The Impact of Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’: A Retrospective 30 Years Later
Following the incredible commercial & critical success of Janet Jackson’s last album Control (which produced multiple multi-platinum singles and sold over 10,000,000 copies worldwide) Janet Jackson had a lot to live up to and faced immense pressure from her label. Her label demanded she create a “Control II”, along with rumors that the label heavily encouraged her to exploit her family’s drama by centering the album’s content around that.
They wanted her to take a back seat like many female pop stars at the time and let others control the lyrical content and sound of her next album. At the young age of 22 Janet Jackson decided to not only not listen to the immense pressure put on her by her label by demanding to be able to take an even more active role in song writing & producing, but also saying she wanted to create a concept album addressing social issues such as racism, poverty, drug abuse, news media and overall social justice.
So going into this era Janet is trying to follow up a commercial juggernaut of a previous album, has 3 years of hype to live up to, has her label reluctantly supporting her and is trying to be political as a young black female pop artist in the late 80s. Nearly every factor was working against her going into this era and would leave anybody wondering how the hell will Janet make this work; let alone become iconic? Well keep reading to find out!
First up we are going to dive straight into the music! This album was created over a 7 month period with super producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis denying any label executive to come to these sessions in fear of them pressuring Janet to shift the focus of the album or songs. Janet Jackson is the co-producer of every song on the entire record, along with writing every song besides 5. The name of the album “Rhythm Nation 1814” refers to Janet wanting to fight for a world with “no color lines” and the 1814 having the double meaning of 1814 being the year the United States national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written along with “R” being the 18th letter in the alphabet and “N” being the the 14th letter in the alphabet aka Rhythm Nation.
Track by Track
1. Interlude: Pledge
This interlude throws the listener right into the concept of the album.
We are a nation with no geographic boundaries
Bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals
Sharing a common vision
Pushing toward a world rid of color lines
2. Rhythm Nation
The national anthem of the whole album! This song was produced and written by Janet, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. This was the second single off of the album and was born from the concept of Janet wanting to help create a world filled with people inspired to fight for social change & unity, specifically wanting to reach kids by having a song they could dance to. The song’s production is funky and industrial, along with lyrical content speaking as a call to arms to help fight against the worsening of society. It received universal critical acclaim with one reviewer writing, “the beats on this song are probably the most powerful ever to be heard in the history of mankind”. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks and reached the Top 20 in many countries across the globe. It won Most Played Song at the BMI Pop Awards.
3. Interlude: T.V.
This interlude features Janet flipping through TV channels that talk about the homeless problem, violence, Tiananmen Square, drug ads, gun violence, violent crime, and beauty ads.
4. State of the World
One of my personal favorites off of the album and what would later be the name of Janet’s 2017 & 2018 tour due to it sadly being still so relevant 30 years later. This song was produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, along with being written by them and Janet. It was the 8th single off of the album, but was not released commercially in the US making it not eligible to chart on the Hot 100 due to the rules at the time. Despite that and having no music video to promote it, it still reached number 5 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay Chart. This song tries to hold a mirror to society about the issues people were facing such as homelessness, prostitution, drugs impacting black communities, people not having food to eat, kids not feeling safe to go out and play anymore, bullying in schools; with Janet trying to offer hope later in the song and asking the listener to “weather the storm together”.
5. Interlude: Race
We are in race between education and catastrophe
6. The Knowledge
Known for being Michael Jackson’s favorite song of Janet’s due to the, “bass lick, it really just makes me crazy; makes me wild!”. The song was written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The song talks about how the only way to change the world is to educate yourself and how an informed society keeps us from being taken advantage of and educating yourself can let you be more in control of your life. It addresses how many people are dropping out and selling / doing drugs and that it is a waste of their life. It might sound really preachy, but it feels like an older sister giving you a real talk.
7. Interlude: Let’s Dance
Get the point?
Good, let’s dance
So now the album shifts a bit into songs about love & relationships. Janet demanded the socially conscious songs be at the beginning so more people were exposed to them then the bops, which again went against everything her label wanted her to do.
