Rebbie Jackson

Rebbie Jackson Bid for Pop Stardom in the Midst of 1980s Jacksonmania

Rebbie was the first of the Jackson sisters to find solo success, scoring a gold record out of the gate with Centipede. When she released Reaction in 1986, she was no longer the most successful Jackson sister.

Rebbie Jackson
Columbia / CBS
7 October 1986

Most people consider Jacksonmania the period in which the Jackson 5 were at their commercial peak in the 1970s, scoring a string of pop hits. Signed to the Motown label in 1969, the Jackson 5 – brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael – went to Hollywood and were given a PR superstar treatment (courtesy of legendary Motown executive Suzanne de Passe). That included a mythical origin story of being discovered by legendary pop diva Diana Ross. Motown’s investment paid off: the Jackson 5 weren’t just a hit; they were a phenomenon.

Appealing to a youthful audience, the brothers reeled off an impressive string of hit singles, starting with the number one “I Want You Back”. In just six short years, the Jackson 5 had logged 13 top 20 hits on the Billboard charts, four consecutive number 1s from 1969 to 1970 at the peak of their early success. Their youthful appeal meant that not only were they a pop music sensation, but they were a multi-platform sensation, as well, branching out into merchandising (dolls, lunchboxes, board games), and even headlined their own Saturday morning cartoon.

As with any teen-pop group, fortunes started to dim once the brothers got older. To counter this, the Jackson 5 did what many acts did in the 1970s: when they began to see their record sales slump, they turned to variety television. Like Sonny & Cher, the Osmonds, the Brady kids, and the Captain & Tenille, the Jacksons also tried their hand at the kitschy genre. One significant change was it wasn’t just the Jackson 5 starring on the show. They would be joined by their younger brother Randy and their sisters Janet, LaToya, and eldest Jackson child, Rebbie. It’s on the variety show that viewers got to see Rebbie Jackson for the first time.

The show did not last very long. It wasn’t the best vehicle to showcase the talents of the gifted musical family: corny comedy sketches, hokey musical numbers, and hacky guest stars date the show immediately. Michael shone brightest, especially in the musical numbers, but overall, the show felt like a discofied artifact. When the show ended after a short run, the Jackson brothers continued to record. Though there was talk of a Supremes-like trio for the Jackson sisters, nothing materialized as Janet left for a successful run as a TV sitcom child star.

Rebbie Jackson would toil in the industry, mainly in the background, before being signed to Columbia Records and releasing her debut album, 1984’s Centipede. The title track was a hit, reaching number 24 on the pop charts. The song was written and produced by Michael Jackson at the height of his fame, with Thriller making him the most famous musician in the world. Their collaboration has all the hallmarks of early ’80s Michael Jackson: tight, angular beats; thick, robotic bass; flashy synths; gaudy, over-the-top production; cryptic lyrics.

The 1970s to the mid-1980s was when other Jackson siblings took advantage of Michael’s success to try their hand at solo stardom. Between 1973 and 1987, Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon, Randy, LaToya, Janet, and Rebbie all put out solo albums to varying degrees of success. Jermaine, who famously stayed behind at Motown after the Jacksons decamped for CBS, had a sizable career as a solo artist, hitting the pop and R&B charts with the Stevie Wonder-produced “Let’s Get Serious”.

Rebbie was the first to find success of the Jackson sisters, scoring a gold record out of the gate with Centipede. Still, by the time she released her sophomore album, Reaction, in 1986, she was no longer the most successful Jackson sister. In February of that year, Janet released her third album, Control, to critical and commercial acclaim. The record’s success would catapult her to superstardom that would rival even that of Michael’s. It set course for a career that would eventually make her into a pop legend and icon in her own right. When Reaction came out, Rebbie Jackson no longer had to wrest herself away from the looming shadow of her brother Michael, but she would also have to try and break free from the shadow of Janet.

