The Miss-Out: Janet Jackson - "Control"

I’ve listened to a lot of albums. There have, however, been a few albums that have enshrined themselves in popular culture that for whatever reason I just haven’t sat down and listened to all the way through. In this series of missives called “The Miss-Out,” I’ll be listening for the first time to a classic or commercially successful album that’s made its mark in music history, and making the usual salient, laundry-fresh commentary on a track-by-track basis.

Janet Jackson
A&M, 1986

I’m just old enough to remember Janet Jackson from her role on Diff’rent Strokes (and… okay, Good Times too, so I’m even that old) and two albums that seemed quaintly non-threatening. Then “What Have You Done For Me Lately” came out with its manifestly weird but very effective keyboard hook (you know, “dun-da-da, DUN, dun,” or maybe it was more like a “dink”). The storyline was that Janet had wrestled her artist’s privilege away from the legendarily autocratic Jackson father, after which she hired Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of The Time to produce her album Control and shake everything up. Everybody wound up winners-winners in this one, as Janet produced a tougher, more street-level counterpoint to her brother’s portfolio, and Jam and Lewis became star producers.

I’ve heard five of the songs on Control because Janet ruled MTV in 1986 and I had a TV, but not a peep of the others. Let’s see if this album makes me more independently driven and less nasty.

“Control”: She’s already throwing down the gauntlet. Nobody’s going to control her anymore. Here’s a very pointed spoken introduction to state her thesis. As a fellow lapsed Jehovah’s Witness I can’t help thinking that’s got something to do with it. I love the stereo separation on this. All those sounds play off each other. Interesting that the rhythm track on a song called “Control” is barely hanging together there. It makes for a lot of tension. Suddenly life is swollen with options.

Wow, she takes it straight to Mom and Dad, doesn’t she? That’s funny – “First time I fell in love I didn’t know what hit me” – then a car crash. She’s already funnier than her brothers. This is all built around very unusual chords, diminished stabs on the keyboard. Jam & Lewis figured out how to compensate for her somewhat, I don’t know, tame singing?

I really like this. It’s a little long but there’s a lot going on there. She’s borrowing the car and there’s nothing dad can do about it.

“Nasty”: This one’s lean. She hates nasty food. She’s sending back those nachos. Of course the whole premise of resisting crudely-depicted carnality would be undone just a few short years later. Well -- no, that's not the point of this. It's about typically masculine immaturity, not just sexuality. My dirty mind thought something else... hey! That's the whole point of the song! I see what you did there!

This is a great track. As unremarkable as her voice is said to be, they’re getting the most out of it. A bunch of interesting characters are coming through.

“What Have You Done For Me Lately”: That keyboard hook, man. It’s so amazing they’re hanging the whole chorus on it. There’s a bunch of melodies here and none of them should work together. They exist completely independently from each other, but they hang together really well. Jam & Lewis figured this out to the nth degree. The bridge is the first part of the album I’d even consider a pop moment of any kind. This sounds like it was stolen from the Germans.

They’re just throwing everything in there at this point. It’s a pretty mechanical album so when something like the piano solo shows up it’s a compelling contrast. The groove is micro-managed, but it pays off.

“You Can Be Mine”: This is how I remember the ‘80s sounding. They have her sounding more like a robot in the introduction. She sings out more in the verse. She’s in acquisition mode. It’s a little one-note.

Oh, here comes the break. Burping analog synthesizers. Almost Townshend-esque. I like the break. This is the only song that doesn’t do it for me. There’s not enough going on past the hook of the song to make it more vibrant. I like a good robot love story as much as anyone, but the first three tracks have already established themselves as Stories Of Personal Growth. This is just manifest-destiny material of the most simplistic kind. And you can’t just keep going with the song once it’s past its point of effectiveness. The kitchen-sink mentality doesn’t work that great on this one. All right, three out of four ain’t bad.

“The Pleasure Principle”: There’s probably no more inauthentic sound in the world than drum-machine toms from the ‘80s. But I think she’s using the phrase “pleasure principle” correctly, in the Freudian sense of the term. Sporting good job, musical fact checkers!

