Diving Deeper into the Songs and Artistry of Janet Jackson

You probably know the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” story, and that she’s Michael Jackson’s little sister. But did you also know her song “Black Cat” features a guitar solo that’s to die for? Or that she sampled Joni Mitchell and collaborated with rapper Q-Tip on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone?” Or that the woman has written about every topic imaginable, from the pleasures of sex to racism? Or that she’s the absolute queen of album interludes?

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There is plenty to discover when it comes to Janet Jackson’s music. More than 5.4 million people stream her songs on Spotify each month. And that should not come as a surprise—no matter the mood, there’s a Janet Jackson song that’ll fit.

The different facets of Janet Jackson are on display all across her 11 albums, various singles and collaborations, and her industry-shaking music videos. Let’s take a deep dive into what makes her one of the most successful and inspiring entertainers in the world.

Everything’s Under Control

One of the themes that keeps reappearing in Jackson’s lyrics, and that has obviously struck a chord with fans, is taking control. Many of her songs speak about the power we hold as individuals, and specifically how strong and determined women can be. Jackson has sung about taking control over her career (“Control,” 1986), over the ways men treat her (“Nasty,” 1986; “This Time,” 1993), or over one’s own attitude towards life (“Better Days,” 2001).

[RELATED: 5 Things to Know About Janet Jackson]

Janet Jackson grew up watching her brothers perform as The Jackson 5 and appeared alongside them when she was a young child. Their father managed all his children’s careers, so it was under his watch that she released her first two albums: a self-titled debut in 1982, and Dream Street in 1984. Her name is only credited on the second album as co-producer and she is only credited as a co-writer on one track. Most critics agreed the material amounted to bland pop without much character.

Jackson then took a step she has called one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do: cut ties with her father so she could take full control over her life, career, and art. Her third album is the celebration of that freedom. Control, which catapulted her to superstardom, was released in 1986. It marked the beginning of Jackson’s long-lasting collaboration with songwriters and music producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The title track says it all:

When I was 17 
I did what people told me
Did what my father said
And let my mother mold me
But that was long ago
I’m in control, never gonna stop
Control, to get what I want
Control, I like to have a lot
Control, now I’m all grown up

The Principle of Pleasure

In the early ’90s, Jackson’s lyrics on her fifth album, janet. (1993), and her music videos promoting the album’s songs were groundbreaking. She was one of the very few female pop stars who sang about desire, pleasure, and sex in her songs. “I write about my experiences,” Jackson said in an interview with Billboard, ”or things that touch me deeply. I was really beginning to get in tune with my sexual self. This is what I wanted to express, so I did.”

On multiple tours, she made it a regular part of her performance to invite a male fan up on stage for songs like “Any Time, Any Place” from janet. or “Rope Burn” from the 1997 album Velvet Rope. And then there’s of course the playful “That’s the Way Love Goes,” also from the janet. album.

Come with me, don’t you worry
I’m gonna make you crazy
I’ll give you the time of your life
I’m gonna take you places
You’ve never been before and
You’ll be so happy that you came
Ooh, I’m gonna take you there, ooh

A Lot More Than R&B

Growing up, Janet Jackson was exposed to a lot of different styles of music, and many of them eventually found their way into her own work. In a 1990 interview on The Bully! Pulpit Show, Jackson recalled that she was surrounded by R&B, blues, and gospel music as a child. Her family also loved jazz, classical music, and listened to hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin or even Mötley Crüe. 

The first song Jackson wrote by herself was “Black Cat,” a heavy ’80s rock song that features a shredding guitar solo. Apart from R&B songs, she has also released tender ballads like “Everytime,” dance tracks such as “Feedback,” and tracks that incorporate funk, opera, and jazz, as well. Jackson loves incorporating samples in her songs, too. “Got Til’ It’s Gone” includes a Joni Mitchell sample, “So Much Better” uses a Daft Punk sample, and she has borrowed from Diana Ross songs more than once. 

The State of the World

After releasing her breakout hit record, Control, her label was hoping for a similar follow-up. But Jackson had other plans. Rhythm Nation 1814 became her vehicle to talk about social issues. “We’ve tried to address bigotry, illiteracy, drugs, violence, the homeless—as well as the issue of leaving those problems behind for the next generation,” she told Jet magazine in 1989. She felt like her young audience would pay more attention to her than to other musicians, adding that “the people that sing the socially-conscious songs, are singing them to people who are already socially conscious.”

The album doesn’t actually start with music. Instead, an interlude named “Pledge” is the first track on Rhythm Nation 1814. Jackson’s voice is heard among others speaking the words:

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

Between the Songs

As we mentioned, Jackson often incorporates artfully placed interludes in her work. Her records are sprinkled with short audio snippets that often lead into a song or serve as a bridge between songs. Especially on her early records (that were created before social media), they feel like short personal dispatches. A glimpse into Jackson recording in the vocal booth, getting ready to go out, hanging out with her dancers, giggling, or whispering into a phone. 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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