Sunday, September 22nd, 2019

The Singles Jukebox Celebrates 30 Years of Rhythm Nation 1814 (a Janet Jackson retrospective)


Janet Jackson’s had one hell of a career. It’d be glittering even if you were to cut the album she released 30 years ago this week out of history. And historic is what Rhythm Nation 1814 is, not like a war, but like a discovery; it was groundbreaking and influential and so much pop released in its wake owes it a debt of gratitude. The album contained seven top 10 singles in the U.S., each with indelible melodies, state-of-the-art beats and vivid music videos. Janet was always on the radio, always on TV, and welcome everywhere she went. She endured the failure of two albums and the weight of family baggage before reinventing herself, seizing artistic control and having one of the longest and brightest imperial phases of any pop star. Sex positive, romantic, assertive and wise, she’s an icon whose brilliance comes as much from how her songs make us feel about ourselves as they do about her.

Her familial connections might help explain her, but they didn’t define or limit her. She’s a sympathetic performer, an innovator in the development of music video as an art form (someone in her camp needs to fix up her spotty presence on video streaming sites, people need to see these videos in HD) and a smart, underrated songwriter in her own right. There’s a lot of Jackson in Beyonce, in Rihanna, in Britney, and in any woman who makes us smile and makes us dance. Because she did all those things over and over again.

Here’s a bunch of songs by Miss Jackson that moved us, or just made us move:

Katherine St Asaph on “Nasty” [8.14]

Date the quote: “[His] dance cuts have a format-friendly, artificial sheen … but she seems more concerned with identity than playlists.” This is not from 2019, about a post-Spotify pop star (I cheated a bit, leaving out a reference to “Arthur Baker dance breaks”) but from the ’80s. Specifically, it’s from the Rolling Stone review of Janet Jackson’s’s Control, the first half of which is a review of a comparatively nothing Jermaine Jackson album. This was typical: if press didn’t dismiss her as an biographical afterthought who happened to still sing, they wrote about her alongside her family, and specifically her brother. (This continues to this day: Note the sustained attention given to her response to Leaving Neverland, which ultimately was to join her family in condemning it.) The line everyone quotes is “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty,” but more pointed is one of the lines that precedes it: “my last name is Control.”

The lyric to “Nasty” is full of that sort of role-reversal, like a swordfight where one guy yoinks the other guy’s sword — the sword being the “nasty groove.” But said groove possibly illustrates the lyric even better. Made by producers/former The Time members/future creative partners Jam & Lewis out of big ’80s percussion, plus clanks and repurposed orchestral stabs from an Ensoniq Mirage, one of the earliest sampling keyboards, it doesn’t sound martial exactly, like some of Jackson’s later work, but certainly sounds stark. It sounds like a challenge, one Janet takes up: her past soubrette voice drops to a throatier register, then is stoked into roars. The beat’s not quite its own thing; “Nasty” resembles experiments like Herbie Hancock’s “Metal Beat,” and in turn much of New Jack Swing resembles it. But how Jam & Lewis described it was a rapper’s beat — now standard for pop or R&B singers, from Destiny’s Child to Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, when they want a tougher image. Meanwhile, Britney took Janet’s soft spoken-word interlude “I could learn to like this” and extrapolated an entire career from it — and covered it, unusually early in her career — but simplified it, mostly collapsing the context of family ties and dignity and creative control onto one axis: sex. But what they’re all doing is asserting this kind of Control.

Part of appreciating songs from the ’80s and ’90s is prying them out of the clutches of the era’s pop-culture jokification– I do like MST3K, but their sort of snappy “Nasty” joke is kind of what I mean. More than one article/restaurant review/listicle attempts to identify, meme-ily, Janet’s idea of “nasty food” (Janet’s answer, dubiously, was whole squid). A certain comment by a certain head of state gave the song a late-breaking sales boost But put on some ’80s radio (or a contemporary playlist of people copying ’80s radio) and wait for “Nasty” to come on. The rest of the radio will flinch.

Kat Stevens on “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” [8.67]

“What Have You Done For Me Lately?” is a sparse, angry snap of a song, the overspill of weeks and months of gradually-building resentment. It’s taken a nudge from bezzie mate Paula Abdul for Janet to fully admit her relationship has gone sour: her once fun-loving, adoring beau has become complacent, content to put his feet up on the sofa and take Janet for granted. Should she leave? She loves him! Or does she? Should love really feel like a heavy weight, pressing down on you? Like your stomach won’t stop churning? Like letting the phone ring out unanswered rather than deal with his temper? Like maybe it’s your fault that he’s like this? “Who’s right? Who’s wrong?” Janet is determined to make a decision with a clear head, but the anxiety and hormones are bubbling underneath (“I never ask for more than I deserve…“). Thankfully Jam & Lewis are on hand with a clinical, whipcrack beat — snap out of it, Janet! The tension manifests itself in her zigzagging shoulders, hunched and strained and contorted, primed to lash out – just as he walks through the door! Janet is wary, but her dude is on his best behaviour, puppy-dog eyes, I’ll do better from now on, I swear. They dance perfectly in time together, remembering the good times: all is forgiven. Surely Janet hasn’t fallen for the same old lines, doomed to repeat the cycle? Paula is rolling her eyes: ugh, not this bullshit again… Then, as the happy couple laugh together over dinner, Janet glances back at us, and the smile falls from her face. The decision has been made. As soon as Mr ‘Not All Men’ leaves for work in the morning, she’s putting her passport in a safety deposit box and setting up a secret savings account to fund her getaway. The plan is in motion. You’ve got one life to life.

Thomas Inskeep on “Diamonds” (Herb Alpert ft. Janet Jackson) [6.80]

After “The Pleasure Principle,” this might actually be my favorite Janet Jackson single (even though she’s technically the featured artist on it). “Diamonds,” written and produced by Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis for Herb Alpert’s 1987 album Keep Your Eye on Me, is, in all but name, a Jam/Lewis/Janet record — with a few Alpert trumpet flourishes. The beats rock hard, and Janet delivers what may be (and certainly was at the time) her most IDGAF vocal: you’re gonna get Miss Jackson (because you’re clearly nasty) some diamonds, aren’t you?

