”. “Strawberry Bounce” is absolutely an example of less-is-more with its minimal instrumentation, bare bones drum machine patterns and, throughout, that silky voice that moves from its sultry whisper only for the chorus and, even then, offers delicious restraint as a way of leaving the listener wanting more.
14. “Scream” (1995)
It felt inevitable that Janet would collaborate at some point with her brother Michael, and so it was with much anticipation that “Scream” was released at the height of the pop stars’ superpowers in 1995. That it was a spectacle is an understatement; the video cost a record-breaking $7 million, securing a spot in history (as well as HIStory) as the most expensive music video ever made to date. Even to modern eyes, it’s worth every penny. Shot in high contrast black and white, Mark Romanek’s space odyssey is alive with texture: oil slick latex pants, shirts of foam rubber spikes, metallic coats trimmed in fur. Janet’s hair is especially fierce with a wild, Warhol-esque shag. Her sooty eye make-up is most definitely not to be fucked with.
The song was Michael’s missive to tabloid culture. These were the “Wacko Jacko” years – think hyperbaric chamber and Elephant Man bones – but also, critically, the point in time when accusations of sexual abuse were ramping up. “Peek in the shadows/ Come into the light/ You tell me I’m wrong/ Then you better prove you’re right.” The track is interrupted with an airy stream-of-consciousness breakdown by Janet; the words flutter by and it’s almost a strain to hear it before Michael punctures through with an emotional wail. The siblings channel each other’s animus and illness, and there is love in that pain.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to process this performative victimhood in the wake of Leaving Neverland or to inoculate Janet from her brother’s legacy. We can only know that the screams were real, whether or not they were right.
13. “Control” (1986)
The spoken word incantation of “Control” is delivered with a cool electricity. “This is a story about control/ My control,” she intones, and despite the deliberative affect, there’s an undeniable sense of her readiness to pop off: “I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.” She flips the switch and there’s that iconic beat of quick clicks, steam release and a strobe light of heavenly digitized tones: Janet’s leveling up, her self-actualization realized with industrial precision.
But this transformation is a story as Janet moves from aggravation to liberation. The verses are slap-backs to repressive forces (her infamous father/manager, her estranged ex) while the bridges are melodious contemplations of freedom. The chorus is her new, chosen reality, snapping into a determined mindset with emphasized consonants and a husky directness. “I’m on my own/ I’ll call my own shots/ Thank you” turns obedience on its head, words of courtesy signifying the most amazing dismissal.
It’s clear what she was walking away from, but “Control” is also a mission statement of what she was moving towards. With Joe Jackson out of the frame, Janet worked with the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for Control, earning co-writing and co-producing credits in collaboration with the duo. Because as much as freedom is about loosening someone else’s grip, it’s also about finding your people. “Control” might have been directed at an audience of one, but its performance energized a generation.
12. “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1993)
Recognized as a sonic and image reinvention for Miss Jackson, “That’s The Way Love Goes” is edgy and sensual. Mellow and oozing with sexuality, the lyrical content is matched perfectly with the inviting song arrangement and warm, soulful overtones. Jackson’s approach to sexuality here is a revelation, asking for love and respect (not to mention sexual fulfillment) from not only the object of her desires, but also herself. On “That’s The Way Love Goes”, Jackson leaves behind her flirty, good girl persona and allows herself to be vulnerable (“Come closer baby, closer/ Reach out and feel my body”). Its charm and romantic nature made it not only a highlight of her fifth album janet., but also of her career; channeling the spirit of Motown and vintage R&B to craft a calm, erotic, effortless summer slow jam. It’s all vibe – its hip-hop soul sound providing the perfect backdrop for a sexual awakening (“Go deeper baby, deeper… you feel so good I wanna cry”), relying not on high tempos or explicit content but instead on lilting vocals and subtlety. It was a pivotal moment in Jackson’s career. Now in her mid-twenties it was time to leave behind the fluorescent dance-pop and cloyingly cute nature and strive for something a little bit more mature. And she did so with aplomb.
11. “Miss You Much” (1989)
The sound of an artist coming into the genre they pioneered, this kicks new jack swing into its high gears. Rightfully chosen as Rhythm Nation’s lead single, it signaled the arrival of Janet the Superstar. The percussion slams down on the off-beats with a spirited intensity, clearing the way for the leader of a new movement.
