Principled Pleasure: Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ at 30 Still Commands Respect

Janet Jackson’s masterpiece of self-worth-themed contextual pop proves our idiocy for downgrade shaming her to the status of “wardrobe malfunction”.

Janet Jackson
4 February 1986

In a time when artistic freedom, boundaries, and self-worth have been thrust back onto the national debate stage via the high profile Sony/Dr. Luke/Ke$ha controversy and when pop is often less and less a reflection of the actual artist performing it and more of a pantomime for corporate interests, Janet Jackson‘s Control is worth reconsidering as, perhaps boldly, one of the top three or four pop records of the ’80s. Personally, I think it is unquestionably the most coherent and powerful full album statement from any female solo pop artist during much of the ’80s, some of Kate Bush’s more eccentric triumphs that decade notwithstanding.

Jackson gets major style points for her bright color palette, very pop looks, and her effortless charm during this period. The segue ways on the album are also as great or better than almost any album in history (seriously, “The Pleasure Principle” riding out into the sudden sparse light funk of “When I Think of You” is pure genius, a song that not only had one of the best grooves but also offered one among the funniest ensemble videos of the times).

Roaring in with a softly stated yet commanding declaration of intent, Jackson was free of her father and manager, Joseph, and with a fresh marriage annulment, was poised to take over the world and help change music forever. “This is a story about control… and this time I’m gonna do it my way”, the album’s spoken intro promised. Control is a masterpiece of self-worth-themed contextual pop that proves our nation’s shame forever downgrading her to the status of “wardrobe malfunction”. There is not the same stormcloud pathos of Prince’s testy years fighting Warner Brothers, rather sheer joy through most of the record.

Jackson would become one of the world’s biggest pop stars, predating current day reigning queen Beyonce with sly humor (the opening girl talk skit to fiercely confrontational, funky and dismissive “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”) and via hyper-analytical pop as a reflection of woman’s spirit, social standing, and ability to seize attention in a less objective way. The album was sexy and funky and fun, but if you were too nasty you had to call her “Ms. Janet”, respectfully. The simmering “Nasty Boys” flirtation with almost clanging industrial textures reminds that Yeezus is one of Kanye’s best lucid moments but really it is way less original than he thinks (like most things he does). Seriously, y’all… stop jockin’ Ye and go listen to some Ratking or FKA Twigs or something fresher.

Yes, Jackson would go on to beat Beyoncé to the Super Bowl Controversy punch via that really inconsequential nip slip that got way too much press.

Several years after Control she also was ahead of the game with the pop mining Black Panther imagery via the still rockin’ (and risky for rock elements at the time) “Black Cat” single. But she commanded that as well, even as Janet always also seemed to have a real sweet and shy side.

I’m not trying to pit her and Beyoncé against one another or say that Lemonade is super derivative or something. If anything Control was such a triumph because it paved the way for more women to feel like they could make art that wrestled with the process of boundaries, falling in love, feeling slighted or unseen (“He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive”), or wanting it to be special.

“Let’s Wait Awhile” might have opening keyboards that could just as suitably serve MC Hammer for a kinda goofy spoken word seductive “Have You Seen Her?” type vibe (No offense to Hammer because that’s my favorite dude), but Jackson turns the song into one of the most gentle yet firm affirmations of boundaries and the worthwhile process of getting to know a potential partner in pop music. It’s almost a nostalgic novelty now in the age of speed dating and the gag-worthy Tinder swiping and ghosting culture we live in.

This album wants to communicate.

Jackson on Control wants love and even sometimes sex but she doesn’t want to rescind her dignity. “Nasty Boys” may get kinky telling the nasty boys “don’t ever change” and perhaps seem to condone objectification to some feminists but Janet’s delivery practically makes her sound like a dom for all the charged power and confidence of her vocal. No one is putting anything past her or getting anywhere she doesn’t want them and she makes it a playful game.

The synth, heavy percussion, and dance club elements as well as some extended bridges and outros make every song a winner. The collaboration between Jackson and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis is the stuff legends are made of. Even the most dialed-in sounding number “You Could Be Mine” still has a sweet innocence and quirky vibe similar almost to “Funky Town”, but laced with Prince-esque hot guitar licks and a bold urgency that highlights Jackson’s feelings as important. Pop now negates the real feelings of artists as secondary to a sheen of production gloss. Autobiographical records like Lemonade resonate so much because we miss what Control gave us.

The album is crazy, adventurous, proud, unabashedly romantic but also never hesitant to hold you at arm’s length until you earn Jackson’s respect. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome. There are actually only nine songs and the record is highly replayable, taking you on a journey through many sides of Jackson’s personality as she explores what she wants. By the time she is actually getting all whispery and super sensual on closing track “Funny How Time Flies”, she may have given in to someone’s advances even though she “really has to go”, but you never get the feeling it is not as an equal. It’s a far cry, say, from the in studio tracked sex of Guns N Roses’ “Rocket Queen” from a little album from the same era called Appetite For Destruction.

The sense of self-discovery on this record is palpable. The music remains exciting, dangerous and edgy yet accessible enough to seize the zeitgeist.

Like Purple Rain, her brother’s lauded Thriller, or the best album in the world Songs From the Big Chair from Tears For Fears or even, dare I include, the underrated INXS triumph Kick, there is just something about it that always sounds futuristic as well as nostalgic and intensely personal.

Jackson could have never made another note and this would still be a classic (though if that was the case I’d want a time-altering device to also have “Escapade” on here as a tenth track because it is one of the best carefree, spend a day with the person you love in surrender to bliss and easy-going discovery type pop songs ever written and also needed to exist).

Like Metallica’s early output you are tempted to want to freeze time and hold this period in amber. What makes Control all the more inspiring though, for all the creative wins or missteps in an ever-changing pop climate that came after it, is how the album’s symbolic magic and message still resonates so strongly if we take the time to deconstruct it. Honestly, all you have to do is put it on because it is so funky, smooth, soothing, and fun that the messages sink right in while you surrender any futile resistance to Jackson’s world.

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