Alfred Soto on “The Pleasure Principle” [8.43]

For all the banter over the years about the cold and steel of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ beats for Control, the coldest and steeliest they had no hand in creating. Songwriter Monte Moir, like Jam and Lewis also a The Time alum, stumbled on the title first: “I had to figure out what it was I was trying to say, I just stumbled into the title and realized it fit.” Sung by Jackson in her airiest, most insouciant coo, “The Pleasure Principle” starts with bass synth and cowbell before settling down into a matter-of-fact tale of a night of sin. To visualize the concept, choreographer Barry Lather put together one of Jackson’s most iconic videos, a masterpiece of athleticism involving chairs. Too cold and steely for the audience, or perhaps the hype cycle for a sixth single had exhausted itself: “The Pleasure Principle” missed the top ten in the summer of 1987, stopping at #14. So ignore the single mix and revel in Shep Pettibone’s Long Vocal Remix.

Kat Stevens on “Let’s Wait Awhile” [6.60]

Can you have an erection-section classic that’s primarily about abstinence? “Let’s Wait Awhile” has all the features of a late-night Magic FM request slot regular: soft electric piano, finger clicks instead of drums, lyrics about promises and feelings and stars shining bright. But this message is about trust, not lust. It takes courage to admit that you’re not ready, and it requires faith in the other person that they’re not going to be a dick about it. I remember the advice columns in Just 17 repeating over and over that as Informed Young Women we shouldn’t be pressured into sex, which was all well and good until it actually came to the act of Doing It, whereupon the fug of hormones and internalised misogyny meant that all rationality went out of the window. It’s the sign of how strong and confident Janet is in her relationship, that she can be ‘real honest’ and discuss her concerns freely with her partner, without worrying that he’s going to a) dump her b) tell his mates that she’s frigid or c) ‘persuade’ her round to his point of view (*shudder*). If he’s not willing to wait, maybe he’s not such an ideal person to be doing this sort of stuff with in the first place? I can hear the dude whining to his mate now: “I took her out for dinner and all I got was a perfectly vocalised key change!” Just 17 would be proud of you, Janet.

Jessica Doyle on “Miss You Much” [7.83]

A little context: in March 1989 Natalie Cole released “Miss You Like Crazy,” a ballad built for Cole to sing wide about longing. In June Paula Abdul released the third single off Forever Your Girl, “Cold Hearted,” whose video made a point of its group choreography. And then in late August came “Miss You Much,” the first single from Rhythm Nation 1814. Did Janet Jackson have beef with her ex-choreographer? Was that the kind of thing people talked about, in the pre-poptimist, pre-TMZ era? Because in retrospect “Miss You Much” looks like a dismissal of “Cold Hearted,” cool and upright where the latter was David-Fincher-directed sleazy. (By contrast, the director of “Miss You Much,” Dominic Sena, had already treated Jackson with respect in the video for “The Pleasure Principle.”) But also “Miss You Much” plays as a broader statement, a refusal of expectations. There’s nothing sad or ballad-like about it. There’s that opening high of “sho-o-ot,” and then Jackson’s on a roll: it’s all about her, the deliciousness of her feeling; she can barely bother to describe the “you” being missed so much besides the blanditries of smiling face and warm embrace. The power in “I’ll tell your mama/I’ll tell your friends/I’ll tell anyone whose heart can comprehend” isn’t in the longing; it’s in how much she relishes being the one who gets to do the telling. By 1989 she was in control enough to not have to utter the word once. “Miss You Much” isn’t a deep song, didn’t set out to accomplish as much as the title track or later songs like “That’s the Way Love Goes” or “Together Again” would. But thirty years later it still looks and sounds like (what we now call) a power move.

Katie Gill on “Rhythm Nation” [8.57]

How does one try to condense the reach and influence of “Rhythm Nation” in a single blurb? Entire articles have been written about this song and video (because really, you can’t talk about the song without talking about the video). It’s influenced singers, dancers, directors, choreographers. It won a Grammy as well as two MTV Music Video Awards when those awards actually mattered. The choreography is perfect. Jackson and her dancers move with military-like precision, flawlessly executing maneuvers and creating a dance that would almost instantly become part of the popular consciousness. The sound is amazing. That bass groove is so tight, adding a layer of funk which the guitar takes to further levels. The tune is an absolute earworm, the chorus is iconic, and Jackson’s vocals are at the best of their game. But I think the most important part of “Rhythm Nation” is that this absolute banger of a song, this masterclass in choreography, has remarkably idealistic lyrics. Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” yearns towards a racially and socially conscious utopia as it attempts to unite people to join together and create this utopia. In a lesser artist, these lyrics would be out and out corny. But when wrapped up in the final package, the lyrics go from corny to believable. Suddenly, the idea of the whole world helping each other or rising up in protest doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

Alfred Soto on “Escapade” [7.67]

With solo credits as common as hair metal solos in Janet Jackson music, I often listen to tracks like “Escapade” and wonder: what did Janet Jackson contribute? Lyrics? Sure. But she has to write them around a Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis melody, no? Or, as is no doubt the case, she comes up with her own vocal melody to accompany their chord progressions. According to Jam, the trio had “Nowhere to Run” in mind: first as a cover song, then as inspiration. “Escapade” hopscotches away from the sense of danger animating the Martha and the Vandellas chestnut; in 1989, into the eclipse of a grim decade for black lives, looking forward to Friday and drinks and friends would have to do. Over Jam and Lewis’ unrelenting thwack, Jackson sing-songs a valentine to a shy boy whom she hopes will join her in — what? The sheer euphoria of the bridge — a melody as bright as a returned smile — suggests worlds of possibilities when the check’s cashed and the night’s young. After all, MINNEAPOLIS!

Leah Isobel on “Alright” [7.14]

Rhythm Nation might have more banging singles, and it might have songs that more directly diagnose the ills of late capitalism, but no song on the record better encapsulates its utopian aims than “Alright.” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis famously left the high end of Janet’s songs empty to provide space for her delicate soprano; here, they fill the low end with vocal samples, percussion, submerged synth blats, and tense bass licks. Instead of singing high for the whole track, however, Janet buries lyrical references to magic spells and the end of the world in her lower register, where they blend into the rest of the song. It’s only on the chorus, and particularly on her swooping vocal runs as she riffs on the phrase “you’re alright with me,” that she surfaces from the swirl. On a record where she spends so much time and thought discussing what’s wrong around her, here she takes the time to see and acknowledge what’s right. I don’t know that I’ve heard a better sonic analogue for finding relief from chaos: one voice against a wall of voices and sounds, getting lost and being found over and over to the comforting rhythm of a pop song.