Similar to “Young Love” before it, “Miss You Much” grapples with the double-edged sword of affection. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, but it also agitates it. Jackson, caught up in the rush of love, lets this distress act as an impetus for her creativity: “When I’m away too long/ it makes my body hot.” Leave it to Jackson to turn a complicated feeling into a concept just as complex and captivating. Of course, it can’t be mentioned without a not to its music video. “Okay you guys really wanna know?” Jackson asks her assembled posse before going off. Every lean and kick-ball-change lands with the motivation of someone on a mission. Even when the chorus delays the second time around, she and her dancers never miss a beat. Just as you expect a bit of engaging chair choreography, it goes to black and Jackson’s voice is heard saying “That’s the end?” Like parting from your partner, it all ends far too soon.
10. “Feedback” (2008)
Songwriter LaShawn Daniels passed away earlier this year, leaving behind a legacy of fantastic singles. Yet he and Jackson never received quite due credit for this slinky, undulating cut from her overlooked years. Like Damita Jo, Discipline arrived at a time where the public was still at odds with Jackson, a tragedy not only because of the success she lost but because of the memories we missed. Before Kesha brought about the major auto tune revolution of the 2010s, “Feedback” slunk onto the scene with a digitized Jackson carried along by a minimal electronic pulse. Everything about this song, from its metaphors to the whip-cracking four-on-the-floor beat, exudes sophistication. The way she purrs the line “Strum me like a guitar/ Blow out my amplifier” leaves little to the imagination. It never relies on lofty notes or riffs to make a statement; the “Ooohs!” interspersed throughout the song do the work just fine on their own.
Furthermore, the line “‘Cause my swag is serious/ Something heavy like a first day period” deserves a Pulitzer, or even the Medal of Honor. Even while large portions of the public still viewed her as a sinful seductress, Jackson never shied away from giving them something to clutch their pearls over.
9. “Escapade” (1990)
Of all the iconographic aspects of Janet Jackson (her style, choreography, family lineage), her sweet smile is no doubt the most immediate image. “Escapade” sees Janet flexing those cheekbones in a song motivated only by a breezy pursuit of delight. “Well I’d like to be with you/ And you know it’s Friday too/ I hope you can find the time/ This weekend to relax and unwind” – it’s literally every working person’s prayer.
Relatable, and a decent pop song, too: “Escapade” spent 3 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts. Janet’s leisure-time fantasy is adorned with bell tones and synthesized strings, the rhythmic delivery of the word “Es-ca-pade” recalling the staggered syncopation of “Miss You Much.” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – buying into the premise, perhaps – took a minimalistic approach to production, declining to rework the track and instead letting it breathe itself onto tape. Janet’s message? Let the imperfections go, feel the love and dance!
Much like Madonna’s “Cherish” single, “Escapade” renegotiated some space for a pop star exploring a panoply of identities. A reprieve from the stark reality of “Rhythm Nation” and a fling before a deeper examination of sexuality on janet., “Escapade” endures as the free spirit of Janet’s hits.
8. “All for You” (2001)
The title track from the 2001 album is frank about its desire and explicit about what the singer wants: “Look at his body/ Shakin’ that thing/ Like I never did see/ Got a nice package alright/ Guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight”. Thankfully, “All for You” is more than just its lyrical content, although, truth be told, the way Jackson manages to flirt with the content, even as the song is itself about flirting, is pretty masterful.
What’s most captivating is the manner with which the song pulls together a flurry of ‘70s and ‘80s soul vibes into a cohesive whole (think the high strummed guitars of Spandau Ballet with a baseline by Chic for example), over which Jackson effortlessly croons “All for you/ Tell me you’re the only one/ Soon we’ll be having fun/ Come over here and get some.” Throughout, the drums shuffle in a way that demands intimacy and, emerging from time to time, a cheeky sampled rhythm of man panting can be heard, just in case we were in danger of missing quite what’s going on. Part of the skill Jam and Lewis bring to their production of Janet’s work is their restraint: an Auto-Tuned vocal is present, but in the background, just another instrument to flesh out the delicately layered mix. “All for You” would make No. 1 in the US charts, recognition that, as Jam and Lewis suspected, audiences prefer the upbeat Janet here to the darker tone of 1997’s The Velvet Rope.
