Janet Jackson’s work from the 90’s was undoubtedly influential to me growing up (I was born in ’87). I realize how much listening to her music and watching her dance showed me what it meant to be a woman.
Control was a record a bit before the timeline I’d like to discuss here, but Jackson started to explore her identity and agency with this work. Obviously, a celebrity of Jackson’s status had to contend with managers, producers, and her record label when exploring her identity, and I recognize those constraints/influences. We see this fusion of personal convictions and mass appeal with the mix of socially conscious or feminist content blended with “stunners”–songs produced and marketed with fiscal return in mind. Despite this, Jackson’s persona subverted authority and embraced individuality.
Rhythm Nation, released in 1989, was the first on my timeline of influential Jackson records.
The first track on Rhythm Nation, “Interlude: Pledge,” pokes heavily at national myth and globalization. When you listen to the monotone echo of voices (with Jackson’s audibly in the foreground), they say “we are a nation of no geographic boundaries, bound together by our beliefs.” Mimicking the U.S. “Pledge of Allegiance,” Jackson’s intonation invokes a lifelessness critiquing national tradition.
Steam noises reminiscent of a factory play.
This pledge is followed by soundbites of a soul singer’s scream (which is sampled throughout “Rhythm Nation“), a clip of Jackson’s powerful 80’s track “Nasty.” After this layering of sounds brings us back to life from the chilling intro, we are introduced to an anthem-like hip-hop track, “Rhythm Nation,” filled with declarations like “with music by our sides, we’ll break the color lines” and “a generation full of courage coming forth with me.” The voices in the refrain, with soulfulness unmatched by any white man’s pledge of allegiance, “people of the world today, are you ready for a better way of life? we are a part of the rhythm nation.” If you watch the music video, there is a true magic to the dancers performing in a factory setting. I won’t go full Marxist here, although I could.
Jackson’s voice in the fore, becoming a near scream during the crescendo of the song, pleading “sing it people, sing it children, sing it if you want a better way of life,” is enough to bring a tear to the eye of my adult self. I’d compare the whole track to a secular “Come Unto Jesus” produced by Jimmy Jam. There’s something special about it being sung by a woman, by Jackson.
The rest of the record contains some late 80’s charmers like “Miss You Much,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” and “Escapade.” In these tracks, Jackson seems to take on a role fit for a male crooner, expressing her sensuality, which we see amplified in her persona throughout the rest of the 90’s.
With the release 1993’s janet. I was definitely watching MTV when I wasn’t supposed to be at home. I remember seeing the music video for “If” and imitating Jackson’s dance moves. The 90’s was a time I would join a dance company, a discipline I committed to for 10 years (yes, pedantic me, a dancer). Watching Jackson influenced this decision.
The intensity of the bass line in this song mirrors Jackson’s relentless, spirited exploration of female sexuality. Not that I could understand this in ’93, but Jackson displays considerable power in the video by enacting a dominant role. Set in a dystopic geisha house, Jackson oozes power. This significance should not be understated. We are used to seeing these experiences framed from a male perspective. Jackson’s persona in this video is one which refuses to be infantalized and is instead in control. The lyrics of the song “if I was your girl all the things I’d do to you, but I’m not” seems to be a teasing quip referring to the male gaze. I feel Jackson displays a knowing antagonism here.
In the album, Jackson also hides Easter eggs like the interlude “Racism” where she says “in a world sick with racism, get well soon.” She follows that up with the song “New Agenda” which speaks directly to her experiences seeking agency as a black woman in the public eye. In this song we hear Jackson’s goodhearted social agenda again.
Around this time Jackson released “Scream” with her brother, Michael. This song reminds me of how enamored I was with the Jackson family, especially Janet and Michael, growing up. Here, both siblings explore their anger in regards to prescribed gender roles (Janet shown peeing standing up, Michael with is signature androgynous walk) and the demands and contradiction of the spectacle they had both been heavily enmeshed in all their lives.
And also: look at those fuckin’ dance moves.
1997’s The Velvet Rope continued the “Scream” ethos, with a gritty, enigmatic sound. At the time, Jackson was competing with the likes of Prodigy (who scared the SHIT out of me at age 10), yet her music was moving and apropos.
“Empty” talks about losing a deep love, while “You” explores identity (“does what they think of you determine your worth?”). The track “What About” turns Jackson’s feminized crooner position, along with her idyllic “teen Janet” on its head. The track is about the underside of romance culture–a culture unrealistically heightened in many pop songs to the detriment of many real world relationships. In the track she says during the chorus: “what about the times you lied to me, what about the times you said no one would want me, what about all the shit you done to me, what about the times I cried, you wouldn’t even hold me, what about the times you said no one would want me, what about the times you hit my face, what about the times you kept on when I said ‘no more please!’?”
Jackson’s explorations of female identity in the 90s will always remain a part of my thought life. It was a captivating decade for music. And female identity.