For those who may have forgotten, Janet Jackson is more than a breast exposer. (Not that I'm complaining about that aspect -- I wish her Vibe pictorial had been more daring, seeing as we've all seen more exposed at the Super Bowl.) But where lately it's seemed that few female R&B singers can string together careers of more than an album or two, Janet's been going strong for longer than some of them have been alive. Actually, in a way it's exactly two decades: It was in Billboard's August 23, 1986 issue that her first #1 single, "When I Think of You," entered the Top 40 singles chart. "When I Think of You" comes from Control, which is where Janet's icon hood began.
When it appeared in 1986, Janet, the youngest of the nine Jackson children, was 20 years old and asserting her independence (in 1984, she had defied family wishes by marrying singer James DeBarge, though the marriage was annulled before a year had passed). Her first two albums, an eponymous 1982 effort and 1984's Dream Street, which had spawned a few R&B chart hits but hadn't crossed over to pop, were as innocuous as her roles on the TV sitcoms Good Times, Diff'rent Strokes, and Fame.
With her domineering father's influence overthrown, Janet -- listed as co-producer on every track on Control -- hooked up with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of the Prince-controlled funk band The Time. (Jackson had started down this road, though less successfully, when Time guitarist Jesse Johnson produced Dream Street.). Jam and Lewis's version of the Minneapolis sound had already made an impact on the pop charts through their productions of the S.O.S. Band (which got them fired from The Time) and Klymaxx, but it was the massive success of Control that made them among the most in-demand producers of the late '80s. The sound is generally beat-heavy and synthesizer-dominated, with even the synths often having a percussive tone.
Over the course of a year and a half, five of Control's nine tracks were Top 5 pop chart hits: in order of release, gold-digger anthem "What Have You Done for Me Lately"; "Nasty" with its opening command "gimme a beat" answered by a spare yet hard-hitting sound that influenced a wave of sound-alikes; aforementioned "When I Think of You," declaration of independence "Control," and throwback proclamation of sexual restraint "Let's Wait Awhile" (immediately refuted on the album by "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)," which ends with Jackson's moans of sexual excitement). Additionally, "The Pleasure Principle" hit No. 14, though nobody who saw Janet's dance with a chair in the video will ever forget it, and (like "Nasty" and "Control") it did reach No. 1 on the R&B singles chart.
This album gave Jackson momentum that she's never lost since; she and the Jam/Lewis team collaborated on many subsequent hit albums and singles. Taking control worked well for her. Well aware of how pivotal Control was for her, Janet has said that she's considering celebrating the album's 20th anniversary with a concert in which she would perform only its songs.- Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who recently recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.