If Beyoncé is “the album that is going to launch a thousand women’s studies papers,” then Janet Jackson’s Control is the album that launched a thousand feminist music careers. Nearly 30 years after its initial release, the groundbreaking album still stands as one of the boldest statements in the history of Black feminist music, and Janet’s storied career remains an often-referenced blueprint for a legion of female performers following in her fearless footsteps.
"This is a story about control — my control. Control of what I say, control of what I do."
In August 1985, Janet Jackson left the glamour of her show business upbringing and set out for Minneapolis — the home of former Prince protégés Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. By this time, 19-year-old Janet had starred in three TV shows, been married to and split from an addiction-plagued James DeBarge, and fired an overbearing Joe Jackson as her manager. She was coming into her own as a woman — and she, Jam and Lewis were determined to chronicle that evolution on her third studio album, Control. Unlike the music of her safe, bubble-gummy debut, Janet Jackson, and its follow-up, Dream Street, Control was largely autobiographical — relaying honest, raw stories born out of real-life events.
"No, my first name ain't 'baby.' It's Janet — Miss Jackson, if you're nasty!"
The album’s lead single, “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” told the story of a woman fed up with a complacent man. Inspired by Janet’s feelings about DeBarge, the song showcased a different kind of in-your-face feminine strength — a posture that resonated with women in a big way, and put brothers on notice that 80s women had standards, as Eddie Murphy hilariously pointed out here.
The follow-up to “Lately,” “Nasty” narrated Janet’s uncomfortable encounter with a group of street harassers outside the hotel where she stayed in Minneapolis. "They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening," Janet told Rolling Stone in 1993. "Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That's how songs like 'Nasty' and 'What Have You Done for Me Lately' were born, out of a sense of self-defense."
The bold, take-no-prisoners brand of woman power permeating Control helped to create a space for many younger acts to make their own feminist waves. “Lately” and “Nasty” remain the templates for many a girl power anthem by TLC, Destiny’s Child, Ciara and countless others.
"Gimme a beat!"
The impact of “Control” wasn’t just limited to its female empowerment themes. Sonically and visually innovative, it was one of the first R&B albums to incorporate elements of hip hop, and was also a major influencer of the New Jack Swing sound to emerge in the late 80s. The album’s music videos, with innovative choreography from Paula Abdul, helped to integrate MTV, and Janet remains the only Black woman to win the network’s Video Vanguard Award.
The album also helped redefine what it meant to be a Black female superstar, and arguably, a Black superstar period. Unlike the safe images of her mid-80s contemporaries Whitney Houston and Anita Baker, there was something undeniably street about Janet’s overall presentation. From the hard-hitting beats to the funky choreography and sassy attitude, Janet was very Black — and proud. Commenting on Control, Jimmy Jam told Rolling Stone, “We wanted to do an album that would be in every Black home in America…we were going for the Black album of all time.” Selling 14 million copies worldwide, the album was clearly a major pop success, but it was also appreciated — even cherished — in the 'hood. The combination of street credibility and mainstream acceptance extolling the same body of work was a rarity in the 80s, but is almost a necessity for success today.
The Legacy of Control
Control was just the beginning of a female-empowering, industry-changing career for Janet. Her next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, showed the world that not only was Janet a woman, but she was a woman with a conscience, as the record addressed social issues like racism, poverty, teen pregnancy and education.
1993’s janet. saw the megastar exploring her sexuality. Gone were the oversized Black jackets and military-inspired choreography. Janet had body, and she showed it to the world in a bevy of form-fitting jeans and midriff-bearing tops. And as she seductively cooed her way through her 27-track opus, you couldn’t help but listen — intrigued. Unlike her pop counterpart Madonna, Janet’s approach to the topic of sex felt warm and inviting.
“The Velvet Rope,” Janet’s most personal album to date, revealed her battle with depression, and saw her continue to empower women through her pain. Her show-stopping performance of “What About” at the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards put the issue of domestic violence front and center, as she relayed a graphic story of abuse for the world to hear.
Undeniably, Janet’s feminist influence can be seen in many younger performers, but it’s Beyoncé that has taken that torch and is running it to the finish line, and the entire Bey Hive should know that Queen B is able to exist in this space because of the ground that Janet broke.
Rumor has it that Miss Jackson is cooking up a new project for 2014.
Dear God, please let it be true.
Brannon Smith is a writer from Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @brannon_smith, and see more of his work at brannon-smith.com.