30 years on, Control shows Janet Jackson is essential

Janet Jackson’s Control album spawned many memorable hits such as the title track and Nasty.
Janet Jackson’s Control album spawned many memorable hits such as the title track and Nasty.

NEW YORK • The standard for planet-stopping artistic statements in pop music is now so high that you need a pilot's licence to compete with the Beyonces, Kanyes and Kendricks of the world.

But when Janet Jackson craved ascent, she did not go to flight school. She went to Flyte Tyme. That was the Minneapolis production company Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis operated and where the three came up with Control, Jackson's third record and the first of their subtly strange, sonically complex thematic carnivals.

The album turned 30 in February, peaked in popularity about this time that year (hitting No. 1 in July) and still sounds today like 1986 as it does 2056. Some producers make hooks. These three made wedgies.

Control is a work of confidence, cleverness and justifiable irritation. It is also full of weird, amazing sounds that, 30 years later, it is easy to take for granted as the way latterday pop music has always been: polished in a factory to a gem-like gleam.

But most of the album's nine songs were not just factorygenerated; they were performed by almost entirely aggressive, attitudinal heavy machinery that was new for both Top 40 and the outer limits of mainstream R&B.

Meanwhile, for any number of reasons (that Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction scandal, the long shadow of other stars, our cultural amnesia), the woman behind the wheel has been demoted to the back seat. And that warrants a correction.

Jackson was around 20 when she entered the recording studio after a stint as a star on sitcoms such as Good Times and Diff'rent Strokes, an annulled marriage and a split from her notoriously oppressive father, Joe. So a decree was in order: "When it's got to do with my life/ I want to be the one in control." That's from the opening song, Control, which begins with a spoken proclamation of self-emancipation: "This is a story about control."

Jam and Lewis orbited Prince, and that opening has always sounded like a counterpoint to the mania of Let's Go Crazy, which had just completed devouring America the year before. In the face of collapse, Prince demanded chaos. Jackson's idea of anarchy was, well, control.

In the middle of the title track, she sings, "First time I fell in love / I didn't know what hit me", and you can hear a car screeching into a collision.

The next song starts with a demand: "Gimme a beat!" and the beat is like none you've heard. It is a bunch of drums punching themselves silly, then five notes of metallic, pipelike noise, joined by a strange, constant click. This is Nasty and its violence is delicious.

Here was Jackson sounding like the proudly nasty funk artist Millie Jackson (no relation). The song is part anti-chauvinist call to arms, part street fight, part "had it up to here" exasperation, part wink - each a mood she would deploy for most of her career. That constant click starts to make a lot of sense. It's the first No. 3 hit built around the sucking of teeth.

For two happy weeks, my favourite song on Control was also America's. When I Think Of You hit No. 1 in October 1986, but it began its hike towards the top in July and sounds the most like summer. It is 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 the artist is going to do some of her prettiest singing. Hearing her here is like being able to see the seafloor from the shore.

It makes sense to admire Control as an album about independence. It is a compelling tale in which she liberates herself from the demands of suffocating men to make her own demands. She granted herself permission to define her sexiness.

Even now, the excitement of When I Think Of You is the sight of a cherubic Jackson dance-walking across a soundstage in a silky, tricked-out jacket and bustier, matching pants, heels, that hoop earring with the key on it, and the mane of three lions.

That was also the summer of Madonna's Open Your Heart video, in which she seduced with just the bustier, some fishnets and a peep show. Despite, or more likely because of, the clothes, Jackson's dancing seemed all the freer.

One reason to revisit Control, aside from its general excellence and a milestone anniversary, is to consider her value as a pop artist, which doesn't happen often enough.

Her most recent album, Unbreakable, hit No. 1 last fall, but the gleam of her stardom never recovered from that evening in 2004 when Justin Timberlake ripped open her costume, exposing her breast at the Super Bowl. The logistics and intent of the moment are still ambiguous; Jackson publicly apologised. No matter what, she went from a steady maker of big hits to some kind of postlapsarian has-been, seemingly overnight. But it still feels less like she has fallen and more like she was pushed.

Thirty years of Control is a useful, if contrived, excuse to argue for Jackson's necessity, especially as someone who knew the power of an image. That hoop earring with the key was as iconic as LL Cool J's Kangols, George Michael's stubble and Steven Tyler's scarves. It was the perfect symbol for both a project called Control and a woman whose guard has gone down and up over the decades.

People thought that key was a potential invitation, something sexy. But what if it was just selfaffirming? What if she was never looking for someone to give it to? What if she was her own lock?


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline '30 years on, Control shows Janet Jackson is essential'. Print Edition | Subscribe