On 30 Years of Janet Jackson’s Control

The landmark album remains a tribute to women’s power.

Opening statements don’t get more deliberate: “This is a story about control: my control. Control of what I say, and control of what I do.” Subtle, Miss Jackson (if you’re nasty) was not. But subtlety is overrated, especially if you’ve spent the overwhelming majority of your life abiding by the strict decree of pop’s most famous family. Not yet 20 years old, Janet Jackson had the résumé of an entertainer twice her age; she related to approximately none of it. So she annulled her marriage to loose cannon James Debarge, fired her overbearing dad-manager, and moved from Hollywood to Minneapolis, where she’d hole up with creative soul mates (the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) and record her third album and first masterpiece: 1986’s Control, released 30 years ago today.

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I’ve always been more magnetized by Janet’s catalogue than by Michael’s, though it took until I got older to pinpoint why that might be. My junior high dances were soundtracked by the super-sexy hits from All For You; it wasn’t till later that I got my hands on Control, after a curious investigation of the No. 1 records from the year of my birth. I didn’t know much about Jam and Lewis, the songwriting and production duo formerly of Prince-affiliated band The Time, whose peerless fusion of funk, rap, house, and R&B would shape decades of pop music to come. All I knew was that this, right here, was what female fearlessness sounded like. Control was a direct translation of the moment you conquer your existential vertigo: When you’re scared shitless, say “fuck it,” and do it anyway.

 

The pace of Internet media today nudges us toward hyperbole; we throw around words like “classic” without as much care as we should. But it’s hard to overstate the significance of Control, whether in terms of the pop landscape, the evolution of the music video as a vessel for promotion and expression, or Top 40 feminist anthems. With their stylized tug-of-war between hard and soft, Jackson, Jam, and Lewis — who collaboratively wrote and produced all but one of the album’s nine tracks — roughed a blueprint for New Jack Swing, bridging the gap between hip-hop and R&B that continues to narrow today. It made pop tougher, funkier, blacker — it’s important to note that Control’s self-actualization anthems were expressions of black female pride. Control spawned a whopping six videos — great ones, at that — which played an immeasurable role in the shift toward visible black pop.

 

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It’s easy to see why: Control’s videos offered a dazzling alternate dimension to Janet’s newfound power. Trained by Paula Abdul (whose work on “Nasty” won Best Choreography at the 1987 VMAs), Janet’s dance routines fleshed out the album’s bold explorations of aggression and sensuality, self-assurance and doubt. Later, she’d disclose that songs like “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately” were born from inverting the powerlessness she felt when harassed by a group of leering men outside her Minneapolis hotel during the album’s recording. Given that, the now-iconic “Nasty” video is a utopian vision as much as it is a declaration of autonomy: Walking down a city street, she dances among a sea of men as though they pose no threat more serious than mild annoyance. It’s sexy and aggressive and completely on her terms, shown through an unwavering female gaze.

 

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But of all of Control’s videos, my favorite remains “The Pleasure Principle.” Videos for “Nasty” and “When I Think Of You” showed Jackson discovering how to maneuver through the world in relation to the people around her. But in “The Pleasure Principle” — which won its own Best Choreography VMA in 1988 — Janet is completely alone, dancing through a deserted warehouse in a T-shirt, jeans, and Adidas low-tops. At one point, she kicks over a chair for no discernable reason other than that Janet feels like it; later, she uses it as a launchpad for a spectacular leap. It’s a five-minute ballet of cathartic self-expression; you can feel Janet inhabiting herself more joyfully with every step, even 30 years later.