Edward Okulicz on “Black Cat” [6.57]

“Black Cat” was never the huge stylistic U-turn it was perceived as. Janet’s brother had dabbled in rock guitars, and this is in that vein too, while still being of a piece with the other songs on the album. Where it succeeds is because it doesn’t just lean into rock, it’s as credible a rock song as it is a dance-pop song — the riff, which Jackson wrote herself, kicks ass, the drums shake a room as much as the cavernous thuds of her contemporaneous singles, and the song’s melody and the fierce vocal performance straddle both worlds. And if you don’t like the mix there’s like 900 different versions with 2000 different guitarists — only a slight exaggeration. Its overall success is testament to Janet’s persona, sure, because nothing she released could have failed at this point, but you can’t go to Number One with single number six off an album without your usual co-writers and producers unless you’ve written something that connects with listeners and performed it with power. The way she slams down on “don’t understand… why you… insist…” is a moment of perplexed, angry humanity in the middle of a song that tries to understand something tragic — the corrosion of drugs and gangs on young people’s lives — and while the soloing is a little hammy, the song escapes being embarrassingly corny. Because in fact the whole song kicks ass.

Pedro Joao Santos on “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” [8.71]

One of the greatest pleasures in getting into Janet is how deliriously bold all of her work is. A story, if you will: how Jimmy & Terry stepped in to support her emancipation and helped her invent new jack swing all within Control, before taking the formula apart in Rhythm Nation 1814, aiming for pop that was both a manifesto against bigotry and, between a balm and a corrective, a rush of love. It was designed for high impact, meaning it would’ve always been a pop juggernaut — the material was there, even if the marketing was oblique, which it was. Instead of a glamour shot in Technicolor and a flirtatious title, the 12 million copies sold feature a stark black and white portrait backed by a call-to-arms; the pop froth is smattered around the backbone of topical anthems.

From single to single, A&M skittered between the two sides and amassed consecutive top 10 singles, but it was the last calling card that proved career-defining. At first, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”’s hard-edged beats scan identical to “Rhythm Nation”’s sonic matrix: belligerent and completed by Janet’s frontal vox, only in this instance driven through a more feminine marketing (the music video is a blueprint). That’s the first trick: she unexpectedly launches into the first verse in a tentative, lightly hostile lower register (“like a guy would,” said Jimmy Jam, as it was to be a duet) and keeps it until the chorus wraps up. It’s pop as friction. By the second verse, Janet goes up an octave and matches the now-bubbling passion at the forefront. The tiny synth countdown drives it into a perpetual unfolding, each time emerging to add more (vocal) layers to the cacophony and threaten to wrap it up, before coming back in force.

Janet’s head voice soars up to the grand finale, a pop cataclysm of an ending, one of the best in recorded history — which applies to the entirety of “Love Will Never Do,” a simultaneous pitch for chaotic head-over-heels energy and blockbuster status. It’s a bizarre ride and a joyous knockout: the honeymoon phase juiced into one relentless beast of a banger, one that changed pop for good.

Jackie Powell on “State of the World” [6.67]

“State of the World” deserved a music video. At its heart, this is a dance cut with a little bit less of the hard rock that roars in “Rhythm Nation.” In content and in sound, this track is a sequel and that’s not a criticism. It’s an expansion which encourages a foot tap by the listener and includes an absolutely integral bassline that drives this track through and through. While the song clocks in at under five minutes and could have been a bit shorter, its chorus, which crescendos in clarity and volume, makes up for it. In addition to Jackson’s delivery on the verses, which is rather understated, the sound effects which illustrate “State of the World”  aren’t too kitschy. The cries and crashes aren’t as apparent as in brother Michael’s “Earth Song” for instance, and that’s appropriate. The politics had to run as smooth as the bass on this track, and they did. They didn’t serve as a distraction, but rather as an asset. Janet was the master of New Jack Swing, and while folks look to her brother’s album Dangerous as the most successful of this genre, Janet experimented with it first.  The percussive repetition, serves a purpose for Jackson on the record. It maintains the same intensity throughout as it reflects exactly what she has to say. Lyrically, I wish that Jackson explained how her “Nation” would “weather the storm.” To this day, homelessness and poverty are issues that affect people continuously. Jackson states the cornerstone rather than the specifics, and maybe that’s okay. It’s something that in 2019 we need more than ever. While unity appears so far out of our reach, Janet attested as early as 1991 that we can’t stop and shan’t stop.

Thomas Inskeep on “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (with Luther Vandross, BBD and Ralph Tresvant) [7.60]

To soundtrack his 1992 film Mo’ Money, Damon Wayans (who wrote and starred in the critically-derided box office hit) called upon superproducers Jam & Lewis, and they did work, producing or co-producing 13 of the album’s 14 tracks and writing or co-writing 12 of them. The soundtrack’s lead single was very pointedly a “look at all the cool stars we got together” move, featuring superstars Vandross and Jackson duetting, along with a brief rap bridge from Bell Biv DeVoe (credited here as BBD) and their New Edition compadre Ralph Tresvant. Released as a single in May 1992, it’s a perfect summertime smash, simultaneously airy-light and slammin’, with Vandross and Jackson weaving in and out of each other’s vocals effortlessly. BBD and Tresvant pop in with a nothingburger of a rap (Tresvant gets a label credit for literally uttering one line, the song’s title) that at least serves to provide a modicum of grit to the proceedings, but no matter: Jackson especially sounds breezier than maybe ever, while Vandross seems to float above the record. The two are magical on a track perfectly suited for them (credit Jam & Lewis, of course), and the result is a minor classic.

Jonathan Bogart on “That’s the Way Love Goes” [7.86]

A little over a year ago I rather overshared in this space when discussing Madonna’s “Erotica,” released a year before this single. A year makes a lot of difference: by the time I was listening to Shadoe Stevens count this down on American Top 40, the summer it became the longest-running #1 hit any Jackson family member ever had, radio pop was no longer a dirty, soul-damning secret, just a daily companion, a window into a more colorful, adult, and interesting world than the ones I knew from books. I would probably have had a healthier relationship to romance and sexuality, in fact, if this had been my introduction to overtly sexual pop rather than “Erotica” — both songs share the technique of a sultry spoken-word refrain, but Janet’s is actually grown-up, with the confidence of a woman who knows what she wants and how to achieve it, with none of Madonna’s juvenile need to épater les bourgeois. As it happened I didn’t particularly connect to “That’s the Way Love Goes,” having reached the stage in my adolescence when getting a charge out of raspy-voiced men singing about political instability felt like the more gender-appropriate inevitability. It wouldn’t be until years later when I returned to re-examine the radio pop of my youth with maturer ears that the amazing miracle of this song fully dawned on me: those pillowy guitar samples plucked from songs where raspy-voiced men sang about political instability, but pressed into service of a loping, candlelit coo: equal parts seduction and vulnerability, Janet singing with the authority of someone who had already conquered the world about the grown-woman concerns that really matter: love, and sex, and the impossible beauty that results when they intertwine.