8. Miss You Much
This song was written by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; along with production done by them and Janet. The song was inspired by a letter written to Jimmy Jam from one of his ex-girlfriends who signed it with “Miss You Much”. The song details the pain, desperation and mixed feelings somebody has when they reflect on an old lover. It truly is a shameless attempt to try and win somebody back. Janet’s vocals soar over the funky hard hitting production and really sells the lyrics of the song. In my opinion it is one of Janet’s biggest ear worms! This song was Number #1 on the Hot 100 for 4 consecutive weeks (making it the longest running #1 single of 1989), along with reaching #1 on the Dance Club Songs chart & Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The song was the 2nd best-selling single of the entire year and was the biggest radio hit of the year. It sold over 4 million copies worldwide, along with being certified Platinum in the US. (Janet is infamous for never updating her certifications but that is a story for another time…). Miss You Much received 2 Grammy Nominations, won a Billboard Award for the Top Hot 100 Single of the Year and won 2 American Music Awards.
9. Interlude: Come Back
This interlude serves as an instrumental musical palate cleanser.
10. Love Will Never Do (Without You)
The seventh single off of the album. It was written by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, with production by them and Janet Jackson. It was one of the first songs recorded for the album and was intended to be a duet with either Prince, Johnny Gill or Ralph Tresvant. Janet recorded the first verse in a lower octave as a place holder and then went an octave higher on the second verse to hear what a male would sound on the song, but they ultimately just kept it in. The song is about dedication to making her relationship work with somebody, despite her friends not thinking it could work or last. The song went #1 on the Billboard Hot #1 and was the #1 song on the Airplay Hot 100 for 7 consecutive weeks making it the longest-running airplay number one single at the time.
11. Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)
This song is written by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, with production by them and Janet. It was inspired by Janet and Jimmy Jam watching CNN’s coverage of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting and their frustration with adults failing the younger generations. It speaks to the innocence of children being ruined by having to live in the messed up world the older generations created for them. It addresses adult figures being hypocrites, how they learn hate from them and how it is unfair we expect them to solve the problems of the world without any help or tools.
The fourth single from the album and written & produced by Janet, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The song is about finding a true friend who she will love until the end of time by her and how she is accepting of it. The song peaked at #4 on the Hot 100, broke Madonna’s record for having a fourth consecutive single reach #1 on the Dance Club Chart and received 2 Grammy Nominations for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song.
13. Interlude: Hey Baby
Don’t get me in here actin’ silly now
You’re not taping this are you?
This interlude transitions the album into the most pure pop fun moment on the album.
Written and produced by Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The song was inspired by them hearing the word “escapade” in a conversation and thought it would make a good song title. The song is very light and airy, talking about just getting away from all your problems and having fun. It definitely serves as a counter balance to a lot of the heavier songs on the album. It was discussed if the record company had their way they would have named the album Escapade in trying to market this as a Control II. It is the third single from the album and reached #1 on the Hot 100 and her sixth consecutive #1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart tying a 40 year old record.
15. Interlude: No Acid
Ain’t no acid in this house
This refers to the subgenre of house music.
16. Black Cat
This song was written solely by Janet Jackson and produced by Jellybean Johnson and Janet Jackson. It was the sixth single from the album and is notable for being a hardcore rock song, which is a big departure from the rest of the very industrial new jack swing dance pop featured on the rest of the album. The song talks about Janet warning her lover that he needs to change his way before he loses her and potentially his life due to his dangerous life style. The song reached #1 on the Hot 100, was nominated for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance at The Grammys making her the only artist in music history to be nominated by the Grammys in 5 different genres, made her the first female artist to have a Grammy nominated song they had solely written and produced and won the BMI Pop Award for Most Played Song. This song also made Janet Jackson the only black woman to reach #1 on the Rock Charts (along with it reaching #1 on the Hot 100 Charts at the same time) & the only artist to reach the Top 10 on the Hot R&B/ Hip-Hop Charts with a Rock Song; with both records still not matched to this day.
This song was written by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, with production by them and Janet. The concept of the song is basically about, you know, loneliness. It talks about how not being able to trust people or have anybody to talk to can be such a helpless feeling, and that everybody needs a friend to help them through those times. It talks about the struggles of fighting for happiness and trying not to isolate yourself when you’re feeling down. The song is an amazing slow jam.
18. Come Back to Me
The fifth single written and produced by Janet Jackson, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. It is a silky ballad featuring lush strings talking about wanting an older lover to come back into her life. The song reached #2 on the Hot 100 and charted well internationally.
19. Someday Is Tonight
The last song on the record! It was written by Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. This song is a total slow burn featuring some of Janet’s most sensual vocals. It talks about Janet being worth the wait, dropping all her walls with a guy and how tonight Janet is ready to return to make “all [her man’s] dreams come true”. Definitely a foreshadowing of her follow up album janet.