When listening to Reaction, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to Janet’s Control or Michael’s 1987 effort, Bad. It’s not that Rebbie’s album is as innovative or daring as her siblings – it’s not – but it bears the marks of the era’s sounds when it comes to dance-pop or urban-pop. Rebbie Jackson is sometimes called “the Jackson sister who could actually sing”. This unfair bit of snark refers to Jackson’s strong voice as it compares to the airier, lighter coos of Janet and LaToya.

Though Rebbie Jackson does not possess the multi-octave, leather-lunged power of Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin, she seems to have a stronger voice than her more famous sisters. Janet and LaToya sound lovely on vinyl, but their delivery leans more into breathy, pretty crooning, while Rebbie seems more comfortable singing with a louder, less mannered delivery. That doesn’t mean listeners don’t hear some Jackson trademarks when she sings. She, like her famous siblings, owns some vocal tics and nuances that seem to pop up on most Jackson records: namely, a clipped, sharp phrasing, a feathery vibrato, and a fondness for spontaneous whoops and squeals.

When Reaction was released, it did not chart as well as its predecessor, nor did any singles make huge dents in the pop charts. Its chances of success seemed swallowed by Janet’s stunning triumph with Control. Though unfair to compare the two, it’s clear that even if Janet is arguably the lighter singer, Control is the better album. Working with a tight crew that came of age from the Minneapolis sound, Control is a ground-breaking album that marries pop, funk, disco, soul, synth, and dance. Janet had a hand in writing much of the material on the album, and it told a story. It had a narrative (something Janet would continue with her follow-ups).

Reaction doesn’t have the ambition of Control. Instead, it’s a straightforward, serviceable dance-pop record that ticks all of the boxes of what a dance-pop record in the mid-’80s should sound like. The heavy-handed use of studio trickery – metallic synthesizers, robotic drum machines, trendy pop flourishes – means that the album has dated quite a bit since its release in 1986. And because Jackson did not write or produce the record (brother Tito helmed a couple of tracks), there’s a certain blankness to the album, too.

Because most dance-pop is producer-driven, the sounds behind the singer’s vocals are just as important – if not more so – than the singer herself.  That is why some of the most essential dance-pop artists of the past few decades – Madonna, Paula Abdul, Kylie Minogue, Janet Jackson – are singers who weren’t particularly powerful vocalists. Yes, colossal-lunged divas like Martha Wash, Donna Summer, and Whitney Houston have also found success recording dance music, but their songs weren’t necessarily better than their lighter-voiced peers.

This emphasis on production is one of the reasons why dance-pop is routinely (and unfairly) dismissed as inauthentic or synthetic. For popular music purists, authenticity is key to making meaningful music, and dance-pop’s reliance on technology feels like an antithesis to that reach for realness. It’s a nonsensical objection, motivated, in part, by a machismo swagger that is inherent in ‘real’ music like rock and roll, which embraces a different kind of aesthetic than female-driven pop music.  

So, part of the reason why Reaction will pale in comparison with Control or Bad is that the song selection isn’t as strong. And so, given that the producer’s oversized importance on the success or failure of dance music, Reaction’s muted response – both critically and commercially – felt a bit out of Jackson’s hands. She does what she does very well on this collection of solid, if not incredible, songs – gives great, engaging performances. The songs don’t ask too much of her, most of the heavy lifting on the album being done by snazzy studio tricks. There are loads of sonic embellishments on the album: bright, spangly synthesizers bursting and shouting like fireworks all over the place. That means the record dates almost immediately. The producers that signed on to work with Jackson are pros. In particular, we have Reggie Lucas, the gifted musician who worked on Madonna’s early brilliant work. We also have Jackson 5 member Tito, prolific urban-pop producer Howie Rice, and Vassal Bedford. It’s an impressive line-up that does okay-to-fine work, supporting an excellent singer.  

The chunky title track opens Reaction with multi-layered vocals, frantically spelling out the word’ reaction.’ A thick bass pounds relentlessly, and there are loud synths and keyboards. Jackson gives a fairly impassionate performance, especially in the chorus, during which she does an admirable soul belt. The song has the skeleton of a good pop tune, but there’s so much going on with the instrumentation that little of it makes sense. It’s a telling indicator of an issue with the rest of the album: overproduction.