David Moore on “If” [8.33]

Janet Jackson sang explicitly about “nasty boys,” but I was, to use a term my son’s preschool teacher used to describe him, a timid boy, and I soaked up the privileges of maleness with a corresponding fear of performative masculinity. My love of women through childhood was paired with a deep-seated self-loathing that snuffed out friendships, made me uncomfortable in my body, and sparked intense, violent fantasies directed toward unnamed aggressors in my mind, all those “bad guys.” I wouldn’t be able to reflect on any of this until adulthood. But there was a point in preadolescence when the contours of the trap started to become discernible, and Janet Jackson’s “If” was both a cherished song — one I would listen to rapt in front of MTV or on the radio, legs haphazardly splayed behind me — and was also the uncanny soundtrack to my discomfort: a muscular, menacing, alien object that completely unnerved me, made me a supplicant to its rhythm, got into my head and into my guts, made me move, if only for a minute, in a world that glanced contemptuously toward — but stood defiantly outside of — that toxic timidity. I was the woman telling the man what I wanted, and I was also the man obeying; I was the dancer and I was the floor, too. On “If,” Janet Jackson and Jam & Lewis tamed the New Jack Squall that her brother unleashed on Dangerous with Teddy Riley, insisted upon its lockstep subservience to her mission and her groove, and pointed to an R&B futurism that was barely a twinkle in pop music’s eye in 1993. The result is simultaneously mechanistic and wild, rolling waves of noise that you quickly learn to surf or risk drowning in them. That same year, I also found inspiration in angry men, many of them likely nasty ones, the same men I would have assiduously avoided in person and fought off in my dreams. But Janet Jackson kept me honest, reminded me that my anger was a tell for my underlying cowardice and shame. There is never a hint in “If” that her hypothetical proposition — too strident for any coyness or the suggestion of flirting — could ever be satisfactorily answered. Not by you anyway. No boy, nasty or timid, could meet Janet Jackson’s challenge; she’s mocking the guy who would even try. By the time you hit that cacophony of a middle 8 break, defibrillation on an already racing heartbeat, you’re defeated, more thoroughly than any bad guy you might have dreamt up. You’re not ready for this world — you’re not, so you can’t, and you won’t. But what if…?

Jonathan Bradley on “Again” [5.67]

It sounds like a fairy tale: billowing keys, Janet’s tinkling voice, and no drums to earth the fantasy. “Again” was from John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, not a Disney picture, but it shimmers with its own magic anyway. The melody is gorgeous: listen to Janet measuring out the descending syllables in “suddenly the memories came back to me” like they’re sinking in as she sings the words. (She repeats the motif on “making love to you/oh it felt so good and so right” — this is a romance where the sex is as fondly remembered as the emotions.) Janet Jackson is such a versatile performer, and for all the bold strokes and blunt rhythmic force of her best known moments, “Again” is a treasure all of its own for being none of these: it is tiny and tender and sparkles with a real joy that is all the more wondrous for sounding like it could not exist outside of a storybook.

Scott Mildenhall on “Whoops Now” [4.83]

Even outside America, there’s a widespread tendency for people, in search of a lifetime’s grand narrative, to define everything that happened before The Day The World Changed – a coincidental proxy for their childhood, youth or adolescence – as a simpler time. It’s a convenient illusion for anyone in the world lucky enough to be able to believe it, whose formative years were insulated from war or suffering and can be instead defined by the most carefree scraps of pop culture. In that respect “Whoops Now” holds great temptation, it being the breeziest brush-off of burdens, with an all-over Teflon disposition. It’s therefore an almost fantastical ideal of ’90s radio (and still one of Janet’s most played in the UK); a warm and fuzzy-round-the-edges memory of which on closer inspection, the details are inscrutable. Janet, aloft in a proletarian reverie, relates a confusing tale of overnight shift work, a hindrance of a boss and the consequent curtailing of her plans for some fun in the sun this weekend with her friends (who, judging by her extended roll call, seem to mostly be record execs, producers and performers, as well as dogs). Narratively, it’s difficult to tease apart, but all you need to know is that hurrah – she somehow ends up on holiday anyway. A story that sounds more like something from an expletive-laden segment of Airline thus becomes the most casual celebration of the apparent inevitability of positive resolutions when you’re a globe-straddling megastar, or perhaps just a kid in the back of your parents’ car with the radio on. With that certainty of happiness and universal balance, and the belief that it ever was or could be, it’s fantasy upon fantasy upon fantasy. But no bother: Anguilla here we come.

Nortey Dowuona on “Throb” [6.86]

I started listening to Janet Jackson as a happy accident. Her songs were on Atlantic Radio, but nowhere else. I barely heard her music growing up and only knew of her massive career, and not the music that made it so huge. 

So when I first pressed play on “Throb,” I was kinda scandalized.

Because it was so directly, overtly sexual, and confident about it. Janet was ready to get down and dirty, without all the mind games, patronization and bullpuddy packed all over it. The lyrics are pretty straightforward, and there are only ten lines of lyrics. Its pretty clear what Janet wants, and she’s gonna get it.

Plus, the bass was slamming, it slunk around my neck and just rested there while the air horn synths washed over my eyes, blinding me. The drums then stepped over me and plucked me up, with cooing and cascading moans and grunts swirled around my body, shredding me to pieces —

Then the song ended. And it was over.

I honestly, can’t really say why this is my favorite Janet song, but I can say that you should probably play it while having sex, and while thinking about having sex, and play this late night in the night if deciding to have sex. I know this’ll be the first thing I’ll play if I have sex with anyone.

