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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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