When Janet Jackson released her Control album in 1986, it was obvious she wasn’t just the youngest Jackson or Michael’s little sister. Control introduced Janet as her own woman, with newfound independence and a bold, sassy attitude that would eventually help her spearhead her future in music and entertainment. Breaking away from her father’s management and her family’s musical sound, the helped Janet receive a slew of hits, awards from almost every major award shows, and set the standard for music videos and performance by artists who would come after Janet. Control already set the standard for young female artists who wanted to showcase their individuality and feminist ideology, but no one was expecting Janet’s next project to become as monumental and groundbreaking as it became when it was first introduced to the world.
Janet was first seen as the girl who was able to do for herself. She spoke briefly on social issues when she released “Let’s Wait Awhile”, a song that was a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, but for the most part, her music was dance-pop, party jams. When it was time to release a new album, Janet’s label wanted her to utilize her family’s controversy and make another Control-type album. Janet, who worked hard to make a name for herself, challenged the record and eventually got her way; she took creative control and created the first concept album of its kind. Inspired by what was playing on MTV, what was going on in the world, and what she saw in the news, Janet set out to create an album that fun, hip, all while being socially conscious and reminding listeners of the world problems.
Inspired by the Stockton playground murders and documentaries on CNN, Janet wanted to touch on topics, including racism, education, poverty, drug use, and illiteracy, just to name a few. In hopes of encouraging her fans to think about and try to resolve the problems of the world, she created songs like “Rhythm Nation”, “The Knowledge”, “State of the World”, and “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” to showcase the world’s issues; putting them at the forefront of the album to set the tone and the message she wants to reveal. The artistic visual direction was also influenced by what she saw on television as well; after watching Black in White America, Janet was determined to make blackness unapologetic. From the costumes, the cover art, the videos, Janet wanted to redefine what black meant and how people saw the color black.
With her more conscious songs set in stone, Janet, of course, gave us upbeat songs like “Miss You Much”, “Alright”, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and “Escapade”, slow jams like “Come Back To Me”, and her first rock song, “Black Cat”. Despite hesitation from the record label, Janet went all out for this album and her vision. Taking a step further from her brother, Michael’s, innovative long-form music video, Janet created a film, under the same title as the album, with a storyline of two aspiring musicians who lives are disrupted by drug abuse and lack of motivation (many would this film pioneered the “visual album”). The film premiered on MTV. While some critics were not in awe of Janet and her black and white imagery, fans and other critics praised Janet for the style, executions, and her ability to showcase the message rather than the glamour. After the release of it’s first single, “Miss You Much”, and the film, Rhythm Nation 1814 was released on September 19th, 1989. From there history was made.
Rhythm Nation 1814 dominated the charts; selling over 12 million records worldwide and reaching number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Charts, Rhythm Nation 1814 broke records that Janet still holds today. It is the only album have seven top 5 hits, as well as the only album to produce number one hits on the charts for three consecutive years (1989-1991). Janet also became the first black woman to reach number one on the Rock charts with the song, “Black Cat”. Janet went on to perform on every major show including Top of the Pop and the MTV Video Music Awards where she infamously ripped her blouse open while performing “Black Cat”, ushering in a new era of sexual spontaneity. To further the magnitude of the album, Janet went on her first headlining tour, Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990, which still holds the record of the highest selling debut tour of all time. The tour sold out in a record-breaking seven minutes in Japan, while proceeds from her show at Madison Square Garden were used to create the Rhythm Nation scholarship program. During the Rhythm Nation era, Janet went on to win a record-breaking number of awards, including sweeping up awards at the Billboard Music Awards, which has never been done by a female artist before Janet. Janet became the only artist at that time to receive Grammy nominations in five different music genres (Pop, Rock, R&B, Dance, and Rap), and she became the first woman to be nominated for Producer of the Year. During this time, Janet received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and receiving the MTV Video Vanguard Award for her musical take on social justice and becoming and influence amongst the youth. Rhythm Nation helped Janet become an influence in generations after her, whether it is being inspired by her style of music videos or her gender-neutral fashion taste. The global success of Rhythm Nation 1814 gave Janet free range as an artist and even caused a bidding war for her next record deal and her next album.
It’s been 30 years since Rhythm Nation 1814 has been released. The message and tone of this album still resonate with people, and with our political climate of today, we can still find a way to relate to this album. Rhythm Nation 1814 today especially resonates with those who are affected by mass school shootings, police brutality, and lack of education as we face school closings and the student loan crisis. Even in my personal life, I wasn’t born or even “thought of” (as most black aunties would say) when Rhythm Nation 1814 was released, but I remember so many television specials for Janet Jackson would talk about this album and how monumental it was. I also remember when the verdict for the Mike Brown case was released, Rhythm Nation 1814 was one of the first albums I listened to, to ease my conscious. To be honest, listening to that album at one of our country’s most vulnerable time shaped me into who I am today.
Rhythm Nation 1814 has influenced the dance and visual styles or Usher, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Miguel, The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean. The message and style of this album have been seen in female artists such as Britney Spears, Rihanna, Robyn, P!nk, and Tinashe. Due to Janet Jackson’s perseverance and determination for change, she broke the mold; she opened the door for contemporary musical acts after her to use their platforms to speak on social issues affecting them and their fans, which none of her peers were doing at that time. While it’s cool to throw shade and discredit artists and their impact today, when you look at Janet Jackson and the legacy made by the Rhythm Nation 1814 album, it’s hard to imagine a world without that album. If it wasn’t for Rhythm Nation, would we have anti-bullying, self-acceptance message from Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae? Would we have artists like Macklemore, Logic, Taylor Swift, Halsey, Kesha, using their platforms to speak up about gay right, mental health, and sexual assault? Would we have hip-hop artists like Chance the Rapper, Jay-Z, and Nipsey Hussle that promoted economic advancement amongst communities of color and philanthropy? Would we have Beyonce’s “Formation” video and Lemonade album? The answer is no…no we wouldn’t. We would not have musical acts with social justice at the forefront of their artistry if it Janet stand up for what she believed in, which was an album that focused on education, humanitarianism, and unifying people through music and dance.
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album is a blueprint for any artists (or anyone for that matter) who doesn’t want to be silenced. It is a peek into black feminism and the standard for any artist who creates music in hope to create change for a better world.