Thomas Inskeep on “Throb”

In the summer of 1993, I’d just finished my second freshman year of college, in my hometown. (I’d gone to college straight out of high school in 1988, and dropped out without much to show for it, 16 months later.) One of my best girlfriends had herself just graduated from college and was back at her parents’ house, job-hunting. We were both past 21 and looking for a place to go dancing, and we found it in the nearest big city, Fort Wayne, Indiana, about 45 minutes away. It was a short-lived gay bar — so short-lived I don’t even recall its name, sadly — with a dance floor roughly the size of a postage stamp. I don’t remember meeting anyone there, ever. (I didn’t drive at the time, so Julie always had to, so it’s not like I could’ve gone home with someone anyway.) I don’t remember anything about the bar — except its dancefloor, and the fact that they had a decent DJ on the weekends, who mostly played house music, which I loved. And there were three songs that got played, in my memory at least, every single week. (And Julie and I really did go just about every weekend that summer.)

The first was Bizarre Inc.’s “I’m Gonna Get You,” an ebullient diva-house track which topped Billboard’s Dance Club/Play chart in January but was just peaking at pop radio in June. The second was, really, the gay club record of the year, RuPaul’s “Supermodel.” It peaked at #2 on the Dance Club/Play chart in March, but never left gay clubs at all through 1993. When that got played at the club, I would, week-in, week-out, “work the runway,” lip-syncing my ass off. (It’s just that kind of song.) And the third was an album track from a newly-released album (that would, in fact, eventually be promoted to dance clubs at peak at #2 on the Club/Play chart), Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” This song went where Jackson never had before, both musically (it’s a straight-up house jam) and lyrically (it’s a straight-up sex jam). Its lyrics are minimal but to the point: “I can feel your body/Pressed against my body/When you start to poundin’/Love to feel you throbbin’.” No subtleties there! Accordingly, Julie and I would spend the song grinding up against each other on a tiny riser at the back of the dance floor, because why not? And because it’s fun.

26 years later, ‘Throb” still kills. And throbs.

Maxwell Cavaseno on “Runaway” [6.50]

My childhood managed to dodge the oceanic nature of pop thanks to being struck between two extremes. My father usually kept the car full of rap, via cassettes of assorted rising stars of the moment (Big Pun, Nas, Various Wu-Tang Soloists) or whatever was playing via Hot 97. Meanwhile my mother typically wallowed in a realm of AOR pop a la Amy Grant or the likes who you could never remember anything about. If there was anything majorly important in the history of pop music from 89-98, lemme tell you, that shit didn’t happen anywhere near me. However, one of the few memories that did manage to linger on was “Runaway.” It was a record that managed to ethereally sneak up to me like some kind of weird creep that I just couldn’t understand with its weird foreign instrumentation simulating orientalist visions and Janet’s background vocals harmonizing like a bunch of Buddhist Cats sneering a la Randy Savage’s “nyeeeah.” Whenever I trailed along in supermarkets or tried to keep busy in waiting rooms, I could comprehend what happened on other songs I liked in the outer world like “Take a Bow” or “Kiss From A Rose.” But this? How did you rationalize all of these gliding vocals crooning and this swarm of glittery noises when you have barely any understanding of the world around you, let alone music? No matter how much further away and away I’d get from whenever it was meant to be a single, it could still disruptively appear in the wild and send the whole day into a state of disarray. It’s so alarming to know now as a grown adult that I can personally summon this ifrit of a single, rather than think of it as some sort of rare sighting of trickster energy (all the more bolstered by Janet’s ad libbed teasing of supposed imperfection and other-human excess) that isn’t meant to be heard more than once in a blue moon. To be honest, I may just forget altogether after the fact, the same way I never remembered the name of the song even when considering it for review. Just that “nyeeeah” hung around in my memory.

Danilo Bortoli on “Got ’til It’s Gone” [6.17]

In Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, a cut from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, she sang of impeding progress as a form of destruction (“They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot”). Often seen as as environmental anthem, actually, she was looking back at the sixties, and then seeing, right ahead, a decade that showcased no promising future, only aching skepticism. This resulted in one the purest, simplest lines she has ever written: “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Almost thirty years later, Janet Jackson conjured those same thoughts, conveying, instead, a different meaning. The Velvet Rope was her very own game of smoke and mirrors, and intimate and often misleading look at her private life. Lying at the center of that album, there is a delicate tribute. “Got ‘til It’s Gone” features a well-placed sample from that line culled from “Big Yellow Taxi.” The context is entirely different however. Here, the same words are uttered between confessions of love. It helps, then, that “Got ‘til It’s Gone” is, in reality, a talk. It’s the way Janet asks “What’s the next song?”. It’s the way Q-Tip responds “Like Joni says.” It’s also the way he asserts finally: “Joni Mitchell never lies.” The brilliance of a sample travelling three decades is that it is deliciously meta. The concept of truth, in Janet Jackson’s universe, is interchangeable. That way, she, too, can never lie.

Josh Love on “Together Again” [6.86]

Together Again was originally conceived as a ballad, and no wonder – it’s a deeply sentimental (borderline treacly, if I’m being uncharitable) song about death and angels and reuniting in the afterlife in heaven. Deciding to record it as a surging house jam instead was an absolute masterstroke, and the result is one of the most purely joyous, transcendent moments of Janet’s career. The idea of carrying a lost loved one in your heart and feeling their spirit in the goodness you encounter in the world, and even the thought of one day joining together with them again in the great beyond – “Together Again” makes you feel that joy rather than merely verbalizing it. So many of us say that when we die we want those we leave behind to celebrate our lives rather than mourn our passing, but Janet is one of the few artists to really bring that radical acceptance of impermanence to life.

Thomas Inskeep on “I Get Lonely” (TNT Remix) [7.43]

Allow me to be cynical for a moment: Janet Jackson, in 1998, is still a superstar. But in the past five years, she’s only had one R&B #1, ‘94’s sex-jam “Any Time, Any Place” (assisted greatly by its R. Kelly remix). So if you’re thinking “What do we do to get Janet back to the summit,” what do you do? Well, it’s 1998. How about calling in Teddy Riley? Better yet, how about he gets a helping hand from Timbaland? And the best: how about Teddy brings his merry men of BLACKstreet with him for a vocal assist? Ergo, “I Get Lonely (TNT Remix),” now label-credited to “Janet [she was just going by “Janet” at the time] featuring BLACKstreet.”

