Blake Cale for NPR
Thirty-five years ago, Janet Jackson released an album that changed the course of her career, and of pop music. Control took over radio, reinvented the playbook for Black artists crossing over into pop and ushered in a whole new sound for R&B. For more than a decade after, Jackson released hit after hit and No. 1 album after No. 1 album, alongside her production and writing partners Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Jackson’s influence is still evident throughout pop music: the way stars choreograph their videos, their vocal intonations, their visual presentation, the very ways in which they navigate celebrity. But today, she’s rarely considered at the level of her musical peers from the ’80s and ’90s, such as Prince, Madonna and her brother Michael. And the moral uproar that followed her performance at the Super Bowl in 2004 showed all the ways popular culture can erase Black women and their accomplishments. Now, as society reconsiders the ways it has treated celebrities like Britney Spears, we reconsider Janet Jackson and her body of work — with help from Jam and Lewis themselves, as well as music journalist Danyel Smith.
— Sam Sanders, host of It’s Been a Minute
How Control came to be
By the time she began work on her third album, Jackson was starting to chart her own path: She had annulled her marriage to singer James DeBarge and gone to Minneapolis to record with music producers James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis. On Control, Jam and Lewis wanted to write songs that drew from Jackson’s own experiences.
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Jimmy Jam: She had a beautiful voice, first of all. But what we thought was … when she was young, she had all this attitude. She was like Miss Attitude. … And so our thought was if we could work with her, we could bring a little bit of that attitude out.
Terry Lewis: There’s a couple words that describe her if I had to break it down: fearless, relentless, beautiful. Like a beautiful texture, and very in control.
Jam: She was ready to go out on her own. And the other piece to the puzzle here was that she was really ready to sing. The first two albums that she did, she did between a lot of other things — and the idea of her singing wasn’t really her idea, it was more her dad’s idea. … When we got around to Control she was in a space where she actually wanted to be an artist. When we showed her some of the Control lyrics she said, well, wait a minute, this is what we’ve been talking about.
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Lewis: A lot of people say that Janet is not a great singer, but Janet is a great singer. In order to be a great singer, you don’t have to be the loudest singer. You just have to have control of what you like to do. And to me, style wins over volume.
Jam: Those little elements — the breath, the sighs, the laughs — those things she would always do, we would just leave them in there. A lot of times it was a mistake. … For us, all the things that were outtakes were always the pieces that we always tried to make sure was in there because that was the personality of her.
How Control and Rhythm Nation made Jackson an icon
Control went on to sell roughly 14 million copies and was certified platinum five times. It spent more than 90 weeks on the Billboard charts and earned multiple Grammy nominations, including a nomination for album of the year. Jackson’s next album, Rhythm Nation, was also a major hit, and the tour for it sold out in minutes.
Jam: With Control, we said, we want our album to be that album that everybody’s blasting out their house in [our] neighborhood. … [But] we were going for the blackest, funkiest album we could make.
Those albums ended up changing the way that music sounded because it changed the way radio sounded. … All the great pop music came out of Sweden at a certain point. You know, you had Max Martin, you had everyone from Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears to all of those records [made with Swedish songwriters and producers]. And they were all, to me, based on what Control and what Rhythm Nation was. And if you talked to them, they will tell you. I remember Max Martin — we went in the Songwriters Hall of Fame the same year he did — and he said, “Hey man, when we were making those records, we were basically trying to do what you guys were doing.”
How Super Bowl XXXVIII halted Jackson’s career
After the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” during Jackson’s performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the Federal Communications Commission fined CBS $550,000 for indecency. Clips were played over and over again in the media, and TiVo announced that it had been the most replayed moment in the service’s history.