This week, I’m breaking my own rules for a very good reason. On Friday, Janet Jackson’s Janet documentary premieres. My hope is that this will begin to set right a decades-long exile fueled by those classic American bedfellows: racism and sexism.
Janet’s name comes up occasionally on this blog. Her career – from sound to style to execution – is a blueprint for so many K-pop acts. She’s my all-time favorite artist – a forever idol in these eyes. And with a new era soon to begin, it seems right to finally share some of my favorite songs.
Each day this week, I’m going to write about one of her mammoth singles. I don’t think I can rank them, so I’m just picking five that stand out most to me. Don’t worry… The Bias List isn’t going to suddenly turn into a pop music blog. I have no plans (or much desire) for that.
But, it’s Janet! She gets the exception.
Early on in my Janet Jackson journey, I remember finding the album cover of Rhythm Nation 1814 a little unapproachable. Its stark, black-and-white photography gave it the air of an academic thesis rather than a pop album, and the huge track list (half of them interludes) was quite imposing. It’s now my favorite album of all-time, and those features I once found intimidating are some of its greatest strengths.
When writing about Together Again, I remarked on Janet’s incredible, underrated voice. My favorite singers tend to live inside the rhythm of a track, their performance adding to and fueling the groove. This is where Janet excels, and Rhythm Nation is an iconic example.
Forged from a sample of Sly and the Family Stone’s instantly-recognizable Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis build layers of industrial funk over the top to create an aggressive manifesto. Janet’s vocals join the brew, cut and spliced in service to the groove. She delivers an impassioned performance over the top, the pop leader of a dancefloor movement. Its dense sound still feels a singular moment. There’s nothing else quite like it.
It’s depressing how relevant this song and album remain today, but that’s also a testament to its universal nature. There are plenty of protest songs in pop music history, but not as many that appeal to our better angels in an attempt to unify. Janet’s vision of a Rhythm Nation — united by groove – feels incredibly potent and frustratingly elusive today. Meanwhile, that new-jack-swing-on-steroids beat keeps pumping, undeterred.