20. Interlude: Livin’…In Complete Darkness
In complete darkness, we are all the same
It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us
Don’t let your eyes deceive you
This interlude concludes Janet’s beliefs about how much we all have in common and “in complete darkness, we are all the same” alludes to why many of the music videos during this era are in black & white. Looking back now and to many reading this could take this statement as supporting a color blind society, which in time many cultural figures believe that is in of itself a form of racism. Janet ends up addressing her naivety about this in Shoulda Known Better from her 2015 album Unbreakable.
You Need Me (B-side to “Miss You Much”)
Now for a rare B-side from this era! This song was written and produced by Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. You Need Me is a gem for any Janet Jackson fan and wish it received more attention. It addresses her relationship with her father in very deep detail and serves as a more self assured & mature sequel to Control. If you ever want to know how Janet feels about her father definitely check this out and pay attention to the lyrics.
Skin Game (B-side to “Come Back to Me”)
The only other B-side from this era that got renewed interest from fans when she decided to use this song as the opener for her 2018 State of the World Tour. This song was written and produced by Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It talks racism and about the difficulties minorities living in the US face and how in order to succeed in a racist society you need to learn how to play “the skin game”.
Music Videos & Film
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 Film
I will let super producer Jimmy Jam explain about how this came to be and some background on the film
Janet wanted to do this short film to incorporate “Miss You Much,” “The Knowledge,” and “Rhythm Nation,” and tell the story of the album conceptually. Janet went to the record company and asked them for one million dollars to do the short film. The record company told her that they haven’t heard any music and you want us to give you one million dollars. Janet called me and said, “They want to hear some music. What should I do?” I remember at the time she just brought a brand new Range Rover, and she was living in Malibu. I asked her, “Who do you need to play the music for?” She said, “I need to play it for Gil Friesen.”
At that time, Gil Friesen was the president of A&M. I said, “Okay. Here is what I would suggest. Pick three songs that you think that are cool. Don’t go to his office. Pick him up in your brand new Range Rover and drive him down Pacific Coast Highway. You’ll have the ocean at your side. Blast the three songs that you like. If sitting in a brand new Range Rover in Malibu looking at the ocean with Janet Jackson playing you songs that nobody has ever heard, doesn’t get you your million dollars then nothing is going to get your million dollars.” That was my theory. Janet called me back three or four hours later, and she said, “We got our budget.”
As the background mentions the long form video / film consists of the videos for “Miss You Much”, “The Knowledge,” and “Rhythm Nation”. It follows the story of two artists whose dreams are destroyed by substance abuse & drug trafficking in a post-apocalyptic industrial setting. It was filmed in black & white to portray the racial harmony Janet was aiming for. This scared the label because they believed it would not have crossover appeal, but due to Janet’s persistence and hard-work it was one of the most iconic videos of all time. The film was shot over 20 days straight, with Janet often times staying up for 25 hours straight and collapsing on set due to exhaustion. It won the Grammy Award for Best Music Film, beating out her brother Michael’s Moonwalker and heavy weights Pink Floyd. It also was a major reason Janet Jackson won the MTV Video Vanguard Award making her the youngest recipient, the second woman ever to win the award and first African American woman to win the award.
Miss You Much
The music video is a MUCH watch and truly iconic. It is shot totally in black & white, which would foreshadow the Rhythm Nation music video and the styling of the era. Now it wouldn’t be a Janet Jackson music video without stunning choreography, but this features one of Janet’s most memorable dancing routine, which features an ICONIC chair routine that would be referenced by many artists who followed after. Sadly it isn’t in the official music video posted on YouTube, so make sure to check it out in the link above separately after!
One of the most iconic music videos of ALL TIME!! The videos features the now iconic unisex black military-style uniforms and choreography that critics claim, “set the template for hundreds of videos to come in the Nineties and aughts”, along with the video featuring “some of the most memorable choreography in music history” & “had a greater long-term impact on the choreography of contemporary music videos [than any other artist]”.
This video is filmed in color to contrast with the videos that are more socially conscious. The song is colorful, multi-cultural and of course features incredible choreography. There is not much to analyze here because the song and video is supposed to be just pure pop fun, which they completely nail!
Another video filmed in color and very heavily inspired by the 1930s and 1950s musicals. It features Janet in a memorable zoot suit living the old school Hollywood dream of being the date for a big movie actor. They do incredibly fun choreography all across town and ends with Janet being the actors date, but she wakes up homeless on a bench revealing it was a just a dream.
Come Back To Me
This video matches the song perfectly. It is a very romantic video with Janet remembering all the good times she shared with her ex-lover, who is played by her boyfriend at the time who she would later marry a year later Rene. It features beautiful shots from many of Paris’ iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Grand Palais and others.
