Artist: Janet Jackson
Released 4 February 1986
Looking back thirty (!) years it’s hard to imagine that we ever saw Janet Jackson as anything but a superstar, a legend, a force. But before 1986 there were other ways we would have described her – “that Jackson sister”, “cookie-cutter pop star” and “who?”.
Jackson grew up allowing others, especially her domineering father, to define her. It was Joe Jackson who directed her to make her first two albums and forced her onto the TV show Fame against her wishes. It was rebelling against him, against all the expectations that came with being the youngest Jackson child, that lead to her wresting control of her life. Out of that journey to find her own identity came her breakthrough album.
In reality, Janet was always far more than just another Jackson sibling. In the 1970s and early 80s she established her own career as an actress (on Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame) and yes, as a nascent pop star. But her first two records – Janet Jackson and Dream Street – consisted of safe pop, the kind of music an overprotective, conservative father would approve of his daughter making. The albums are pleasant, but forgettable and even though Janet is the voice on those records, they don’t come from her voice. Across both records Jackson herself only has writing credits on one song.
Janet’s creative emancipation began with a “fuck you” marriage to singer James DeBarge (of the family musical act) in 1984. Jackson was only 18 at the time and three months later their union was over. Having done something to establish distance between her and her parents, to assume charge of her personal life, she then assumed charge of her musical career.
Up and coming producers James Samuel “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis, formerly of the band The Time, had been shopping their services around the music industry. The pair had created some material for singer Sharon Bryant (ex-Atlantic Starr) only to have Bryant reject it. When it was suggested the duo might be a fit for Jackson’s third album they presented the same material to her and that formed the basis for what was to become Control.
After Thriller, released in 1982, Michael Jackson became a superstar and it was impossible for Janet not to be compared to her then more successful sibling. In fact there are many basic similarities between Thriller and Control. They both consist of 9 songs, 7 of those songs would be released as singles, both covers feature the singer alone against a plain background and, of course, both have a single word title.
But “thriller” literally means “something that excites”. Michael was promising listeners how his album would make them feel. Janet, on the other hand, was out to make a different statement. Control spoke to her state of mind and she makes that clear in a spoken segment that begins the album. “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say and control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way”.
Control told listeners that their destinies were in their hands. But the real message was the messenger herself. By 1986 there had only been a handful of teenage black female pop stars, and certainly none had sounded this assured, this independent, this in control. Because of who she was, Jackson was able to speak to people who, until this point, had felt underrepresented – especially a young black audience but equally anyone who felt powerless. It’s no wonder she quickly gained a gay fanbase, gays knew what it was like to be oppressed.
In taking charge of her life and career, Janet provided inspiration for an entire generation and gave us one of the seminal records of the 1980s. More, and even more successful, Janet Jackson records would follow. Some would see Jackson doing more self-exploration – of being a black woman, of her sexuality – and, like Control, none of them would feel self-indulgent. It’s that relatable honesty that is Janet’s greatest gift as an artist – to take her own journey and make it seem like everybody’s.
1. Control (James Samuel “Jimmy Jam” Harris III, Terry Lewis, Janet Jackson)
Just naming the album Control wasn’t enough, Janet had to include a track called Control and have it open the record. It was, however, the fourth single to be released from the album. The song is deeply autobiographical, starting with a call out to her parents: “When I was 17 I did what people told me. Did what my father said and let my mother mold me. But that was long ago”. Then it’s onto her love life. “First time I fell in love I didn’t know what hit me (sound of car crash).” This song could have been mired in anger but instead it hits the perfect note of learned wisdom and determination, the focus being her present/future mindset “Got my own mind, I wanna make my own decisions”.
Fun fact: Despite the claim that doing what her father said “was long ago” at this point Joe Jackson still wielded immense power over Janet, including making demands for how she was to be treated on the set of the Control video.
2. Nasty (Harris, Lewis, Jackson)
“Give me a beat” Janet demands at the start the album’s second single. This song also grew from Janet’s experiences, occasions when she had received threats from men on the street. In real life, as in the lyrics, Janet stood them down – “I just want some respect”. The video adds an extra dimension to this story. It begins with a group of men harassing Janet and her friends, following them into a movie theatre. Janet then leaps into the film and proceeds to dance with the men – and only men – on screen. She leads them, guides them, stands up to them, jumping back to the theatre at the end – she’s taken control during the song and it’ll continue in her “real life”.
Fun fact: The “Miss Jackson if you’re nasty” part of the lyrics are a classic but the naming instructions provided in the song are actually nonsensical. If you follow the lyrics her name would literally be “Janet Privacy Control”, or “Miss Jackson Privacy Control” if you’re nasty.
3. What Have You Done For Me Lately (Harris, Lewis, Jackson)
Although this was the album’s lead single it was the last song to be written – added at the request of the record company who wanted one more up-tempo track. Just like the preceding track, the lyrics grew out of Jackson’s experiences with men on the street – “a sense of self-defence” as she has described it. But they’re equally about her recently annulled marriage and the general “familiarity breeds neglect” that can sneak into a relationship once the bloom of new love fades. Released on 13 January 1986 it took the song just over a month to appear on the US Hot 100 on the 22 February chart, slipping in at #95.