And you know what? It’s genius. The idea, brilliant. The execution, top-notch. Riley on the remix, with instrumental help from Timbo, with guest vocals from BLACKstreet: it’s more exciting than the original (which was already quite good), has a little more junk in its trunk (those should-be-patented instrumental tics that Timbaland is such a wizard with, ohmygod, much like Janet’s big brother’s vocal tics), and the duet vocals are superb (especially as it was so rare to hear Janet singing with others at the time, and every member of BLACKstreet save Riley was a great-to-marvelous singer). Presto! Two weeks atop the R&B chart in May 1998, along with a #3 Hot 100 peak. Mission accomplished — and fortunately, it works even better artistically than it did commercially. Everybody wins!

Pedro Joao Santos on “Go Deep” [7.14]

That The Velvet Rope’s party song is so heavy on gravitas and spine-tingling urgency speaks volumes. In an album so hellbent on carnal and psychological openness, the party of “Go Deep” goes deeper, and makes sense. It’s not just the top-20 banger it factually was, and it’s not just hedonism for the sake of it. That is, if you don’t divorce it from the wounds of longing, manipulation, abuse and distress being sliced fresh. Tension lies within this absolute romp, placed midway through the red-hot catharsis of Rope. It might be that the party acts as a salve for the trauma. Though it isn’t put into words, you can hear it subliminally: Janet’s hesitant vocal; the evocative, near-melancholy synth fluctuating about. You can even imagine the words as portals: making friends come together as support; the sexual come-ons not just because, but maybe as physical relief for the pain.

A bare-bones lyric sheet would give you nothing — but music as context goes a long way. And the music itself from “Go Deep” gets me in raptures after all these years, from that ridiculous boing (perhaps best known from “I Can’t Dance” by Genesis) to the bass driving it, all chunky and rubbery, and the dramatic string arpeggios in the middle-8. If there’s got to be a template for urgent, carnivorous Friday night anthems, let this be the one — and keep it in context.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “You” [7.00]

The Velvet Rope carries a strong and fascinating legacy; It is rightly praised as a predecessor to both mainstream R&B’s exploration of the intimate (the body) and the spiritual (the soul) in the continuing decades, and to the experimental scope and atmospherics later adopted by today’s so-called “Alt-R&B,” and this extraordinary mixture of elements is never more efficient than in the album’s third track “You.” The song is, first and foremost, a triumph of production genius. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’s use of space, and the dynamic at play between the then-cutting-edge electronica ingredients and neo-soul’s earnestness and sensual themes, should itself be a case study for aspiring producers, but it’s the way Janet’s vocals are performed and filtered through the track that take the song to unsuspected levels of greatness. There is something in the breathy, low-pitched verses that exudes unadulterated eroticism, and when the post-chorus harmonies kick in where things really become ecstatic. In several interviews, Janet herself defined this album as “baby-making music”, and I can safely bet that “You” is the song she was thinking about. And its echoes still reverberate today, not only in the sound of R&B to come, but in the fact that thousands of people were conceived to this very beat.

Edward Okulicz on “Free Xone” [6.83]

I remember it only vaguely; it was 1995, and for drama class we had to do a performance based on a social theme using a combination of media and methods. I was in a group with a big Janet fan, who decided to use her music as the basis of a combination spoken-word, mime and dance performance on racism. I only understood the themes in the abstract because I was young, sheltered, and white. I knew racism was a thing I didn’t like, but it wasn’t an existential threat to me. Two years later, on “Free Xone,” Janet would speak directly to me and tell me of a bleak present with the promise of a better future.  Janet told it like it was, and still is for many: if you are gay, despite the fact that love is love, a lot of people are going to hate you or at least be uncomfortable around you. Homophobia isn’t just violence or hostility, it can be any kind of social rejection, and it can happen anywhere, as it does in the anecdote in the first part of the song, where a pleasant conversation with a person sitting next to you on an airplane sours because of it.

Janet Jackson is a dancer, but she didn’t dance around anything if she didn’t have to. She leaned into her status as a gay icon out of love, not necessity. But she made her social justice songs out of both love and necessity. Hating people is so not mellow. Love and sex are never wrong. Janet Jackson has never resiled from that belief, and never shied away from putting it in song. I’d grown up listening to Janet Jackson, but I’d never thought of her as an ally for myself, and it was intensely comforting to hear that she was on my side when nobody else seemed to be (Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Leviticus Faggot” the previous year had more or less convinced me I’d die in the closet).

In 2019, her funk here sounds a little dinky, the transitions between the soft groove and the raucous party bounce are kind of awkward, and the weird song structure sounds like it was cut and pasted together, but it’s a collage of compelling pieces. It got quite a lot of play on the alternative youth station here, the one whose listeners were at the time generally terrified of a) pop superstars, b) Black artists, and c) dancing. Someone thought the kids needed to hear this, and they were right. “Free Xone” helped my nascent consciousness come to grips with earlier songs that I’d just considered a good time before. Its story is less common in the Western world, now, but it’s still true as history for some, and as present for others.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Tonight’s the Night” [4.50]

I’m a sucker for good covers; we usually tend to give songwriting, the cult of the inspired author, and the concept of originality a certain mystique that grossly overshadows the importance of skilful creative interpretation and re-invention. But many of our most important singers are essentially covers artists — Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, Bettye Lavette, a huge number of blues and jazz singers, most of the 50s-60s Greenwich Village folk scene — because of course we need these musicians to give these tunes another dimension, whether stylistic, generational, or purely emotional. Also, a song’s perspective can change dramatically because of who is singing.  “Tonight’s The Night” works with Rod’s gravelly, rugged voice, and, although it can sound a bit creepy by today’s standards, the arrangements carry it beautifully, but in Janet’s sexually adventurous, musically exuberant The Velvet Rope, it acquires a new dimension, a far more interesting one, might I add. From Janet’s view, and the brilliant decision of not changing genders in the lyrics, her version alludes to bisexuality in a way that makes complete sense within’ the album’s core subject matters, and works wonders within’ its production philosophy. Stewart later presented his live renditions of the song by saying “This is an original by Janet Jackson”. No one will refute that. It’s her song now.

