Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ at 30: How Michael’s Little Sis Became an 80s Megastar
Janet Jackson's Control album is one of the definitve albums of both the 1980s and the last 35 years of popular music; a stirring collection of songs that announced both Janet Jackson and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as major players in popular music. We all know what happened in the aftermath of the smash album's commercial success: Janet becomes one of the biggest artists of her generation, Jam & Lewis help launch the New Jack Swing sound on their way to churning out megahits for New Edition, George Michael, Boyz II Men, Usher and, of course, Janet.
But to fully appreciate the album's significance, it's important to look at what led up to it.
In 1985, Janet Jackson was at a crossroad in virtually every facet of her life. She'd eloped with James DeBarge of DeBarge (another famous musical family) in 1984 when she was 18 but the relationship soon fizzled. After only three months, the marriage was annulled. Her relationship with her manager father, Joseph Jackson, was also becoming strained. Joseph had managed Janet's career up to that point and her first two albums, Janet Jackson and Dream Street, released when she was still a teenager, featured a sound that was decidedly bubblegum. Both albums failed to achieve any substantial success. She'd successfully pursued an acting career since childhood, famously appearing on Good Times, Diff'rent Strokes and Fame in recurring roles; and hadn't been all that confident in her chances to find success as a recording artist. Now, nearing age 20, with her music career seemingly at a standstill, she made the decision to fire her father as her manager (echoing what her famous elder brothers, The Jacksons, had done years prior) and took on John McClain, senior VP of A&R for A&M Records, to manage her career. McClain flew Jackson to Minneapolis to work with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her make-or-break third album.
Jam & Lewis were ex-members of The Time, the famed Prince-mentored funk band that had been mainstays in helping to popularize "the Minneapolis sound" with pop and R&B audiences in the mid-1980s. They'd helped to found Flyte Time, which eventually evolved into The Time once Prince and frontman Morris Day became involved with the outfit, but their sense of independence brought them into conflict with the controlling Prince. The Purple One not only wrote and produced the majority of the Time's music; he played most of the instruments on the albums. Jam & Lewis, meanwhile, were starting to make a name for themselves as writers/producers on their own; the duo delivered hits for acts like Klymaxxx, Change and the S.O.S. Band in the mid-1980s. When they failed to make a Time show in San Antonio, they were unceremoniously fired from the band. When the Time made their famous appearance in Prince's hit 1984 film Purple Rain, Jam & Lewis were long gone.
When they met in 1985, both Janet Jackson and Jam & Lewis had much to prove: she had to show that she was a capable, credible artist and the production duo, though they had scored R&B hits like "Just Be Good To Me," hadn't exactly stormed the pop charts. Jam & Lewis already had a batch of stellar tracks waiting -- mostly from shelved projects that they'd found unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons -- and when they were paired with Janet, the young would-be star had a lot to get off of her chest. The combination proved to be a heady mix and the formula for a blockbuster.
When Control was released on February 4, 1986, it achieved virtually everything all parties involved could have wanted. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts, went platinum in less than two months, all six singles became charting hits (with five making the Top Five and "When I Think of You" hitting No. 1.) Jam & Lewis wanted to make "the black album of all time," and by making an unapologetically r&b-oriented dance album, they successfully turned Janet Jackson into a crossover pop superstar. The production team's Prince-influenced take on the Minneapolis sound is still evident in Control's grooves, but the aggressively quirky, polyrhythmic percussion and lush balladry are all Jam & Lewis. Coupled with Jackson's semi-autobiographical lyrics reflecting her newfound independence from her family ("Control"), her confrontational attitude after being harassed by leering men outside her hotel ("Nasty"), and her frustrations with her relationship with DeBarge ("What Have You Done For Me Lately?"), the music wasn't just assertive, funky and catchy as hell -- it was personal and self-aware.
Control's music videos also established Janet as a titan of the MTV era, on par with the likes of Madonna and her iconic elder brother, Michael. Her videos showcased her persona; equal parts earnest girl-next-door and take-no-bull grown-ass woman; and featured elaborate dance productions (courtesy of choreographer Paula Abdul) and eye-catching visuals. The popularity of the songs and the videos made Janet Jackson inescapable in 1986.
Today, Janet Jackson stands as one of our most beloved and celebrated stars. She would spend the next two decades churning out classic albums and hit singles, stirring controversy and acclaim in equal measure. But Control was where the liftoff began. At the time, she was known as the youngest Jackson who hadn't achieved the musical success of her famous brothers; and she was staring up at megastars like Michael and Madonna. But in Control's aftermath, she leapfrogged to the head of the pop vanguard. It's not ridiculous to suggest that, song-for-song, Janet consistently crafted better albums than even Michael did post-1986 (the trifecta of Control/Rhythm Nation 1814/janet hold up better and are more thematically coherent than Bad/Dangerous/HIStory in many ways) and she was much more conceptual in her musical approach than Madonna was during the same time; Madge's creativity seemed to be more emphasized in her image and media manipulation than in much of the music she created. But wherever you place Janet Jackson in the hierarchy of post-Thriller pop superstars, there is no debate that her breakthrough album stands as one of the best of the 80s and all time. And it set a standard for so many artists who have come after and is a high mark in a career that was full of them.
CHECK OUT SOME OF JANET JACKSON'S CLASSIC CONTROL-ERA VIDEOS: