Poptrospective: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

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Picture this: Michigan 1994, my older sister and I, eleven and five respectively, sitting in our family room, watching a videotape.  It is called Rhythm Nation 1814 and tells the tale of two impressionable inner-city youth caught between a life of music and a life of crime.  Although perfectly packaged as a new jack fable for children of the video age, my attention lingers not on the storyline of the two boys but on their apparent guardian angel—a cool, confident woman, clad in all black, billowed hair high to the heavens.  She is surrounded by a carass of chic friends, cackling at cartoons, utterly attractive in her bliss.  Yet, suddenly, she halts: she senses something is happening far from her safety, and with rapid-fire speed, we watch in shock as one of the boys is gunned down whilst shining shoes, his once-cherished harmonica soaking in the pouring rain.

Before I can muster up enough courage to scream or cry from witnessing such brutality, the film flashes to a rough rooftop.  “The knowledge,” a cold, mechanized voice drones, and then appears that cool, confident woman once more, strutting with severity.  She breaks for a second, her smoothly toughened voice asking, “Prejudice?” only to be met by a corral of disembodied spirits answering back, “NO!”  She smashes a window with her foot!  Putting a finger to her head, gun-like, she then asks, “Ignorance?” and when another “NO!” strikes, this groove-laden giant throws her body in a tired fit, frustration and anger abound.  As she wonders “Bigotry?” she punches down an overstuffed jug—its contents spilling across the grubby ground—and then, after contemplating, “Illiteracy?” she settles into a meditative pose, as if wishing or praying, allowing the final “NO!” to soothe her restless soul, bring her to a sudden peace.

For what it’s worth, I’d no idea what any of these words yet meant, but what I did know was that I’d never seen anything so marvelous, magnificent, and miraculous.  This cool, confident woman—a woman whose name I’d learned to be Janet Jackson in the same tone and reverence one learns the names of Christian disciples—appeared heroic, otherworldly, superhuman.  Not of my galaxy or universe, yet somehow existing within all the same, somehow tangible and real, somehow there.  The more she writhed, the more glowed my eyes; my mind racing with desires and wishes previously unknown – I want to be there, I want to smash things, I want to dance!  A light seemed to brighten, blaze within; I felt transcendent.  And from that day forward, as often as possible, I’d feel transcendent, jamming that venerated videotape into our RCA VCR and disappearing into that gritty and glorious world, as if believing that one day I’d be granted actual access into this nation of rhythm.

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In truth, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is not your typical follow-up to a blockbuster breakthrough album.  While any other Pop starlet blessed with the success of a funk-laden, floor-filling tour de force like Control would rush to replicate anything brimming in its vein, Janet chose a path of dutiful defiance, imagining a way to manipulate her rising powers as a tool for discovery and change.  At 23 years of age, this princess of musical royalty saw the world on fire and knew she could not continue to create club classics without acknowledging her political epiphanies first, setting forth with a journalistic eye to capture the terrors and injustices occurring in her wake.  Surely, there were major risks with embarking on such a project at the beginning of one’s career; yet Janet knew that if she captured her anguish carefully, it would be easily understood.  And the only way she knew she would be easily understood was through her most prized possession: the gift of groove.

With Control, Janet established herself as a leading proponent, popularizer, and prophet of New Jack Swing.  Though the genre is often credited as the sole invention of Harlem wunderkind Teddy Riley, it was on her first commercial masterwork where Minnesotan impresarios Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis originally concocted that incredibly lush, lethal combination of R&B, funk, rap, and jazz and wrapped it in masterful, digestible bites.  The industrial heaviness which erupted from these experiments gave the starlet bullet-proof aggression and, on the towering, monolithic Rhythm Nation, she and her chief co-conspirators found themselves doubling down on attitude and anger, creating, amidst the socially-conscious lyricism and cinematic interludes, a wider, clearer soundscape at once frightening and frivolous, startling and serene, audacious and airy, terrifying and triumphant.

Consider the monstrous titular track: a colossal call-to-arms barricaded by a bassline so bombastic it pummels us into majestic submission.  Accompanied by mirages of music-box tinkers and a series of samples which range the scope of Pop music including Janet’s own previous hits, this treaty-as-jam-session comes off less as a contemporary wonder and more like the earth-shattering template for a frenzied future in which all sounds and vibes converge into something loud yet sublime.  This progressive pull extends cheerfully on “State of the World,” a harsh, manic barrage of police sirens, barking dogs, and haunting, distorted doo-wop vocals evoking an unsettling atmosphere of inner-city strife that is as noxious as it is neck-breaking.  In its most spine-tingling seconds, the concrete hymn reaches an explosive climax by lamenting the starving homeless masses, melting merrily into a freakish, cathartic conjuring of disturbed spirits, as if a séance on a street corner.