This is a relatively complex song. She’s mistrustful of the guy’s materialism, of his trappings. The bass synth line is sick. Hey, there’s a shout-out to Joni on the phrase “Big Yellow Taxi.” The big stupid guitar works too. All things considered this is still a very tough album. The break towards the end sounds uncluttered. She gets a chance to break out. Now she’s starting to break down the perceived limitations in her voice. I’m beginning to think the flat-voice argument is bullshit. I like her vocal run on the end. She goes places here.

“When I Think of You”: The introduction fucking rules. If you’re going to sound artificial go all the way. The opening chords are amazing. It’s interesting to hear this independent from the video, which was very busy. She’s still the girl from her previous two albums in this. You know, you can see why the hits from this album were chosen. I think it’s between this and the title track as far as my favorite song is concerned.

“He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive”: Oh no, a saxophone! Well, it’s gone now. This has a great chorus. She’s a phone stalker. This is a fairly exuberant song about obsession. It doesn’t sound like it’s going over into the disturbed territory. She’s still sounding just the least bit like a little girl. But then again, coming of age doesn’t necessarily entail an automatic upgrade. You still have a smattering of innocence.

Oh crap, the saxophone’s back. But she’s yelling “no no no!” to it. I don’t think she means what I want her to mean. Fight the sax, Janet. Stand up for yourself.

This is the slightest song on the album all things considered, but she drives it home. Musically it’s solid. Less going on with the rhythm track. I love that chorus. Man, I love that chorus.

“Let’s Wait Awhile”: It took us to the penultimate song on the album to get a ballad. “Let’s wait awhile before it’s too late.” Clever.

This isn’t a really offensive thought. It’s not purity ring shit or anything like that. It’s coming from a fairly smart position. She’s just not sure who she is yet. It’s kind of sweet. Part of the appeal of the album is that once she gets control, she has to make her own decisions, and they flow in a very narrative way that might not have been intentional, but really works. On this and especially “The Pleasure Principle” that’s what I get the sound of – she’s thinking everything through. Synths are a little stiff on this one though.

I didn’t hate this song, not at all like I thought I did. [See why I started this series? – Ed.] I was fully expecting some cliché-ridden stuff but it’s a little more reasonable than that. The vocal arrangements are good. “I promise, I’ll be worth the wait,” she whispers at the end. Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty, I think you’re trying to seduce me.

“Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)”: What? French? She’s been emancipated from her parents for all of 35 minutes and she’s already speaking French?

Okay, she and the dude from “Let’s Wait Awhie” clearly did it. How long did they wait? They waited the whole gap between “Let’s Wait Awhile” and this song. It must have seemed like an eternity.

This is more out of the slow-jam school. Very Vandrossy. I mean, she’s not literally singing about sex, or at least she doesn’t call it out specifically, but she’s clearly setting herself up for it.

Oh, bell analogue synths. Spanish guitar. She’s having just the smallest bit of ecstasy here. Yeah, she figured it out. You don’t just start speaking French out of nowhere. If you are speaking French suddenly, you are getting it on.

Aww, shit – “Je t’aime mon cheri”? Okay, now she’s just mainlining Serge Gainsbourg. Now I’m uncomfortable. You do not make those sounds if you’re playing a rousing game of Parcheesi or watching Friday Night Videos. You are not making a Caesar salad together. You are doing the proverbial “it.” One song. It took one song.

This is a great track.

Conclusion: I don’t know if it’s just being 27 years removed from Janet’s omnipresence of one year and being able to evaluate it more objectively or if I’m just feeling benevolent tonight, but I kind of love Control. Some production elements sound dated, but not that many. Jam & Lewis knew exactly what to do with her. Though you can’t say this is a “concept album” in the traditional sense, it plays like one. It really sounds like her first semester at an out-of-town college, and she’s discovering certain legitimate truisms about herself and her environment. She’s thinking things through, not just making tentative decisions or compromises, but actually taking the proper mental steps one is supposed to take upon leaving the nest. And in the last track she gets laid. The story of Young America.

Final decision: I’m slapping a 7.6 out of 10 on Janet Jackson’s real debut album. Piss off, control freak dad.

Now then, what album from the '90s should I cover on the next episode of The Miss-Out?

  • The Bends, Radiohead
  • Dookie, Green Day
  • Grace, Jeff Buckley
  • Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
  • Ready To Die, Notorious B.I.G.

Tell me in the comments or take out a personal ad or something.
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