How Janet Jackson defined ‘control’

I liked most of Wesley Morris’ reevaluation of Janet Jackson’s Control. At the height of the Reagan years, no one had heard R&B this mechanized and hard before, not even from Jam & Lewis protégéS like the S.O.S Band and Alexander O’Neal. His evocation of the experience of listening to Jackson’s first pop #1 “When I Think of You” is memorable:

For two happy weeks, my favorite song on “Control” was also America’s. “When I Think of You” hit No. 1 in October 1986, but it began its hike toward the top in July and sounds the most like summer. It’s wearing the lightest clothes of any of the tracks and it dons them very slowly: first a plink of keyboard, then some jabs of bass, drums and percussion, hopscotching vibes, and, finally, a blast of artificial horns that sound an alarm that Ms. Jackson is going to do some of her prettiest singing. Hearing her here is like being able to see the seafloor from the shore.

I could do without the rhyme in the last sentence, but I understand: it’s hard for listeners to put their arms around a song that keeps changing form.

What I didn’t read (and didn’t expect to read) is a defense of the ballads, and the absence reminds me that loving ballads remains a gendered thing. How many times have I read my favorite male rock critics write a variant on “don’t bore us get to the chorus”? Skip the slow shit, get to the fast stuff. And so on. The important dialectical marvel of Control is the tension between Jackson’s feathery sing-song and those protean, jack knife beats, and, yes, the ballads are crucial because they too have beats. Admiring Janet Jackson’s assertion of control also means taking seriously a request made in another song no less urgent than the title track’s admonitions. In the year when Ronald Reagan finally addressed the American public about AIDS by implying that it was a threat to everyone who wasn’t homosexual, a hemophiliac, or intravenous drug user, “Let’s Wait Awhile” served as product of the times and personal manifesto. As sung by Jackson, “Let’s Wait Awhile” isn’t a request. For many well-intentioned male critics, a woman’s independence is synonymous with sexual freedom; this is known as the Chrissie Hynde Dictum. Bu independence also means acting in a manner that honors your strengths and acknowledges weaknesses. The hesitant, almost frightened melodic tones of the verses, signifying doubt (at first “Let’s Wait Awhile” sounds like a cousin of The Jets’ contemporaneous “You’ve Got it All”), give way to the assurances of the chorus; her smile has the glint of steel. She’s not budging. This is control too, and she loves it. Too often Jam & Lewis get full credit for their Janet innovations. On “Let’s Wait Awhile” I don’t doubt for a second that the conception, lyrics, and melodies are Jackson’s, with help from friend Melanie Andrews.

To a lesser extent “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” also has less of J&L’s aural fingerprints. An earlier model for Rhythm Nation‘s “Lonely” and “Someday is Tonight” and janet‘s “Any Time, Any Place,” “Funny” creates a warm private burrow into which Jackson crawls happily. There’s no sense that the “fun” requires a man (or woman); it’s more likely that she’s alone. She’s in control — and she loves it.

Last September on the eve of the release of the excellent Unbreakable, I competed with Slant Magazine to release my twenty-five essential Janet cuts. Almost a year later and secure in the knowledge that Unbreakable is one of her five best albums I’d extend the list to thirty songs.

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