Alex Clifton on “All For You” [6.86]

“All For You” is the first Friday night you go out with your new college friends and that utter sense of freedom where you realize the night is yours without a curfew. It’s sparkling fairy lights in the background, a disco ball overhead, at a roller rink or at a club with a fancy light-up dancefloor, maybe a stolen swig of rum on your tongue. It’s the moment you see someone new and your heart falls into your stomach with no prior warning, and you suddenly know you’ll do anything to talk to them. You simply have to; it’s an animal urge, chemicals and hormones whizzing through you and making it hard to walk because you’re giddy. Maybe you’re braver than I am and you go talk to the person who’s snagged your attention, but maybe you hang back with your friends and pretend you’re not watching out for your crush while also dancing stupidly with your new friends. There’s a pure exhilaration in this song that many have tried to emulate but few match the ease with which Janet performs. She’s flirty and sexy like no other, but “All For You” also makes you, the listener, feel flirty and sexy too — something about it worms its way into you and becomes the shot of confidence you need. Lots of people can write songs about dancing at the club, but Janet turns it into a night you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

Jibril Yassin on “Someone to Call My Lover” [7.00]

Does falling in love always feel the same every time? It’s one thing to keep pushing on in life but what’s striking about “Someone to Call My Lover” is how infectious Janet’s optimism is. Built on an Erik Satie riff by way of the band America, Janet recast herself as a woman excited to love again. Let it be on the record – long-term relationships are fucking terrifying. Moving on from the dissolution of a marriage is disorienting and the songs that use Janet’s divorce as inspiration on All For You share a tentative yet firm belief in renewal.

She uses “maybe” on “Someone to Call My Lover” the way one throws out a “lol” after shooting their shot – you don’t even have time to catch it amid her grocery store list of wishes for her future love. “Someone to Call My Lover” hits all the right places thanks to the careful and immaculate production but it’s Janet’s sincerity that marks it as her best twee performance.

Will Adams on “Son Of A Gun” [5.20]

Given All For You’s post-divorce setting, it was only appropriate that after the aural sunbeam of the title track and giddy optimism of “Someone to Call My Lover,” Janet would do a 180 and proceed to rip him a new one. The opening taunts — “Ha-ha, hoo-hoo, thought you’d get the money too” — against the throbbing kick bass set the scene, but the true genius of “Son of a Gun” comes from its sampling and modernization of ultimate kiss-off song “You’re So Vain.” The classic bass riff, once soft in Carly Simon’s original, is now razor-sharp. The cavernous drum beats sound like you’re trapped in an underground dungeon. All the while, Janet mutters burn after burn right into your ear (“I’d rather keep the trash and throw you out”) before Simon launches into the “I betcha think this song is about you” refrain, sounding like a Greek chorus confirming Jackson’s digs. The album version carries on until the six-minute mark, with Carly Simon waxing poetic about clouds in her coffee and apricot scarves in an extended outro. The video version wisely excises this in favor of guest verses from Missy Elliott, whose reliably grinning performance shoves the knife in deeper. In both versions, however, Janet’s menace is preserved. Forming a trinity with All For You’s preceding two singles, “Son of a Gun” showed just how versatile Jackson is, and how adept she is at encapsulating the messy, complex emotions of an ended relationship.

Will Adams on “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” [6.17]

I had been looking away from the television when it happened. By the time I’d heard the gasps from my parents and I glanced up at the screen, the cameras had cut to an aerial shot of the Reliant Stadium in Houston, where the 2004 Super Bowl was taking place. My 11 year old brain couldn’t process exactly what happened from my parents’ concerned murmurs, and having completely missed the incident (there was no YouTube back then, see), it would take years for me to understand the impact that the “wardrobe malfunction” had on culture and Jackson’s career. The greater impact was to be expected — the six-figure FCC fine on CBS (later dismissed by the Supreme Court) and conservative handwringing about the moral decline of the country — but Jackson in particular suffered unduly. There was the blacklist, ordered by Les Moonves, which kept her off CBS, MTV and Infinity Broadcasting. Jackson’s appearance at that year’s Grammy Awards was canceled. Late-night talk show hosts turned it into monologue fodder, usually grossly and usually at her expense. The controversy hampered her album cycles well into the Discipline era. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake remained entirely unaffected. His career would skyrocket two years later with the release of FutureSex/LoveSounds; he became a Saturday Night Live darling; he performed solo at the Super Bowl’s halftime show in 2018. This alone puts Damita Jo and “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” in a more sympathetic light, but even then, pop radio missed out on a truly brilliant song here. Janet acts as the Dance Commander, taking the opening guitar lick from Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” and turning it into a lasso with which she throws you onto the dancefloor. The percussion percolates, each sound placed perfectly to create an undeniable groove. Because of the blacklist, it didn’t even break the Hot 100, and the video was also subject to its own asinine controversy — the few video channels that managed to avoid the blacklist edited out the sexual content, including a scene were two female dancers kiss. Even fifteen years later, it feels like we’re still reckoning with how Jackson was treated in the aftermath. But there’s an inspiring resilience in “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” reflected in the smile she bears on the Damita Jo cover; its unabashed sexuality in the face of all the backlash makes it an even better listen today.

Kat Stevens on “Strawberry Bounce” [7.17]

I like Janet best when she takes risks, whether that be controversial subject matter, a new image or a change of musical direction. Old faithfuls Jam & Lewis are still a solid presence on Damita Jo, but on “Strawberry Bounce” we see Janet plumping for a left field choice in the then-unknown Kanye West. The result is an intriguing Ryvita, all brittle handclaps and feathery faux-ingenue whispering, on the verge of crumbling into nothing. It’s so light that there’s no bassline, just a queasy glockenspiel tinkle and Janet’s butter-wouldn’t-melt sing-song. I keep wondering to myself: why have Janet and Kanye chosen to present a song about working a shift at a strip club in the style of an Aptimil Follow-On Milk advert? Is it a subtle reminder that sexy times may eventually lead to night feeds and dirty nappies? It doesn’t help that instead of a proper beat, we have Jay-Z muttering ‘BOUNCE!’ as if he’s grumpily shooing a dog off his lawn. It’s confusing and uncomfortable, yet compelling and convincing, and I’m still listening. The risk has paid off.

Will Adams on “Rock With U” [5.83]

“Just Dance” is often thought of as ground zero for the rise of dancepop and eventually EDM in the US, but it had been brewing for over a year before the Lady Gaga song topped the Hot 100 in early 2009. From 2007 onward, the increased interest in incorporating elements of disco via four-on-the-floor beats and faster tempos created some indelible hybrids, particularly in the R&B world: “Don’t Stop the Music”; “Forever”; “Closer”; “Spotlight”; and “Rock With U.” While most of those songs stuck to traditional verse-chorus pop structure, “Rock With U” proves that sometimes simplicity is best: A house arrangement of arpeggios and basic rhythms. A single verse, repeated three times and interspersed with wordless vocalizing with nearly no variation, save for Janet’s whispers. All this, combined with the glorious one-shot video, creates a hypnotic effect, like the song will go on forever. On a recent Song Exploder episode about “Honey,” Robyn said of dance music: “It’s about putting you in a place where you’re in your body dancing without thinking about when it’s gonna end. It’s more about the moment and how it makes you feel.” This is the heart of “Rock With U”: an invitation to get lost in the music, forget about the outside world, and just rock.

