Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Janet Jackson’s <i>Janet</i> proved authenticity can hold its own against artistry

Janet Jackson’s Janet proved authenticity can hold its own against artistry

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Consider the era in which Janet Jackson’s seminal and sexy album Janet was released: In 1993 the No. 1 song in the country was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and the No. 2 song was Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is).” This pairing perfectly represents the dichotomous soundscape of early ’90s R&B. At one end there is saccharine balladry, at the other bawdy boasting. And right on their tail at No. 3 is Jackson with her mellow testament to intimacy, “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Looking beyond the top three songs, the pattern persists with Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” and Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rumpshaker” rounding out the top 10. All of this chart-recapping is to make the case that Janet Jackson’s Janet was a game-changing album when it was released. It eschewed popular Top 40 talking points like sex without love in the case of “Rumpshaker” or love without sex in the case of “I Will Always Love You” and replaced them with confessional lyrics relating to both physical and emotional intimacy.

Janet was the first in a now long and ever-growing list of albums by R&B artists that are frank in their discussion of female sexuality, albums like Beyoncé’s Beyoncé or Ciara’s Ciara that speak about sex and love in the same breath. Those LPs unarm each instinct and splice them together to create evocative lyrics like “skirt around my waist, wall against my face” from Janet’s “Anytime, Anyplace.” Before Janet, those kinds of arresting lyrics about sexual acts were typically sung by the yearning man as opposed to the object of his affection. And while such lyrics by now are commonplace, Janet broke the ground that then allowed others to dig deeper and explore their sense of love and eroticism more fully. Beyoncé might’ve done it better, but Jackson did it first, and the latter metric is what led Rolling Stone critic Touré to define Janet’s release as a “cultural moment.”

Unlike Madonna’s Erotica, released a year earlier, Janet wasn’t an effort in sexual exhibitionism. It took risks for the sake of authenticity not shock value. The album opens like a diary with Janet cooing in her signature shy voice, “We had the kind of night where morning comes too soon” over a swath of retreating synthesizers. It’s a testimonial disguised as an epilogue and everything that follows moves backward through time, retracing Janet’s all night sexcapade starting with the aforementioned “That’s The Way Love Goes.”

A sparse track that lacks the many bells and whistles of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam’s previous productions, “That’s The Way Love Goes” lays out Jackson’s sexual rules of conduct. On the track she is both the doer and the receiver, making demands and offering herself up in return. The song and its simple but revelatory lyrics speak to a sexual symbiosis between Jackson and her lover, one in which she both gets hers—“reach out and touch my body”—and gives him his—“I’ve got on what you like.” The loving she describes on the track is berry-sweet and lasts all night, but is reserved for those who deserve it. If Janet is a five-course meal, “That’s The Way Love Goes” is dessert and before the listener can get to they have to both clean their plate and taste Jackson’s saltiness, which she delivers in heaping spoonfuls on the next track, “You Want This.”

By the time Janet was released, Jackson had made a name for herself singing songs that demanded respect. Her entire album Control was devoted to the cause. But the respect she was craving on Control left her hungry for more. On “What Have You Done For Me Lately” Jackson wanted her man to acknowledge her. On “You Want This,” she wants him to grovel at her feet and to admit just how superior her sex is not only to other women’s, but more importantly, to his. Every line he delivers, Jackson has “heard before” and after spending a few years getting it on, she’s sure that “Nothin’ else compares / To this lovin’ body,” a claim that she then doubles down on “If.”

The perfect foil to Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover,” “If” flips the “girl wants boy she can’t have” motif on its head. Whereas in “Dreamlover” Carey feels sorry for herself and pleads with a lover to rescue her, on “If” Jackson feels sorry for the man that can’t be with her and views his lack of interest in her as his loss. On “You Want This” and “If” Jackson flaunts a bulging confidence that she didn’t possess on previous albums. A kind of confidence similar to that which Beyoncé displayed on Beyoncé that was only available to Jackson after she escaped from the micromanaging hands of her past and distanced herself a few degrees from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

It’s as if all of the positive reception that Jackson’s previous album, Rhythm Nation 1814, garnered gave her the validation she needed in order to helm her own career. Much like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Rhythm Nation 1814 was a socially conscious concept album that revealed the artist’s politically concerned side. It bore many wonderful gifts, such as “Miss You Much,” but none were as meaningful as the gift it gave to Jackson: the freedom to evolve, to take the gas she was burning with on Rhythm Nation and use it to power a more personal kind of reflection. If Rhythm Nation was Jackson’s What’s Going On, then Janet was her Let’s Get It On. In a similar pivot to Gaye’s, after writing extensively about hate, war, and race Jackson decided the only proper topical follow-ups were sex and love. And nowhere on the album does she talk more openly and explicitly about sex than on standout tracks “Throb” and “Any Time, Any Place.”

