The Nation That Janet Jackson Built

Twenty-five years later, the political message and musical innovation on Rhythm Nation 1814 is more significant than ever, though less appreciated than it should be.

STR New/Reuters

The most culturally significant female artist of the 1980s? Janet Jackson.

I realize that’s a big claim for a decade that included such talents as Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna. It may seem even more dubious given the fact that Janet really only emerged as a major figure in 1986 with the release of Control—and only released two substantial albums over the course of the decade. Janet didn’t have the vocal prowess of Whitney Houston, or the poetic subtlety of Kate Bush; she didn’t have Annie Lennox’s penchant for the avant-garde or Madonna’s predilection for shock.

But none of these artists achieved the cross-racial impact (particularly on youth culture) of Janet. And none of them had an album like Rhythm Nation 1814.

In his Rolling Stone cover story, journalist David Ritz compared Rhythm Nation 1814, released 25 years ago today, to Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 album What’s Going On—a pairing that might seem strange, if not sacrilege. But think about it, and the comparison makes a lot of sense. Both albums are hard-won attempts by black musicians to be taken seriously as songwriters and artists—to communicate something meaningful in the face of great pressure to conform to corporate formulas. Both are concept albums with socially conscious themes addressing poverty, injustice, drug abuse, racism and war. Both blended the sounds, struggles, and voices of the street with cutting-edge studio production. Both fused the personal and the political. And both connected in profound ways with their respective cultural zeitgeists.

Yet while What’s Going On has rightfully been recognized as one of the great albums of the 20th century, Rhythm Nation’s significance has been largely forgotten. At the time, though, it was undeniable: For three solid years (1989-1991), the album ruled the pop universe, the last major multimedia blockbuster of the 1980s. During that time, all seven of its commercial singles soared into the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 (including five songs that reached No. 1), surpassing a seemingly impossible record set by brother Michael’s Thriller (the first album to generate seven Top 10 hits). Janet’s record has yet to be broken.

During its reign, Rhythm Nation shifted more than seven million copies in the U.S., sitting atop the charts for six weeks in 1989 before becoming the bestselling album of 1990. It was the first album in history to produce No. 1 hits in three separate years (1989, 1990, 1991). Meanwhile, its innovative music videos—including the iconic militant imagery and intricate choreography of the title track—were ubiquitous on MTV.

But its impact was far more than commercial. Rhythm Nation was a transformative work that arrived at a transformative moment. Released in 1989—the year of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, protests at Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall—its sounds, its visuals, its messaging spoke to a generation in transition, at once empowered and restless. The Reagan Era was over. The cultural anxiety about what was next, however, was palpable.

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The 1980s were a paradoxical decade, particularly for African-Americans. It was an era of both increased possibility and poverty, visibility and invisibility. The revolution of the pop-cultural landscape was undeniable. “Crossover” icons like Janet, Michael, Prince, and Whitney shattered racialized narrowcasting on radio, television and film, while hip hop emerged as the most important musical movement since rock and roll. The Cosby Show changed the color of television, as Spike Lee and the New Black Cinema infiltrated Hollywood. Oprah Winfrey began her reign on daytime television, while Arsenio Hall’s hip late-night talk show drew some of the biggest names in America. By 1989, from Michael Jordan to Eddie Murphy to Tracy Chapman, black popular culture had never been more prominent in the American mainstream. Over the course of the decade, the black middle and upper class more than doubled and integrated into all facets of American life, from college campuses to the media to politics.

But there was a flip side to this narrative—the decay and abandonment of inner cities, the crack epidemic, the AIDS crisis, the huge spike in arrests and incarceration (particularly of young black men), and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, including within the black community. By the end of the 1980s, nearly 50 percent of black children were living below the poverty line This was the reality early hip hop often spoke to and for. Chuck D. famously described rap as “CNN for black people.”

It was these voices, these struggles, these ongoing divides and injustices that Janet Jackson wanted to represent in Rhythm Nation 1814. “We have so little time to solve these problems,” she told journalist Ritz in a 1990 interview. “I want people to realize the urgency. I want to grab their attention. Music is my way of doing that.” Pop stars, she recognized, had unprecedented multimedia platforms—and she was determined to use hers to do more than simply entertain. “I wanted to reflect, not just react,” she said. “I re-listened to those artists who moved me most when I was younger ... Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye. These were people who woke me up to the responsibility of music. They were beautiful singers and writers who felt for others. They understood suffering.”

