Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, 1989
If I were writing a top ten list of albums that shaped me as a kid, I might as well start by putting this record on top. So forgive me if I wax nostalgic. No matter what song is played from this album, my first mental image is of being in my older brother’s basement room, using his double bed as a stage and a deoderant bottle as a microphone, trying my darndest to be Janet. Before spending countless hours in front of the tv, trying to memorize her brother’s “Thriller” dance, I was taking lessons from Rhythm Nation 1814.
I won’t attempt to talk about this album with mentioning the videos associated with it because very few of us who have ever seen this, can listen to “Rhythm Nation” without being transported to the stark setting of the streets or the sparse warehouse where militant dancers are being trained to transform the world. Janet has a long resume of impressive music videos with high production quality (and costs), however what I love about the videos connected with Rhythm Nation is that they are all very simple ideas and settings allowing the focus to remain on choreography and narrative.
As soon as the bell tolls, opening the album, I am there – one of Janet’s army – and to be honest, I’ve never counted myself out of this number since first hearing this record.
The first three tracks set the foundational concern towards social injustice, calling for a new formation of people along the same line as George Clinton’s One Nation Under a Groove. Here, Janet reminds us that there is still a place for the protest/socially conscious song in R&B that was established in the 60’s and 70’s by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, ect, but had been missing for nearly a decade. Janet is young here, but with the New Jack Swing fathers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis she is able to deliver a call to justice and equality that packs a punch, and keeps us dancing.
After reminding us of the “State of the World”, and delivering her thesis that only “The Knowledge” can conquer the likes of prejudice, ignorance, bigotry and illiteracy, she moves the album along with:
“Get the point? Good. Let’s dance…” and continues to encourage movement with two power dance tracks, “Miss You Much”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”. For someone with such a light wispy voice, she sure knows how to energize her listeners. Still, she never let’s us get too far away from the issues at hand, reminding us to think of the children in “Livin’ In a World (They Didn’t Make)”.
I recently bought this on vinyl, and “Living in a World…” appropriatly concludes the chapter that is side A. When I turn it over I’m thrust back into the action with the brilliant anthem, “Alright”. This song could alone define New Jack Swing with its street class swagger, and marriage of R&B melodies with heavy hip hop beats. Not to mention it boasts one of my favorite music videos of the time. I’m going to go ahead and imbed this one…
Together with “Escapade” these two tracks offer two attempts to hide from the harsh reality, the first with imagination and friendship, the second with flight. “Black Cat” instead faces the danger of the streets as a warning to her lover. Written by Janet herself, I’m not always sure how the harder rock-inspired track fits into this dance record, but it’s an example of decent songwriting that sounds eerily like Michael.
There is a very small part of me that wishes the album ended here. However, the last three tracks prepare us all for Janet’s sexual revolution that is to come. We can’t say she didn’t warn us. I read a review somewhere that said “Lonely” is the sexiest song about not getting any that ever existed. That’s probably true, at least as of 1989. As in any new nation, love is never left out of the equation entirely. Still, when she takes it all the way to the anticipatory “Someday is Tonight”, I just feel dirty. For some reason, this song is so much worse than her way more explicit stuff that comes in the 90’s. I don’t know why, maybe her age, or how it fits on Rhythm Nation... but however I might justify it, this is my favorite track to skip for sheer awkwardness.
A brief Interlude followed by the same bell tolls that open the album asks us not to allow our eyes to deceive us, since it is only our “knowledge and wisdom that separate us”. If I were to critique her philosophy here, I might say we need more than darkness to be blind to our differences, but brighter light to see how deeply we are the same. But that’s not what I’m here to do. The real point is that this unlikely young Jackson does exactly what she sets out to do: inspire us to dance in the darkness and invite everyone to join in, regardless of race or status.