Tito Jackson and Vassal Benford put together “Ain’t No Way to Love” (written with Philip Bailey), which, like “Reaction”, is a solid song that is undone by unnecessary synthetic frippery. Synth pipes open the song, vaguely appropriating Native American pan pipes before the rest of the track’s bass-heavy instrumentation starts up. Again, Rebbie Jackson’s vocals are on point – she really is a great vocalist, and to her credit, she doesn’t sound stifled in the busy production.

Howie Rice, who crafted pop tunes for the Pointer Sisters, Patti Labelle, and the Commodores (and racked up an impressive resume as a studio musician), produced “Ticket to Love”, one of the better pieces on Reaction. It’s still dated like the rest of the album, but not incredibly so, and though there is still a liberal use of synths, keyboards, and drum machines, it’s done with aplomb (though I won’t go as far as saying economy). Jackson is also very appealing in his song – she’s charming and feisty.

The other Rice production, “You Don’t Know What You’re Missing”, is a sprightly, fun pop number that, again, is lathered with all kids of gloss and sheen, but there’s a surprising lightness to the song (despite the hefty production), and the chorus is very catchy. It sounds a lot like what would have been a big pop hit for Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle at the time. Given the stellar quality of the Rice songs, it may have been wiser if Jackson had worked exclusively with him.

The other high-profile collaborator is Reggie Lucas, the man behind Madonna’s self-titled debut. One would hope that he would have brought that fun, spunky, streetwise attitude that he imbued on classic post-disco hits like “Lucky Star” or “Burning Up”. And the strutting funk of “If You Don’t Call (You Don’t Care)” captures some of that ’80s New York attitude. Some of the sonic accents sound like they were lifted from “Lucky Star”. But his work on Reaction isn’t as distinct or fresh as the sounds he created for divas like Jocelyn Brown or Stephanie Mills. His other dance tune, “Lessons (In the Fine Art of Love)”, feels like cookie-cutter ’80s dance-pop. His most bewildering contribution to the album is the strange duet “You Send the Rain Away”, which paired Jackson with Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander. The pop ballad showcases how poorly matched the two singers are (though Jackson sounds far more comfortable in the A/C ballad setting).

The other high-profile duet on the album is Isaac Hayes, legendary, Oscar-winning soul singer. Strangely, a high-profile artist of Hayes’ caliber is included on the LP, but it does make for a winning moment on the album. Produced by Tito Jackson and Vassal Benford, the sensual simmering track showcases the fine contrast between Hayes’ deep, rumbling voice that’s speckled with grit and the excessively smooth and sleek production – the effect is rough sandpaper on glassy silk. Hayes shines on this tune, and Rebbie Jackson’s agile, quivering voice does a nice job of pirouetting around his voice.

Upon its release, Reaction didn’t chart on the Billboard Top 200 (though it did manage a respectable number 54 on the R&B charts). The singles fared better: the title track made it into the top 20 on the R&B charts, but unfortunately, the album melted away into the larger soundscape of ’80s urban dance-pop. She would follow Reaction with 1988’s R U Tuff Enuff, which managed a top 10 R&B hit. She then went on an extended hiatus, not recording until 1998, making a comeback on Michael Jackson’s vanity label.

The album, Yours Faithfully, was a good attempt at updating her sound for mid-’90s smooth soul. Her voice retained its startling prettiness. But the comeback was short-lived, and after Yours Faithfully, her profile remained low, relegated to live performances at fundraisers and showcases, but no new music. During her brother Michael’s legal and health woes, she remained under the radar, giving interviews after his tragic death in 2009. Despite her reticence to commit to public life, her son, Austin Brown, joined the family business, becoming a singer-songwriter.

It seems that, unlike her siblings, Rebbie Jackson isn’t as intent or bothered to forge a career wholly independent from that of her famous family. Though her name is yoked to three of the most extraordinary pop acts of the past 50 years, she seems unbothered and content, catering to her devoted fanbase who still plays her records today and who have made “Centipede” a cult classic.