Maxwell Cavaseno on “So Much Betta” [5.67]

The beginning of the 2010s was way too challenging in retrospect and I regret every minute of it. “So Much Betta” was a song I first heard in a mix by Robin Carolan, now best known for founding and guiding Tri-Angle Records, but for a brief period operated a side-blog called “SO BONES” where he’d pontificate about random gems of pop, R&B and rap but in a way that made records feel gross and sinister. Suddenly Cassie’s “My House” was a ghost story, Vanessa Hudgens’s “Don’t Talk” would be compared to Takashi Miike’s Audition, and so on. In retrospect I think of the Capital P Pop songs of the decade that I’ve responded to enthusiastically like “TT,” “Cheyenne,” “Strangers,” “Somebody Else,” “Backseat,” “Lac Troi” or the dozens of others there is at least usually a despair or gloom I can at minimum project onto the record even where it might not be obvious. And that comes from hearing Janet Jackson whisper over a record that sounded like some toxic goo from out of the dregs of the Rinse.FM swamps I’d often thought to be “the coolest” sounds, before cutting through over glistening synths that felt like a phantom of not Janet per se but her brother’s past. It was a song that felt v. strange in 2010 well after MJ had died with the listless echo of the Pop Monarch feeling less like a dream-like invocation and more like a degraded copy of a copy in its grotesquery. Enough can be said about how cool and timeless and bright and powerful Janet at her best can feel. But it deserves an acknowledgement that she could also make a song that was so evocative in all the most unpleasant of ways.

William John on “Unbreakable” [6.67]

“Unbreakable” as an adjective is applicable to those rare, unending, strong relationships between people, whether they be romantic, platonic, familial, or, as has been intimated in relation to her song of the same name, between performer and audience. But it’s also a word that can be used to describe oneself, and one’s ability to traverse adversity with stoicism. The first song on Jackson’s most recent album doesn’t sound defiant – more “stroll to the supermarket on a warm summer’s evening” than an escapade to Rhythm Nation. But courage manifests in different ways. Jackson’s breezy delivery, which takes on an ecstatic form in the song’s chorus, is indicative of her self-assurance at her status; she’s embracing the languor allowed to her as a legend. She may have been removed of her clothes in front of the whole world a decade prior; she may have spent her whole life in the shadow of her infamous relative – but she hasn’t faltered. She’s still here. As she greets her listeners in her inviting whisper at the song’s conclusion, she notes that it’s “been a while” since her last missive, and that there is “lots to talk about”. But her listeners aren’t impatient; there’s always time for Janet. Her story has always been one of control, of poise, of excellence. Long may it continue.

Pedro Joao Santos on “Dream Maker/Euphoria” [5.17]

When I get to delve deep into a legend, as with Janet, I tend to hit the ground running and have them release a new, great album a few months later. Not having heard 20 Y.O. and Discipline, I was shielded from the Janet-isms from the ’00s and viewed Unbreakable as a proper continuation to her legacy, instead of the grand comeback it actually was — hackneyed artwork, halted tour and all. Janet got the upper hand, finding her reunited with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, in a steadfast gaze in a steadfast gaze over airtight, pensive and giddy R&B. An exemplary return to form, incidentally devoid of all the raunch, bathroom breaks and Kioko.

One older Janet-ism survived in a marginal capacity: the penchant for interludes, continued here in only two moments (aside from endearing sneezes and spoken-word outros): one was the bizarre preview for a Target-exclusive full track; the other was “Dream Maker/Euphoria”. A precise inflection point scribed upon the passage from “side 1” to “2” — even if things threaten to get a bit pedestrian and humdrum in the last half. The track itself is a dual mood, yet a continual trek through the glow of a renaissance. A seemingly old groove recalling the Jackson 5 gets dusted from the vaults for the first part. That’s ear candy for ages in itself, a web of vox so intensely feverish and melodically preternatural. It gets looped tantalisingly, then it transcends onto the next level. Full-on rapid eye movement: keyboards and ambience make up the sound of eyelids opening to meet a purple, unreal sky — suspended between worlds, a dream dimension of utopia and the reality where those ideas must coalesce. “I guess the dreamer must be awake,” Janet concludes after envisioning a “perfect place” exempt from “jealousy, abuse or hate,” “war, hunger or hate.”

Janet’s  four peak-era albums alone prove she’s been excelling at world-building where and when the world was far from ready. In “Dream Maker/Euphoria,” it isn’t so much the stark condemnations of Rhythm Nation 1814, but its more hopeful fantasies, articulated through the confident tone of Control, set to the type of innovative musical reverie The Velvet Rope predated, softened through janet.’s sensuous filter. But more than the touchpoints of yesteryear, the essence of “Dream Maker/Euphoria” lives in its manifestation of the future: how tangible and expansive it might just become, if given a chance.

5 Responses to “The Singles Jukebox Celebrates 30 Years of Rhythm Nation 1814 (a Janet Jackson retrospective)”

  1. Scott I am extremely glad you brought up Whoops Now’s maddening attitude towards the problems of late capitalism so I didn’t have to.

  2. This is great writing across the board and I am especially pleased at how different authors make similar discoveries of Janet Jackson at similar ages but across two decades of material.

  3. (I suspect if we ever do a Weird Al retrospective we will distill this phenomenon to its purest form.)

  4. I had two separate Weird Al discoveries, one when my mom played “Like a Surgeon,” one when my roommate at age 14 played “Everything You Know Is Wrong”

  5. I had the same experience (“Another One Rides the Bus” and “Amish Paradise”). Maybe “Weird Al discovery” has two phases, a hazy boundary of coming of age, definitely-childhood and probably-not-childhood. I had early exposure probably around age 4, and then a “formal discovery” at age 11-12 that was closer to what I would call *fandom* and that was downright dutiful, probably the first time in my life I actively cultivated music as a marker of my identity without the help of siblings or parents.

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