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The nightmarish noir only ignites further against the slinky, cyclical hip-hop slither of “The Knowledge.”  Coming off both as the sonic and poetic conclusion of the first three tracks, this ode to information feels more urgent, more dangerous, and more demanding than its predecessors, winding and swirling in marvelous glee as smashed glass and thundering slaps trade quips with jaunty bass and ethereal chants, the latter eroding with fierce sultriness like an acid-dropping church choir.  It is also on “The Knowledge” where Janet’s politicized tension finds a boiling point, escaping that dark urgency to a suite of shiny romanticism.  “Get the point?” she asks, stone-faced, as the last bass drops, welcoming us into this new rhythmic, Technicolor’d Oz, “Good.  Let’s dance!”

And thus, as we follow Janet through her wiggly wonderland, we are gifted with some of the sweetest, snappiest, and most spectacular sounds within Rhythm Nation’s tremendous confines.  “Miss You Much,” a passionate paean to the giddy mania of long-lost love, recklessly dazzles with flourishes of candied harps and frenetic shakes of walloping funk, as if birthed from a club-hopping Cupid.  A descendant of early Motown bedroom froth, “Miss You Much” revels in its teenaged playfulness (“I’ll tell ya ma-ma-ma-ma!”), bringing us to euphoric, ebullient heights that turn entirely monumental on the following “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”  Though surrounded by similar spellbinding snares, its shameless appreciation for everlasting love and its spacious, oceanic lulls—rising and falling as if an imposing breath or decomposing death—create a tantalizing, volcanic blast of sheer rapture.  From the sensuality of Janet’s juxtaposed androgynous registers to the wondrous choral praise of inner revelation (“If you believe in love – SAY!”), “Love Will Never Do” wallows on its own island of elemental beauty, unaware and unfazed by tumult, tragedy, nor trauma.

But, of course, even in the nation of rhythm, there remain moments of clarity.  And upon the precociously somber “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make),” we ponder the near-perennial concern of childhood safety and security awash a mosaic of bright-eyed balladry and piano-driven pity.  With its theatrical trimmings and maudlin sloganeering, such a piece could appear synthetic and unreal; however, in its crucial final moments, the poignant singing is snuffed out by the ringing of gunshots and screams of schoolchildren, epitomizing a stark, delicate realism and coating us with a despair that will need another dance to drive it away.

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The impeccably impossible, unstoppable “Alright” then arrives by our side precisely on schedule.  All Lyn Collins sample and seesaw slink, the relentless ball of fire moves solid, swift, and lucid, expertly dodging any distractions or detours, coasting with a smooth confidence only belied by Janet’s mellowed, almost melancholy murmurs of a boundless friendship bordering on finality (“True self you have shown/you’re alright with me”).  As we saunter into a surrealist funhouse of chopped-and-screwed samples as demented and dizzying as a fresh crush, however, the cool-hearted “Alright” graciously gives way to the emblem of effervescence that is “Escapade.”  Beginning with symphonic, fairy-dust flair and a hypnotic whirl mimicking an airplane idling an eternal runway, this buoyant bubble bulges and bounces with irresistible ease, as if freed from shackles and primed for celebration.  It is a seamless, carefree exercise in ebullience and exaltation—of good and greater times—reaching an awe-inspiring apex when Janet shouts “Minneapolis!” as if a radical realization, the bubble bouncing stronger and evermore.

However, the sudden roaring of a panther signals something sinister on the horizon, replacing that glittering sunshine with grim darkness as “Black Cat” takes us on a desolate downward spiral of drug addiction.  So inundated with dive-bar underpinnings one can feel the leather and hear the chains, its metallic armor is cosigned by Janet’s incredible outrage and displeasure toward masochistic lifestyles, creating a hotbed of madness and tension that boils over with absolute wrath.  What else, then, could wash away this furious ruin than the arrival of rainfall?  Yet, within those burnt ashes come also the arrival of memories, and on the reflective, reflexive quiet-storm suite of “Lonely,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Someday Is Tonight,” Janet leaves behind her world-weary animosity for soul-bearing introspection.

