I was 31 before the lyrics to the 1987 chart-topper Pleasure Principle meant anything to me. When the song debuted, I was already a staunch Janet Jackson fan. I was the first in my seventh grade class to be able to do Janet’s famous head-bop from the song’s video- moving her neck left and right, framing her head with her right hand under the chin then the profile. Janet wore plain black pants and a T-shirt, and full kneepads for the shoot. There is even a website dedicated to the cryptic markings on JJ’s tee, and calls this clip “a perfect blend of music and motion designed to ensnare its target in a very specific way.” Alone, she danced on an equally stripped down set to showcase the most baadasssss moves since, well, her brother. In stark contrast to the highly ornate, narrative big-budget videos that would characterize successive albums and especially the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, Pleasure Principle- the sixth single off her 1986 album Control- was all about the dance.
Janet’s success followed her elder brother’s chart-dominating, pop precedent-setting albums Off the Wall and Thriller by only few years. Moreover, when her turn came, she took over the scene just as quickly as Michael had done as a solo artist. Stretching decades from 1982’s Thriller, every kid in any dance school around the country learned sequences from Joe and Elizabeth Jackson’s kids. By the end of 1987, even drag queens abandoned dresses for tights and jeans in order to do Janet’s now infamous run, jump, balance and leap, landing from a chair.
Janet was neither the queen nor the princess, and certainly not a dominatrix of pop music (read Madonna’s Erotica, circa 1990). By the mid- to late ‘80s, grounded in Paula Abdul’s choreography, Janet had moved beyond trendsetter to ‘norm establisher’ in popular culture; she was in control. Little Ms. Penny from Goodtimes was more than just a starlet shaking her tits-n-ass for some coins. Nevertheless, she would play that card years later at the Superbowl, absorbing all the oxygen from the short list of other high profile celebrities set to perform that day in the Superdome. As comedienne Sommore says, “does anyone even remember who sang the national anthem that year?” Rather, Ms. Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) genuinely remains true to her heritage as entertainers- a virtual clan of griots.
The Best things in Life are Free
One of my mother’s best friends took me to see the Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour, and it was all that! Naturally, I had purchased the cassette months earlier, and had memorized every word to every song, including the B-side non-hits, and knew the moves from those classic videos. I could croon every twist and turn of Janet’s Soul ballads like Someday is Tonight, which, upon a close listen, tone for tone approximates the heart wrenching melismatic orgasm of her brother’s Lady in My Life. At that tender pre-pubescent age, my vocal range could match that of any Jackson’s. Rhythm Nation 1814’s rich album notes included lyrics to every song, which is of great importance when confronting head-on topics that the news chooses to ignore like racism, sexism, war, oppression and the legacy we bequeath to our youth. In State of the World, Janet wrote/performed:
To feed the baby before he starts to cry/No rest, no time to play/15, the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat/What is happening to this world we live in/In our home and other lands
Of the myriad of pop artists that talk about sex, few regard the topic from this, frank and not so uncommon perspective. Many artists simply will never go there.
That rock on your finger’s like a tumor
Janet so neatly does Black music, infusing the old with the new into a finely crafted message of active contemplation and hope for the future. I always appreciate when artists come clean about their influences and tastes; as a people we pay so little attention to our history. Michael Jackson regularly thanked James Brown, publicly testifying to copying his moves while watching him as a child entertainer.
As a budding young dancer, I scoured through every available resource to learn about big band leader Cab Calloway and acrobatic dancers The Nicholas Brothers- all truly wicked entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance who made cameo appearances in Janet’s video Alright. The popularized remix of this hit paired Janet with Heavy D, fashioning the R&B/Hip-Hop duo that others still follow. One only need witness LL Cool J and Total, Ja Rule and J-Lo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Mariah and well, just about every other thug. Control paved the way for New Jack Swing, of which Mary J. Blige would later become its queen.
It was Control that would lay the foundation for all danceable pop music to follow. Beyond just stealing and sampling funk and disco beats, Janet’s lyrics and image covered much, much more than fanatical love and hardcore sex. Janet’s next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, was an action-packed album that not only gives ample treatise to social ills, but also incorporates entertainers that influenced Janet, on top of contemporary dope beats. Most certainly, this left little room to brag about wealth, though I suppose growing up at 2300 Jackson Street, one grows accustomed to such riches.
Like Beyoncé, Janet can pay her own fare, “It’s not the first time I’ve paid the fare,” she says, “Thank you for the ride.” She’s an Independent Woman. Yet, unlike savoring the ability to ‘buy your own’, eschewing, as she says in Pleasure Principle, “part-time bliss” for “happiness,” Janet asserts: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me … My meter’s running I’ve really have to go!” She is interested in more than just goods. Despite the Jackson trail-blazers, so much of today’s pop encourages independent women and girls to leave love aside, opting for a cheap, material upgrades, or be Bossy, turning the tables and becoming somebody’s Suga Mamma. Today’s divas simply wallow in their own insecurities, victims of the perpetual lust for pleasure in material bliss.