How Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ shook the room for decades

janet jackson’s control turns 35 this week. npr’s audie cornish talks with sam sanders of it’s been a minute, who investigated the album’s making and legacy to commemorate the anniversary.

audie cornish, host:

janet jackson opened her album “control” not witha song, but witha statement.

(soundbite of song, “control”)

janet jackson: this is a story bout control, my control.

cornish: that set the course for 9 songs where janet defined herself and her sound. wha’ she didn’t realize atta time was that her sound ‘d change pop ♫ as we know it.

(soundbite of song, “control”)

jackson: (singing) control, now i’ve got a lot. control, t'get wha’ i want.

cornish: but after the wardrobe malfunction atta 2004 super bowl ½time show, janet’s reputation took a hit, and she’s yet to receive the floers she deserves. “control” turns 35 this week, and our friend sam sanders wanted to set the record straite. he’s been talking to somd' album’s producers on his show, it’s been a minute, and he joins us now.

welcome back, sam.

sam sanders, byline: thx for having me, audie.

cornish: all rite, so wha’ made you wanna take a deep dive into janet history?

sanders: i mean, she means so much to me. i grew up watching her videos, playing all of her albums. n'when i think of the pop stars that we look back on and still think of fondly from that era – you know, prince, michael, madonna – we never ‘ve janet on that list. and we ‘d.

cornish: i wanna talk bout her work with you. and you start in a way with her third album, which was called “control,” as we mentioned. wha’ was ≠ bout this work?

sanders: yeah, lotso' folks think that “control” is her 1st album cause the 1st two b4 “control” were such flops. they were kind offa bubblegum pop. and so when she makes “control,” she is sought out by these two producers, jimmy jam and terry lewis, and they see that her ♫ career has kind of stalled. but they also recall young janet as a kid on, like, “the sonny and cher show” with this energy and flair and spunk. and they say this will work ♫ally if we just give janet the rite songs. and so they work with her and give her a lotta songs that n'dup bein’ pt of this minneapolis sound – funky, big percussion, kind of prince-influenced. and twas just a match made in heaven.

cornish: i wanna talk + bout this match, jimmy jam and terry lewis. they’re the pplz who put these big dance beats behind her. when she went to minneapolis t'work w'dem, wha’ did she hear in their sound?

sanders: yeah. so when she gets up there, they don’t start making ♫ rite away. they just hang out. and these two producers ‘ve these really intense conversations with janet bout her life, and that became pt of the process. so here’s jimmy jam.

jimmy jam: well, really, the 1st sessions were not recording sessions. they were + therapy sessions, i guess i ‘d call them. we spent a lotta time just hanging out together. we were – you know, we ‘d go to movies. we ‘d hang out at clubs. we ‘d ride round the lakes and just kind of hang out. and thn'we’d ‘ve discussions. and our discussions were not that we were trying to analyze her, b'we were just trying t'get to know her better and know wha’ was primordial to her and wha’ she wanted to talk bout and wha’ she wanted to sing bout. and after bout a week of just kind of hanging out, doin’ that, janet said, well, when are we goin to start working?

sanders: (laughter).

jimmy jam: and we said – and we said, oh, we’re working. and we showed her the lyrics to “control.”

(soundbite of song, “control”)

jackson: (singing) when i was 17, i did wha’ pplz told me.

sanders: and they n'dup making a lotta songs that ‘ve that emotion and those big, in-yr-face beats.

cornish: when i think back to this work – kind of hearing this ♫ again is really (laughter) kind of intense. butt'er voice, it’s never been big, but it always cuts through. like, did her producers talk bout her style and how her singing style had developed?

sanders: they did a lot. you know, these beats were so big, and her voice has always been so soft. and she’ll admit, they’ll admit she was not a belter. she doesn’t really sing loud. but she conveys a lotta emotion with her voice. so they told me that there are these moments onna album where there’ll be these lil sighs or these heavy breaths. there’s this one moment in “when i think o-u,” which becomes her 1st no. 1 single, where the ♫ is built into this big crescendo. and inna midst o'it, janet just giggles.

(soundbite of song, “when i think o-u”)

jackson: (laughter).

sanders: and twas spontaneous, n'it stays inna song. and so many lil, off-the-cuff things like that became pt of “control.”

jimmy jam: 1-odda things she shared with michael was that rhythmic breathing, i call it…

(soundbite of song, “when i think o-u”)

jackson: (singing) ooh, baby…

jimmy jam: …where her breath b4 she starts singing is na' beat.

(soundbite of song, “when i think o-u”)

jackson: (singing) all i ‘ve to do to calm it…

jimmy jam: n'when she sings – even the way she ends her sentences when she sang, twasn’t like she ‘d hit the last word. she’d hit the last word, but then there’d be like a lil uh (ph).

sanders: mmm hmm.

(soundbite of song, “when i think o-u”)

jackson: (singing) baby, all i think bout is our ♥.

jimmy jam: those are the things that we ♥d cause those became literally pt of the funkiness of the songs.

sanders: and this is like another thing that i don’t think we give her enough credit for. there was this precision and control with her vocals, even if twas soft, you know?

cornish: why was this a jolt to kind of mainstream ♫ and kind of the approach that, like, young women in pticular were taking at a time up on stage?

sanders: these loud, big songs, they hit at this moment when pop was just full of ballots, like, slo songs on all kinds of radio stations – white, black stations. and without even knowing it, these stations and listeners wanted stuff to make you dance. and “control” gave them that. you know, this album ends up giving janet 5 songs that go to the top 5 on billboard.

cornish: so fast-forward to 2004. and performing atta super bowl is obviously a very big deal. atta same time, i think 1-odda kind of assessments that i’ve heard inna aftermath of the so-called wardrobe malfunction was that somehow her career had already peaked and that there was just sort of – like, this was an excuse to move her off from center stage. do you agree with that?

sanders: i mean, somewha’. i think the public is always ready to cancel women celebrities at a certain age, espeshly if their bread and butter is singing and dancing. but i also think it’s primordial to think of wha’ her cancellation after that ½time show says bout how we view things like agency and intention as it’s tied to race and gender. i mean, we know that justin timberlake, this white man, he was involved in this thing swell. but he gotta spin it as a mistake, and he was almost innocent. and then janet, she’s cast as this devious fig who wanted to flash us all and be nefarious. she has made the harlot. and i think that points to the ways that we usually always assume the worst intent of black women when something goes wrong. and in those same moments, we give so much + benefit of the doubt to white men like justin timberlake.

cornish: janet jackson is still making ♫. her career is still goin. wha’ do you see in terms of her legacy, though? where does it play out in other zones of pop ♫ tody?

sanders: i think of britney spears the most. there are large swaths of her career where she’s just doin’ janet jackson drag. the choreography, the soft and flirty singing – it’s so janet. and still admit it. you know, when i think bout the amazing videos that she made and longform videos with intricate choreography, i can look at “rhythm nation” and say, oh, well, twas' kind of beyonce’s “lemonade” b4 beyonce made “lemonade.” you know, wha’ i want is for all of us to cogg that pop still kind of lives in janet’s realm. and i think we ‘d ack that and perhaps dance again to those hits inna process.

(soundbite of janet jackson song, “the pleasure principle”)

cornish: that’s npr’s sam sanders, host o'it’s been a minute.

thx so much.

sanders: thank you, audie.

(soundbite of song, “the pleasure principle”)

jackson: (singing) you mite think i’m crazy, but i’m serious. it’s better you know now. wha’ i thought was happiness was 1-ly pt-time bliss. you can take a bow.

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authors: audie cornish

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