Oozing with an almost radiant melancholy, “Lonely” encapsulates the cut-throat chill of solitude against a seductive, luxurious edge, promising endless love and support to companions at every turn.  Yet, one cannot help but sense that Janet is extending a helping hand even as she is tediously attempting to mine and navigate through her own travails, making the thunder-encrusted plunge to “Come Back to Me” even more devastating.  Unbelievably naked and exposed, a tear-stained Janet yearns tortuously for a romance no longer in reach, grasping with blind desperation made even more palpable by a marvelous, dreamlike haze of orchestral sublimity.  Toward the liebestod’s end, overwhelmed by her own nocturnal delusions, Janet first allows the serene strings to do the talking, only to suddenly interject and admit: “I dunno what else to say . . .”  It is perhaps the most enchanting, exhilarating, and unexpected moment on Rhythm Nation: the amazing, startling honesty of a forlorn lover unfolding before our very eyes.

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Yet if “Come Back to Me” embodies the epitome of romantic pain, then “Someday Is Tonight,” embodies the epitome of romantic pleasure.  Ensconced by velvetine voices, Isley-inspired trappings, and a parade of tempered chimes delighting in their encroaching carnality, we are transported into a bodice-ripping boudoir, where all wonders, wishes, and wills are exacted in mesmeric excess.  Upon this final sonic excursion, there is a refusal of repression, an opening of infinity, and a discovery of desire, closing the past mind-blowing 60 minutes with a sense of hope and renewal—a sense of masterful liberation.  Such themes would ignite heavily upon subsequent releases, yet here, on the divine Rhythm Nation, Janet establishes that daring drive to be absolute, to be herself, to release.

Since Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 arrived eight months after my birth, its existence appeared, in my eyes, immortal and omnipresent.  It was the first album, Pop or otherwise, that held any real meaning—a spectacular soundtrack constantly and consistently played upon a car stereo or nearby boombox.  In that sense, you can say that Rhythm Nation and I grew up together—that, as we aged, our bones and muscles stretched and evolved in real-time, that we experienced the rapid, torrential movement and alteration of the world side-by-side.  And in theory, that experience over 30 years should have resulted into something extraordinary, a more perfect, globalized union embodied by principles of trust, faith, and acceptance.  But unfortunately, in truth, that experience over 30 years has resulted into something far more divisive than in those final days of the Cold War.

Rhythm Nation was released just two months shy of the Berlin Wall’s destruction but in 2019, we are watching as a President builds walls on our borders.  Rhythm Nation challenged the remnants of racial lines, but in 2019, we are witnessing a new uprising of widespread bigotry.  Rhythm Nation winced at the notion of playground shootings, but in 2019, we are experiencing nearly more public shootings than there are days within the year.  As the 21st century rears its ugly head, we watch as the world—and specifically America—seems constantly in jeopardy, out of control, or on the brink of disaster.  There is a sense of chaos, catastrophe, and confusion at every turn.

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Thus, in our current era, Rhythm Nation does not radiate as the oft-perceived totem of utopia, yet as a breathtaking vision of post-industrial capitalism—of living, in fact, within a functional dystopia.  Amidst its jaw-dropping flurry of thumps, bumps, squeaks, cranks, cracks, and swirls, the modern metropolitan landscape of endless speed and anxious technology collides against the increasing erosion of complacency and disgust.  It is a protest album for those who cannot protest any longer, who would rather dance their dissatisfaction away, knowing their rump-shaking kinesis has the power to destroy intolerance and injustice just as mightily as any rally.  Though she merely wished to shed light on harsh matters in order to ignite eradication, Janet also unwittingly created a hell-raising Orwellian soundtrack for an apocalyptic paradise too in love with its nihilism to make much change at all.

Yet, even within this sense of alluring and impending doom, the phenomenal Rhythm Nation did brilliantly predict a vast breakdown and melding of genres, mediums, and styles.  It did brilliantly predict the massive growth of youthful, multicultural love.  It did brilliantly predict the ascendance of understanding, inclusiveness, dignity, and respect.  It did brilliantly predict the contemporary, post-hippie ideology that the world can be changed and can be restored, if we merely believe and put forth the steps.  You can see it in the climate activists and social justice warriors; you can see it in the kids fighting against gun violence and planning revolutions on their cell phones.  Even if we are slouching toward defeat, there is still a hum, a buzz for innovation and relief and as we attempt to rise from our own current dystopian dwellings, it may be Rhythm Nation that truly provides the blueprint to keep us alive.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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