This music video features live footage from her Rhythm Nation World Tour, like many rock videos at the time which was a big departure from all her other videos. It truly captures the feel of the song and how legendary of a performer Janet is.
Love Will Never Do (Without You)
This video was directed by the iconic fashion photographer Herb Ritts who really pushed Janet to own her sexuality, which would later bridge perfectly into the janet. album era. For the video Ritts picked out the basic outfit and wanted her alone to be the focus of the video, not her elaborate dance routines or dancers. The video won the Best Female Video and was nominated for Best Choreography & Best Art Direction at the 1991 VMAs. It was ranked #13 on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Music Videos along with making VH1 and MTV’s Top 100 Music Videos Lists. Britney Spears and Nicole Scherzinger directly credit this video for inspiring some of their music videos.
Janet’s record label A&M Records chose not to invest in promoting a tour for Control (along with Janet not feeling like she had enough material to tour), so this was Janet Jackson’s first headlining tour. It would become (and still is) the highest grossing debut tour of any artist in music history. It was a global tour that went all over the United States, Germany, Netherlands, France, Sweden, Japan, England and Canada. The critical reception for this tour was universally positive with many calling the tours choreography “more enthralling [than any other artist]”, credited her nearly perfect record recreations of her vocals, the $2 million dollar production, effects + stage and her overall incredible musicianship.
It grossed 28.1 million in the US alone making her the 5th best-selling tour within the US and the only female artist in the entire top 10. Her first international tour at the Tokyo Dome (42k seats) sold out within seven minutes, setting the record for the fastest sellout in the history of the Tokyo Dome. The vast majority of dates sold out nearly instantly. It is estimated over 2 million people attended the world tour. She also donated over half a million dollars to fund education projects and donated 25 cents from each ticket sold to each states Cities in Schools program which worked to help prevent kids from dropping out of school. She would later donated another 500,000 to start the Rhythm Nation Scholarship to help Black Americans go to college.
Awards & Accolades
I tried to feature as many song, video and tour specific achievements above as we went along; so this section would not be so overwhelming haha.
- One of nine albums in music history to Produce 4 #1 Hot 100 Hits
- The Best Selling album of 1990 in the US
- Sold 12,000,000 copies Worldwide
- The only album in music history to have 7 singles reach the Top 5 of the Hot 100
- The only album in music history to have produced a #1 Hit on the Hot 100 in Three Separate Calendar Years
- The youngest artist (still) to receive the MTV Video Vanguard Award at the age of 23.
- Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Its single for “Alright” featuring Heavy D made Jackson the first pop artist to team with a rapper, “setting the trend for future pop and hip-hop collaborations.”
- Won 8 Billboard Music Awards in One Night, becoming the first female artist ever to sweep an award show.
- 15 Billboard Music Awards in total for the entire Era
- 8 Grammy Nominations in total for the entire Era, one of which was for Producer of the Year making her the first woman to ever be nominated for the award.
- The only artist in music history to receive Grammy nominations spanning five genres (pop, dance, rock, rap, and R&B)
- Made the “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” List, ranked #277 on Rolling Stones 2012 “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” List, #30 on Pitchfork’s “The 200 Best Albums of the 1980s”, #54 on Spin’s “The 300 Best Albums of the Past 30 Years (1985-2014)” List.
Influence & Legacy
This album is credited for pioneering several musical trends in Pop, R&B and Hip Hop by “marrying the pleasures of pop with the street energy and edge of hip-hop, while focusing her album’s theme on social consciousness”. Michael Jackson, Rihanna, P!nk, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Gwen Stefani, The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, FKA Twigs, Robyn and many artists directly credit this album era having a tremendous impact on them as artists.
Many music scholars credit this era for shifting radio airplay and MTV away from catering to white rock musicians, sparking a rise in the black feminist movement, having the most cross-racial impact and the music videos of this era serving as the template for over a decade to follow.
Despite the fears of her label this era was an unexpected critical and commercial supernova that launched Janet into the legend sphere. The era was filled with so much artistic innovation, helped pave a lane for women in pop who had something to say and pushed the envelope on the art of the music video. The album was, by all measures of success, a landmark in music history.
This was definitely my most ambitious Janet Jackson write up! I really tried to make this an all encompassing resource of the entire era and it’s importance, accomplishment and critical acclaim. I spent several days researching and writing this up, so I appreciate you taking time to read it. I hope you enjoyed the read and do yourself a favor of checking out the album!