Before an actual second passes on “Throb,” Jackson emits three distinct moans. One is a sharp inhale produced by barely parted lips. The other a series of guttural “ohs.” Finally, a high-pitched groan. Then the whole thing starts over. Seven seconds of looped moaning. That’s how “Throb” starts and, for a while, how it seems it’ll stay until Jackson interrupts herself with a demand. “Come for me!” she screams, and in marches the obedient saxophone followed by a four-on-the-floor beat. “Throb” is a textbook early ’90s house song, but what makes it better than other tracks from ultimate ’90s club dance compilations is its lack of safe clichés. Fellow club-banging pop star Amber sang, “This is your night.” Any producer could’ve written that line for her. Jackson sang “DJ make me wet.” That shit is personal. No songwriter could put those words in Jackson’s mouth. No producer could suggest to her to moan in a certain tone. That’s what makes “Throb” so pure. It’s Jackson speaking for herself and about explicit topics. On Control, Jackson co-wrote a dozen songs about theoretically being in control of her own choices. On “Throb” that control actualizes as the entire song turns out to be a series of commands. “Come for me,” “Make me wet,” even the campy line, “Boom until noon” reveal Jackson to be nothing if not in control of her own sexual experience.

Jackson then takes that experience in a new direction on the album’s best track “Any Time, Any Place.” The song opens with meandering chimes and synthesizers that coil around Jackson’s gentle humming. It’s the musical equivalent of getting undressed slowly, in which each alto note that Jackson drops sounds like the soft thrum of layers of clothing landing on the bedroom floor. Eventually the rhythm coalesces into a distinctive pattern that Jackson maintains with the snaps of her fingers. The snaps are half the magic of “Any Time, Any Place.” The other half is the laissez-faire approach to sex that Jackson lobbies for in between all the snapping.

As a former champion of abstinence, Jackson’s willingness to come of age in such an uncensored fashion is what makes ”Any Time, Any Place” feel so honest. Her commitment to evolve authentically, even if it meant spurning her former self in doing so, is a quality few of her fellow pop stars possessed and one that powered Jackson to the peak of her career.

Unfortunately, like most pop stars, Janet Jackson didn’t arrive at the mountaintop and then stop climbing. She attempted to soldier on, only to have her early achievements eclipsed by a nipple-baring scandal, flimsy pop songs, and a family legacy whose tales could fill every page of multiple trashy magazines. Beyond that, many of the musical trends from the late ’80s and early ’90s haven’t stood the test of time. Anybody today who appreciates and listens to Control is likely aided in that effort by a heaping dose of nostalgia. The same isn’t true of Janet. R&B tastemakers of all types have drunk from Janet’s cup and understood that the flavors of “Any Time, Any Place” still have a spot in today’s blurred world of rap and R&B. Hence the recent sampling of the track in multiple songs, from Usher’s “Love In This Club, Pt. II” to the more recent “Poetic Justice” by Kendrick Lamar. Jackson’s instinct to conflate sex with intimacy might’ve been ahead of its time when Janet was first released, but it couldn’t be more à la mode in 2015 when it’s easy to imagine Drake borrowing the sweet affirmations of “That’s The Way Love Goes” for a confessional verse or slices of “Throb” cropping up in the house-heavy sets of Disclosure. In a world where it’s easier than ever to filter, crop, or edit oneself, being authentic has suddenly become some impossible-to-hit standard, necessary to embody in order to be taken seriously.

That’s why Janet matters still today. It hit that standard. By being her most authentic and bare self, Jackson created her most influential work. That’s not to say that Janet is one of the best R&B albums out there, because it isn’t. Janet Jackson is by no means a visionary. Admittedly, her creative ceiling wasn’t nearly as high as her brother’s, but her commitment to vulnerability greatly exceeded both his and any other megastars’ of the ’90s. Jackson was so committed to vulnerability that she gave the editors of Rolling Stone one of her personal photos—a photo of a relaxed Jackson having her breasts held by her soon-to-be husband—to use for a cover story.. That photo, which at the time became infamous for its seemingly lascivious imagery, is a perfect portrait of the intimacy the album Janet strives to capture. Yes, the image and the album were erotic, but they were made so by Jackson’s own commandeering. Plus, they were personal. Those were her husband’s hands, not a model’s. And the choice to publish the image was Jackson’s, not the editors’. Clearly during the time in her life in which she was recording Janet, Jackson found sex and love impossible to sunder. She believed and sought to prove that pleasure was personal, that arousal and emotion can speak the same language.

This Permanent Records originally ran as part of Siblings Week in 2015.
This Permanent Records originally ran as part of Siblings Week in 2015.
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

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