R&B radio was overrun by musicians who began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s, from Patti LaBelle and Dionne Warwick to Lionel Richie and Zapp. Even James Brown, who was going on his fourth decade as the Godfather of Soul, landed a huge hit with “Living in America,” the garishly patriotic theme for Apollo Creed and Rocky IV.
The airwaves were smothered in ballads smoothed out to the point of placidity, along with astringent synthesized funk and dance-pop that echoed the sounds of arcade video games. Meanwhile, hip-hop kids’ increasingly loud boombox noise was largely maligned and kept off playlists, even as hardcore potentates like Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J packed arenas across the country.
Control may have been the first album to articulate the yearnings of a post-soul and post-civil rights generation
So when Jackson sang, “When I was 17, I did what people told me/Did what my father said, and let my mother mould me/But that was long ago” on the title track, you could interpret her rebuke of her father and manager, the imperious Joe Jackson, as a symbolic backlash against the black patriarchy reaching fever pitch.
Contrary to myth, as well as the album’s well-tended Wikipedia page, she wasn’t the only electric youth to mark the transition between fussy old R&B and the inexorable rise of hip-hop. There was Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, whose 1985 freestyle classic “I Wonder If I Take You Home” expresses a woman’s imperative to control her body as clearly as Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile.” New Edition and Force M.D.’s mixed Jackson 5-styled routines with homeboy rhymes.
As the industry struggled to make sense of the computer age with stiff and robotic beats, there were more than a few youngsters like Cherrelle and Ready for the World adding some much needed sass. But Jackson’s Control may have been the first album to articulate the yearnings of a post-soul and post-civil rights generation.
Part of the excitement of Control was in discovering that Janet was just as driven and artistically compelling as her brother Michael
Jackson was only 19 years old when Control *was released, and she had already spent over a decade in the business, first on the family’s variety TV show, *The Jacksons, and later on Good Times and *Fame. *But she often seemed an indifferent recording artist.
Her first two albums had their charms — some boogie-funk DJs swear by 1982’s Janet Jackson and deep cuts like “Come Give Your Love to Me” and “The Magic is Working” –- but at the time, they were just brand extensions of her bubbly onscreen personality.
Part of the excitement of Control was in discovering that Janet was just as driven and artistically compelling as her brother Michael Jackson, a man who remained the biggest pop star in the world despite not releasing any solo music since 1982’s Thriller, and whose absence was so keenly felt that a mere throwaway chorus from him could turn Rockwell’s New Wave novelty “Somebody’s Watching Me” into a mega-hit.
None of the famous Jackson clan appears on Control. Instead, she decamped to Minneapolis, over the objections of her father but with the encouragement of A&M Records executive and childhood friend John McClain, to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the producers who tamed Prince’s Minneapolis funk and turned it into the hottest sound in mid-‘80s R&B.
Control is now heard as an essential feminist statement, and a declaration of Janet’s independence
Contemporary accounts of Control’s making posit Janet as the center of a power struggle between Joe Jackson and McClain; the latter has acknowledged he was given too much industry credit for its five-times-platinum sales. Others involved in its success include Paula Abdul, who choreographed Jackson’s kinetic music videos before embarking on her own pop trajectory, as well as former members of The Time, the killer funk band that serve as Prince’s greatest rival.
Then there was Jackson’s personal struggles, in particular her marriage to James DeBarge of teen R&B sensation DeBarge that failed partly due to her rising career ambition. Control is now heard as an essential feminist statement, and a declaration of her independence in spite of the forces surrounding her, and contrary to the media reports that initially claimed her triumph was the result of male Svengalis.
After Jam and Lewis brought Jackson the initial backing tracks for the album (by-products of failed sessions with former Atlantic Starr singer Sharon Bryant), she and the duo reworked them to fit her voice and vision. She co-wrote and played keyboards on most of the tracks, including “Nasty,” an awesome kiss-off with a startlingly off-kilter rhythm and her famous finger-snapping line, “No, my name ain’t ‘baby.’ It’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty!”
Much was made at the time of Jackson’s seemingly brazen sexuality. It was the way she whispered French romance to a lover on “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” a seemingly tossed-off bit of late-night erotica that subsequently endures as an inspiration for performers like Tinashe, who paid homage to the track on “How Many Times.” It was the way she turned “The Pleasure Principle,” which details a breakup seemingly inspired by the end of her marriage, into a unabashedly sensuous celebration.
However, Jackson’s musings on the body politic also takes the form of “Let’s Wait Awhile,” where she gently cools off a boyfriend. Perhaps she was speaking for her teenage fans wondering if they should take the next step with their sweethearts. For boys ridden with hormonal anxiety, Jackson may resemble the girl that gets us hot on the dance floor, only to leave us hanging with a peck on the cheek when the night is over. All you nasty boys might miss her larger point: she’s exercising her right to be in love and lust when she wants to be, not when her lover demands her to be. “I promise,” she says coquettishly, “I’ll be worth the wait.”