ARTIST OF THE MONTH: JANET JACKSON | CONTROL + DREAM STREET & SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM
"Control" released on February 4, 1986, should be considered Janet Jackson’s debut album. Her initial self-titled release was panned by critics, but also by Janet herself: “I didn’t want to do the first record, Janet Jackson. I wanted to go to college. But I did it for my father.” The same could be said of her No. 147 follow-up, the dreadfully titled "Dream Street." Both "Janet Jackson" and "Dream Street," have since been relegated to Janet’s “prehistory.” "Control" simply feels so much like Janet’s moment of entrance that pop culture’s selective amnesia can be easily forgiven. The tension was simmering under those projects ignited with her brief marriage to James Debarge. That rebellion divided her family and consequently her management, with Janet finally removing her father as her manager soon after that, all in a public fashion. Technically her third album, "Control," wasn’t the world’s introduction to the Jackson name, but it was to her character. Her confidence at just 19 is well beyond her years, her vision just as precise. She was not riding on anyone’s coattails, and the pressure to appease her father and succeed like her brother never seemed to phase her.
The atmosphere around “Control” arouses images of a live performance: the slow rumble of the bass as one waits for her to approach, her then-booming voice, and the sly acknowledgment of spectacle: “I hope you enjoy this as much as I do / Are we ready?” The breakdown introduces quintessential 80s pop, gated drums, cowbell hits, and polite synth taps, all ornamenting her production. As she veers from section to section with Broadway-like flare, her conceptualization of the project as a “live album” peeks through the sound, and she almost pleads for the listener to choreograph. The transition to the 2nd track is just as flawless, with the segue to the iconic smash single “Nasty.” By track two, Jackson has made the blueprint for decades of successive pop stars: the Spears above, Christina Aguilera, and Miley Cyrus, to name a few. Their metamorphoses from having a clean and Judeo-Christian veneer to sexually-empowered women follow a direct track along the lines Janet Jackson laid here. And in doing so here, Jackson conserves the “bad girl” attitude of the album. It’s a sexy and rebellious fantasy, but the consequences of control and responsibility tread beneath the surface.
“What Has He Done For You Lately” features what today would surely be tracklist as an interlude: she’s in dialogue here, with the iconic romantic-comedy scene of a maiden asking her girlfriends for relationship advice. “Lately,” like “Nasty,” was born from experiences with misogyny: “[These men] were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to ["Control" producers] Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like "Nasty" and "What Have You Done for Me Lately" were born, out of a sense of self-defence.” This track symbolizes Jackson’s new choice of advisors, now turning to friends and other women instead of her father and a predominantly male production team. The theme of “control” here, while initially accusatory, maintains dominance. It’s the last successive knockout track as the meek “You Can Be Mine” is introduced, a tune too immature for the album with its minuscule chorus and proposal.
While the disciplined perfectionist finally shows some cracks, “The Pleasure Principle” picks the album back up as a solid halftime track that would feel comfortable as both a single and a deep cut. But the second half of the album lacks the enthusiasm of the first.
“When I Think of You” is not nearly as sexy as the title suggests but with lyrics just as dull. At this point, it’s clear that Jackson excels when leaning into her maturity, which is beyond her years after a life in the spotlight. This is what makes the album so compelling, and songs like “Think Of You” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” with their teen-pop grove shatter the illusion of Jackson as a woman. “He Doesn’t Even Know That I’m Alive” plays into this dynamic as well: Jackson is too afraid to take control of a relationship, with a high school-esque mentality and vocal.
Although Jackson doesn’t quite stick the landing, the experience is still one that begs to be relived, with a consistent conceptual theme and strong pop tunes throughout. While the Pop industry today has seen its fair share of teens expressing wisdom beyond their years. Although, there hasn’t been a pop performer with her exhilarating combination of youth and maturity and stage presence and vision since her arrival in the 80s. The performers she has directly inspired since – like Britney and Beyoncé – didn’t crash onto the scene with an album this tight until they were in their late 20s.