7. “When I Think of You” (1986)
Like most of Jackson’s third album, Control, “When I Think of You” is quintessential ‘80s dance-pop. A gleeful love song based around two rotating piano chords and propelled by expressive bassline, here Jackson’s vocals are at their sweetest. Funky guitars and staccato orchestra and brass hits are dotted throughout, providing the song with ample blasts of energy. The song and its album came at a time when Jackson was beginning to explore themes of female empowerment and as such can be accused as a moment of self-contradiction or counter-productivity, especially considering the songs admittedly schmaltzy lyrical content (“‘Cause when I think of you, baby/ Nothin’ else seems to matter/ ‘Cause when I think of you, baby/ All I think about is our love”). However, it was her first crossover success, a number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 where it stayed for a fortnight. This feat assisted her in stepping out of the shadow of her family name, making her the only Jackson, along with Michael, to have a number one hit record. Its importance to her career and alongside the rest of her back catalogue is as undeniable as its infectiousness.
6. “If” (1993)
“If” showcases Jackson at her most genre-bending. In keeping with the reinvention of her persona on the janet. album, “If” borrows from the danceable end of the industrial rock with howling guitars, sleek but punchy boom-bap beats and tasteful synthetic strings as the track reaches its apex; all the while Jackson is preoccupied with visions of a man who wouldn’t give her the time of day. The lyrical content centres on the notion of avoiding temptation to stop oneself from chasing after someone else’s significant other but not without imagining every possibility in graphic detail. Jackson’s vocal on “If” is lightning fast, almost rapped. Both bold and subtle (“Your smooth and shiny feels so good / Against my lips, sugar”), we see Janet let her mind run wild and just as things seem like they’re about to boil over, the track comes to an abrupt end. Possibly the closest Janet has come to true female empowerment in that the track is essentially about masturbation – not denying herself the right to an orgasm, but denying herself the right to someone else who is otherwise engaged. Somewhat sinister, overwhelmingly sexy, it’s arguable that “If” is the Janet track that has best stood the test of time.
5. “Together Again” (1997)
1997’s The Velvet Rope is considered by many to be Janet Jackson’s magnum opus. Its lyrical scope covers domestic violence, depression and homophobia. Jackson approaches these topics in a relatable way. The songs feel personal, rather than driving a wedge between artist and audience by being too self-righteous. True to form, there are turn-on tracks (“Rope Burn”) and straight-up R&B jams (“Go Deep” and the heart-wrenching “I Get Lonely”). “Together Again” meets the soul-searching and all-embracing halfway. The second single from The Velvet Rope, “Together Again” was inspired in equal parts by the death of a friend from AIDS and fan mail Jackson received about the death of the letter writer’s father. Composed as a ballad, the finished product is infinitely more uplifting and powerful – Donna Summer inspired, up-tempo, four-to-the-floor dance-pop with a heartfelt message. Its spiritual lyrics ran the risk of being hackneyed and ham-fisted but Jackson’s sweet vocals and the magnitude of the song’s earworm chorus give it an irresistibly bittersweet feel. It’s deceptive. On first listen, you may be fooled into believing it’s saccharine, cookie-cutter, hit parade stuff but once you pay close attention to the words she’s actually singing, and let yourself get caught up in the coffee house groove, the nuclear sugar really comes out.
4. “The Pleasure Principle” (1986)
Another stellar and sublime manifesto, this marks the moment on Control where she looks to her future. Whereas the title track and “Nasty” assert her dominance, here she envisions her goals. The joy in “Pleasure Principle” comes not from Jackson experiencing it herself, but from understanding that it’s within her grasp. She puts her own pleasure and desires first, eager to chase them now that she’s shrugged off her dead weight.
Janet doesn’t just encourage self-empowerment, she demands it. “I got so many, things I wanna do, before I’m through” resonates forcefully in 2019 when you consider Jackson’s milestones. A young woman, who until that point largely obeyed her mentors, broke free and established the beginnings of her legacy. At just 20 years old, she forged a legacy simply by placing herself first, something so many artists, and especially women in music, struggle to accomplish.
As with all accomplishments, the reward only comes after a great deal of effort. The track evokes this by building and building for nearly five minutes, with Jackson reaching for the high notes as the track reaches its conclusion. Through it all, she stays composed, and more importantly, she also stays thoughtful. She relays her lessons to her former partner not with acid or scorn but with the enlightened air of someone who’s above it all. Even when she speeds away in her vehicle, she still checks her rear view mirror to make sure you’re doing alright on your own.
3. “Nasty” (1986)
“Nasty” could so easily be a very different beast; a metronomic Linn drum rhythm and hard-edged metallic percussion – this is the kind of territory that Nitzer Ebb might wander across if the song didn’t swing as much as it does, while the cute-yet-repetitive tune, a synth whistle/organ hybrid coupled with sampled brass stabs, speaks to the earliest moments of digital synthesis and affordable samplers. The Ensoniq Mirage is draped across this song and album, the samples crisp and clear as an FM Radio-friendly hit song should be.
Control is the album that pushed Janet the songwriter to the fore, eclipsing forever the two previous albums, both middling efforts, and leaving behind the legacy of Janet the TV sitcom star. And if the song “Control” spoke to Janet’s career assertions, divorcing her husband and dumping her father as manager, “Nasty” is a manifesto of artistic and personal integrity, starting with the injunction to “Gimme a beat” and reminding us that “My last name is Control/ No, my first name ain’t baby/ It’s Janet/ Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” Elsewhere, Jimmy Jam has discussed the recording of Control and speaks of his and Terry Lewis’ inexperience, leading to tracks recorded at a higher volume than the equipment could handle. The result, after a great deal of panicked post-production, is a harder-edged sound overall, and for “Nasty”, a gritty and razor-sharp finish that would point forward to her next album, 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814.
2. “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” (1986)
“Ooh ooh ooh yeah”
Janet Jackson never wanted to be a pop star. After her time on TV show “Fame,” she wanted to go to college, but at her father Joseph Jackson’s insistence and arrangement, signed to A&M Records in 1982. He would oversee the production of her first two albums, Janet Jackson and Dream Street, both of which lacked any real personality and were essentially overshadowed by big brother Michael’s Thriller. By the time of recording her third album, Control, Janet had assumed just that. Her act of rebellion included marrying and divorcing her teenage sweetheart James DeBarge (much to her father’s disapproval), firing her father as her manager, and forging her long-time partnership with producer duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “What Have You Done for Me Lately” was effectively Jackson’s declaration of independence. With lyrics that reflect her recent divorce, the track is a defiant, uptempo toe tapper. Though Jackson would become much more mature in her female empowerment by the time of 1993’s janet., this was her first foray into such territory – and a formative one in the world of R&B, pre-dating TLC’s “No Scrubs” by over a decade. Though simplistic lyrically (“I never ask for more than I deserve, you know it’s the truth/ You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this earth/ I’m telling you no way”), the song’s theme and relentless, sledge-like beat are what gives it its power. “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” was the true beginning of the OG independent woman, a career U-turn for a true industry icon.
1. “Rhythm Nation” (1989)
“Rhythm Nation” is as much cinema as it is song: for all of its visual artistry – shifting angles of shadow and light, lightning flashes filtered through mechanical steam, choreography that is both lockstep and impossibly fluid – the most potent image is that of Janet’s key earring. “A generation of courage/ Come forth with me today” – she’s seized the jailer’s key and wears it as an accessory. This is the power of the people, and Janet is ready to lead.
Her call to activism urges collectivism and unity, with music as a rallying force. Janet hypes up the boot camp-style chorus of “We are a part of the rhythm nation” with yelps and encouragements to “Sing it out!”, as if leading her fleet in a protest march. This vision of dystopia has her brethren dressed in utilitarian black uniforms, identities ostensibly erased. But the conformity is only superficial; in “Rhythm Nation,” anonymity is subversive and binding. “Say it, people/ Say it different/ Say it if you want a better way of life” – our voices in unison compose a song for the future, but enough of us must sing in order to be heard.
Janet had no illusions of engineering social change; to hear her tell it, she only endeavored to provide apolitical youth with a “positive message” backed by a danceable beat. Thirty years on, “Rhythm Nation” lives on as an anthem of our collective consciousness, as a pop culture benchmark and a work of activist art that, despite the passage of time, still shows us the way to unlock a revolution.
Blurbs by Stacey Pavlick, Scott Wilson, Mick Jacobs and Danny Kilmartin