A sprawling 12-track manifesto (plus interludes), Rhythm Nation acknowledges this suffering and transfuses it into communal power. It was Janet’s second collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the talented duo from Minneapolis who miraculously merged elements of three existing musical strands—Prince, Michael, and hip hop—into something entirely fresh and unique. The Flyte Tyme sound featured angular, staccato-synth bottoms, often overlaid with warm, melodic tops. The sound was tailored to Janet’s strengths: her rhythmic sensibility, her gorgeous stacked harmonies, her openness to new sounds, and her wide musical palette. Jam and Lewis also took the time to learn who Janet was, who she wanted to be, and what she wanted to say, and helped translate those sentiments and ideas into lyrics. On Rhythm Nation, Janet wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s 12 songs, interweaving social and personal themes.

Twenty-five years later, those songs still pop with passion and energy. Listen to the signature bass of the title track, based on a sample loop of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again),” and the dense textures of noise that accentuate the song’s urgency. Listen to the funky New Jack riff in “State of the World,” again surrounded by a collage of street sounds—sirens, barking dogs, muffled screams—as Janet narrates vignettes of quiet desperation. Listen to the industrial, Public Enemy-like sermon of “The Knowledge.” The opening suite of songs feel like being inside a sonic factory: machines spurt, hiss, and rattle, as if unaccountably left on; glass breaks, metal stomps and clashes. All this is juxtaposed, of course, with Janet’s intimate, feathery voice, making it even more striking.

Listen to how she sings in a lower register in the first verse of “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” then goes up an octave in the second, before the chorus nearly lifts you off the ground. The album is full of sudden, unexpected shifts, as when the euphoric throb of “Escapade” transitions into the arena-rock stomp of “Black Cat.” On the final track, following the eerie strains of young children singing (“Living in a world that’s filled with hate/ Living in a world we didn’t create”), the album concludes as it began, with a somber bell tolling, perhaps a reference to John Donne’s famous dictum, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”

Taken as a complete artistic statement, Rhythm Nation 1814 was a stunning achievement. It married the pleasures of pop with the street energy and edge of hip-hop. It was by turns dark and radiant, calculated and carefree, political and playful, sensual and austere, sermonic and liberating. If Control announced the arrival of a young woman ready to take the reins of her personal life and career, Rhythm Nation revealed a maturing artist, surveying the world around her, determined to wake people out of apathy, cynicism, indifference. Writes Slant’s Eric Henderson, “Rhythm Nation expanded Janet's range in every conceivable direction. She was more credibly feminine, more crucially masculine, more viably adult, more believably childlike. This was, of course, critical to a project in which Janet assumed the role of mouthpiece for a nationless, multicultural utopia.”

“We are a nation with no geographic boundaries,” declared Janet on the album’s introductory “pledge,” “pushing toward a world rid of color lines.” Just seven years earlier, black artists couldn’t get on MTV; FM radio was dominated by album-oriented (white) rock; and the music industry was largely segregated by genre. Now a black woman was at the helm of a new pop-cultural “nation,” preaching liberation through music and dance, while calling on her audience to keep up the struggle. For all the inroads, she insisted, the battle wasn’t over.

Janet Jackson’s ascendance was significant for many reasons, not the least of which was how it coincided with (and spoke to) the rise of black feminism. Until the 1980s, feminism was dominated, by and large, by middle class white women. They defined its terms, its causes, its hierarchies, its representations, and its icons. It wasn’t, of course, that black feminists didn’t exist before the 1980s. From Sojourner Truth to Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks to Maya Angelou—black women made enormous contributions in the struggle for racial, gender, and class equality. But their contributions were often minimized, and their struggles marginalized. As Barbara Smith writes in her landmark 1977 essay, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” “Black women’s existence, experience, and culture and the brutally complex systems of oppression which shape these are in the ‘real world’ of white and/or male consciousness beneath consideration, invisible, unknown ... It seems overwhelming to break such a massive silence.”

Black feminism, however, did just that in the 1980s. From Michelle Wallace’s bestselling Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman (described by Ms. magazine as “the book that will shape the 80s”), to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (which was adapted into a blockbuster film, directed by Steven Spielberg), black women achieved unprecedented breakthroughs over the course of the decade. In 1981, bell hooks released Ain’t I A Woman; in 1984, Audre Lorde published Sister Outsider; 1987 saw the arrival of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, perhaps the most universally canonized novel of the past 30 years. Appropriately capping the decade was Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought (1990), which documented and synthesized the flourishing movement’s central ideas and concerns. The book, Collins wrote, was intended to be “both individual and collective, personal and political, one reflecting the intersection of my unique biography with the larger meaning of my historical times.”