Fun fact: Janet’s brother Jermaine had his hit I Think It’s Love debut at #74 on that same chart. But whereas What Have You Done For Me Lately would climb to #4, I Think It’s Love stalled at #16.
4. You Can Be Mine (Harris, Lewis, Jackson)
Not every song is destined to be a single and here is the first of Control’s “non-singles”. It begins with an almost identical drum pattern to What Have You Done For Me Lately and is less lyrically diverse than some of the other tracks – the title phrase, for example, is repeated a whopping 35 times. On the original LP this is the final song on Side A.
Fun fact: During the guitar solo Janet chants “Jellybean”, a shout-out to Garry George “Jellybean” Johnson (who had also been a member of The Time) who plays on the track.
5. The Pleasure Principle (Monte Moir)
Released as the album’s sixth single this is the only single fully released in the US to miss the Hot 100 Top 10 – it climbed to #14. However, in terms of Janet’s growth as an artist this track represents a peek at who she would become. All previous videos had featured her covered up – long sleeves, loose clothes, jackets, even gloves. But this iconic clip has her strip down to tight pants and a t-shirt that, at times, allows a peak of midriff to show. Janet would put her layers back on for most of the videos in her follow-up album, Rhythm Nation 1814. But if you’re looking for the genesis of “sexy Janet” from Love Will Never Do Without You and 1993 album janet then here she is.
Fun fact: Writer Monte Moir is another collaborator who had come from The Time.
6. When I Think of You (Harris, Lewis, Jackson)
Janet’s first US Hot 100 #1 was the third release from the album. Unlike the “I’m in control” songs this is unashamedly about the joy of being in love. Reaching beyond the need to assert her independence this is Janet proving that she wasn’t bitter – this delightful ode to a lover couldn’t come from someone with a hardened heart. She would strike a similar balance on Rhythm Nation 1814, songs with messages interspersed with less weightier fare.
Fun fact: The two young boys running into frame near the start of the music video are TJ and Taryll Jackson, Janet’s nephews (sons of her brother Tito) and later pop stars of their own with family band 3T.
7. He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive (Spencer Bernard)
If there’s one track on the album that doesn’t fit the narrative it’s this one, the second non-single. Control is ostensibly about a young woman taking the steering wheel – and that’s evident even in the love songs and upbeat, non-message dance tracks where we’re treated to an independent, knows her own mind, Miss Jackson. But this is a peppy story song about Janet being too scared to tell her beau she likes him. This is the antithesis of the girl from the opening track – this Janet isn’t ordering anyone around – she can’t even bring herself to speak to the man. This song acts as a bridge from old Janet to new Miss Jackson. Of all the record it’s this that sounds the most like her previous material – this song would be right at home on Dream Street. It may be that fact that warranted its inclusion as the B-side to What Have You Done For Me Lately – Janet presenting her past and present all in one package.
Fun fact: Writer Spencer Bernard is yet another ex-member of The Time.
8. Let’s Wait Awhile (Harris, Lewis, Jackson, Melanie Andrews)
After the first four upbeat singles this fifth, slower, release hit many as a surprise as did the apparent message of abstinence. Again, this was Janet and her collaborators giving out a message of control – listeners shouldn’t be afraid to put the brakes on a relationship if they felt it was moving too fast. Many “wait before we sex” songs can come across as preachy but this one manages to be both virtuous, yet sexy, for the song ends with “I promise, I’ll be worth the wait”. Co-writer Melanie Andrews was a friend of Jackson’s.
Fun fact: Human Nature, the one ballad single among Michael Jackson’s Thriller releases, was also the fifth single from that album.
9. Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) (Harris, Lewis, Jackson)
The album’s final song has to be interpreted in conjunction with the tune that precedes it. In Let’s Wait Awhile Janet is telling her lover to “take it slow”. Here she continues that message but this time the lyrics are less assured. “Stop” she says, “I really have to go”. But a moment later she asks them “One more time?” breathily murmuring, “I love you” in French. While the song Someday is Tonight from Janet’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is an official reply to Let’s Wait Awhile in fact Wait was already answered here – possibly with a “let’s do it”.
Fun fact: This was released as Control’s seventh single in Australia, Ireland and the UK as single and as a radio only single in the US.
Extra: Diamonds (Herb Alpert featuring Janet Jackson) (Harris, Lewis)
Diamonds appears on Alpert’s Keep Your Eye On Me but, as a single that hit during the Janet 1986-7 juggernaut, it is also part of Control’s story. Writers/producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis worked with Alpert on his album in 1986 and co-opted Janet for this track (along with backing vocals for Alpert’s next single Making Love In the Rain). The song is a near-perfect collaboration between all the major players – the trumpet is unmistakably Alpert, the production obviously Jam and Lewis (play Alexander O’Neal’s Fake, it opens almost identically) and equally it’s a Janet dance track that could easily be a lost Control song.
Fun fact: This song timed its peak perfectly – climbing the US charts in the narrow gap between Let’s Wait Awhile and The Pleasure Principle.