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If there was one female artist in the 1980s who captured this spirit in popular music it was Janet Jackson in Rhythm Nation. It was an album that positioned a multifaceted, dynamic black woman as a leader, as someone whose ideas, experiences and emotions mattered. It challenged some of the most deeply entrenched scripts for women in popular culture. It also offered an alternative to the era’s other most powerful female icon: Madonna.

While they were not-so-friendly rivals, in certain ways Janet and Madonna helped trailblaze similar terrain. Both were strong, intelligent, fiercely ambitious artists. Neither expressed any reticence about their desire for mass commercial success. Both were engaged in similar struggles for respect, empowerment and agency in an industry dominated by men and male expectations. Both also faced serious pushback from music critics. In the 1980s, music reviews were frequently filtered through a rock-centric (read: white, male, and heteronormative) lens. “Pop creations” like Janet and Madonna were viewed with suspicion, if not outright contempt. The fact that they didn’t conform to traditional singer-songwriter expectations proved they lacked talent. The fact that they had talented collaborators and producers proved they lacked credibility. The fact that dance and image were important parts of their artistic presentation proved they lacked authenticity. As The New York Times’ Jon Pareles wrote in a 1990 review of Janet’s Rhythm Nation Tour: “Miss Jackson seems content simply to flesh out an image whose every move and utterance are minutely planned. Spontaneity has been ruled out; spectacle reigns, and the concert is as much a dance workout as a showcase for songs.”

In spite of such headwind, however, Janet and Madonna became two of the most influential icons of the late 20th century, each offering distinct versions of feminist liberation and empowerment to a generation of young people coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s. VH1 ranked them No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in their “50 Greatest Women of the Video Era.” On Billboard’s 2013 list of Top Artists in Hot 100 History, Madonna was No. 2 and Janet was No. 7. Over the course of their respective careers, Madonna has 12 No. 1 hits; Janet has 10. Madonna has 38 Top Ten singles; Janet has 27 (placing them both among the top 10 artists of all time). Both, meanwhile, have sold hundreds of millions of albums and influenced American culture in incalculable ways.

Yet in spite of their similar commercial achievements and cultural impact, Janet Jackson remains, by comparison, grossly undervalued by critics and historians. Try to find a book on her career, cultural significance, or creative work, and with the exception of her 2011 autobiography, True You: A Journey To Finding and Loving Yourself, which focuses on her struggles with body image and self-esteem, you will come up empty-handed. Do the same with Madonna, and you will find at least 20 books by major publishers.

The disparities are not simply in the amount of coverage, but in how each artist is interpreted and understood. In print coverage, both in the 1980s and today, Madonna is made the default representative of feminism and of the era (in a 1990 editorial for the New York Times, cultural critic Camille Paglia famously declared her “the future of feminism”). Madonna was perceived as somehow more important and interesting, more clever and cerebral. Her sense of irony and play with sexuality made her more appealing to postmodernists than Janet’s socially conscious sincerity. In 1989, Madonna was named “Artist of the Decade” by Billboard and MTV. Since that time, the appreciation gap has only widened.

In 2008, Madonna was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In spite of her trailblazing career, Janet has yet to receive the same honor. She has been eligible for six years. Many believe she is still being punished for the 2004 Super Bowl controversy often referred to as “Nipplegate,” the response to which has been described as "one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in America since the Salem witch trials."​ It is hard to believe, given the controversies surrounding just about every artist inducted into the Hall of Fame, that this would be used as a legitimate rationale for her exclusion. But then again, it’s hard to imagine how an artist of Janet’s stature has yet to be nominated.

Long before Beyoncé, Janet carved out a space for the openly feminist, multidimensional pop star. She created a blueprint that hundreds of thousands of artists have followed, from Britney Spears to Ciara to Lady Gaga. Rhythm Nation 1814 was the album that revolutionized her career and the pop landscape. It demonstrated that black women needn’t be second to anyone. But it wasn’t individualistic. Its rallying call was about the collective we. We could be a part of the creative utopia—the rhythm nation—regardless of race, gender, class, sexuality or difference. It made you want to dance and change the world at the same time. Unrealistic, perhaps. But 25 years later, it’s still hard to listen and not want to join the movement.