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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814

This week on the Sunday Jukebox, I’m featuring an artist that not only is a perfect representative of “Black History Month”, but whose biggest selling album is also a perfect representation of “Black History Month” as well.

Yes, it’s time for another album spotlight.

If you are a regular reader of “A Pop Culture Addict’s Guide To Life”, you will know that I typically don’t do album spotlights on a frequent basis (usually every two to three months).  There are a couple of reasons why I will do an album spotlight instead of just one song.  The album will either have a lot of singles released, have a lot of number one hits, or on a purely superficial level, it happens to have an artist or band that I absolutely love.

Fortunately for this album, all three are true.  Seven singles were released commercially – all seven becoming Top 5 hits, four became number one hits, and I’ll be the first to admit that this album is my all-time favourite by today’s featured artist.

So, who is today’s blog topic about?  And, which album am I spotlighting?  Well, she happens to be the little sister of one of the biggest family groups in music history.  She acted in such television shows as “Good Times” and “Diff’rent Strokes”.  Her older brother happened to have one of the biggest selling albums of 1983 AND 1984, and she ended up being the one to coin the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” alongside Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl a few years ago.

Janet Damita Jackson, born May 16, 1966, is the featured artist of the day.  And, the album is her fourth solo record, released September 19, 1989.  It was a little record that had a rather unusual title, but it also boasted over an hour of songs that dealt with social commentary, standing up for what one believed in, and some of the most infectious dance tunes to hit the radio airwaves as the 1980s transitioned into the 1990s.

It was an album that kicked off Janet’s first world tour - a tour that cost almost two million dollars to produce.  A tour that sold out completely before its debut concert took place in March 1990.  A tour that sold out the Tokyo Dome in just a little over seven minutes!

And, as far as the album itself, in 2012, it placed on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” at #277.  It was the first album to have seven Top 5 Billboard hits, and it was the only album to have singles hitting the #1 position in three different years (one #1 hit in 1989, two in 1990, and one in 1991).

Is it any wonder why I wanted to do a spotlight on “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” this week?

Now, I suppose some of you were wondering what the 1814 at the end of the title meant.  I admit that when I first bought the album, I too was confused.  But the explanation actually has a double meaning.  The obvious meaning is easy if you look at the alphabet in a numerical manner.  The initials of Rhythm Nation are R.N., and if you numbered each letter in the alphabet from one to twenty-six, well, R=18 and N=14.

Get it?  1814?

There’s also another meaning to it that is a little more subtle...and I’ll bring it up when we get to the single that inspired the double entendre.

For now, we can’t really talk about an album without listening to some of the songs.  And, in this blog entry, I’ll be talking about all seven songs that charted within the Top 5 on the Billboard Charts.  We’ll talk about the story behind the songs, how well they did on the charts, if the video won any awards, and other facts of trivia that might be of interest.

To begin, we’ll go in chronological order...and just a month before “Rhythm Nation 1814” was available to the public, this single became the first release.

DATE RELEASED:  August 22, 1989

To say that “Rhythm Nation” kicked off on a high note would be like saying that the sky is blue.  “Miss You Much” became Janet Jackson’s second #1 hit (after 1986’s “When I Think Of You” from her “Control” album), and the single alone sold over four million copies overall.  And, I can see why that is.  “Miss You Much” was one of the most powerful songs on the whole album.  In some ways, it could be a nice title to describe the fans reaction to Janet.  After all, it had been three years since her previous album release.  Why wouldn’t her fans miss her?

The song was written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (as a lot of the other songs on “Rhythm Nation 1814” were).  The song was also responsible for helping Janet Jackson add some more awards to her collection, including two American Music Awards, and a Soul Train Music Award.  A remixed version by Shep Pettibone also helped the song make its way to the top of the dance charts in late 1989.  But don’t think that this song was a one-trick pony.  It was only the beginning.

DATE RELEASED: October 24, 1989

This song just barely missed the top of the charts (it was held off by Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise”), but I don’t think Janet minded all that much.  After all, the choreography in the music video helped Janet earn an MTV Video Music Award in 1990.

It is this single that actually inspired the second meaning behind the mysterious 1814 number.  Back when the recording and writing sessions for the album were taking place, Janet was kidding around about the song, telling the producers in the room that the song could have been considered the national anthem for the 1990s.  Well, this got Janet to wondering about the American national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner”, and she thought it would be cool to do some research on the exact date that Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics for the anthem.  The date was September 14, 1814!  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But you have to admit that the more subtle meaning does have a cool back story.

Back to “Rhythm Nation”, this song could very well be the one that has the most social commentary within it.  The song encourages people to look at the world without colour lines, and how the people of the world today are looking for a better way of life.  It was a single that wanted to do its part in stopping social injustice and looking for racial unity and harmony.  Is it any wonder why I wanted to spotlight this album this February?

Plus, the video is one of the best music videos that I have ever seen.

DATE RELEASED:  January 18, 1990

This song was Janet Jackson’s first release of the 1990s, as well as the second of four #1 hits from the “Rhythm Nation” album.  And here’s a little bit of interesting trivia for you.  “Escapade” was a song that was sort of inspired by another song...a song that Janet almost covered and included within the album.

Do any of you remember a group known as “Martha and the Vandellas”?  Well, in 1965, they recorded a single called “Nowhere to Run” (if you click on the title, it will link you to the song).  If you listen to both, you might notice some minor similarities.  That’s because Janet was set to record her own version of the song for the album.  She was talked out of it by Jimmy Jam when he made the suggestion that she try to record a new song with a similar feel. 

Upon retrospect, I think she made a great choice...even if some of the imagery within the video seemed a little bit bizarre.

DATE RELEASED: March 4, 1990

Okay, so “Alright” was the worst performing single on the Billboard charts from the album.  If her worst performing single was at #4, that’s nothing to be ashamed about!  Besides, the song was Janet’s fourth consecutive #1 dance hit, which temporarily helped Jackson break a record previously set by Madonna.  The song earned a Grammy Award nomination in 1991.

This video is rather special as it contains one of the last on-screen appearances of legendary jazz singer Cab Calloway before his death in 1994.  The video also featured the Nicholas Brothers and Cyd Charisse.  The video is a bit lengthy (though not nearly as long as the full-length video for “Rhythm Nation” or some of the videos that Michael Jackson released in his heyday, but you have to watch’s on a very special level of creativity and originality.  And it also has lots of bright colours and imagery...things that some of our current music videos are sadly lacking.

DATE RELEASED: June 18, 1990

For some reason, I couldn’t recall this song at all.  I thought that I had known what songs were released from “Rhythm Nation 1814”, but this one was drawing a blank.

That is until I watched the video, and I was like...oh yeah, I remember that song now!  I hear it at work all the time...but because the fans inside the walk-in-coolers are always emitting a loud whirring noise, I couldn’t make out the vocals.  I had always assumed that someone else had sung the song because I don’t usually associate Janet Jackson with ballads.  But with this single, it became clear that she could still have a hit whether she sped it up or slowed it down.

Here’s a couple of interesting facts about the video.  First, the video was directed by Domenic Sena (who previously directed the videos for “Miss You Much” and “Rhythm Nation”).  The video itself was entirely shot in a city long associated with love and romance – Paris, France.  The song itself is about Janet coming to terms with the fact that her lover has left her, and how she remembers the good times that they shared together. 

Ironically enough, the role of Janet’s “lover” in the video was assumed by a man named Rene Elizondo Jr.  Rene and Janet would marry each other in 1991, and the marriage would be one of the biggest kept secrets in the music industry, until it was revealed after the couple had split in the late 1990s!  And, here’s another bit of trivia.  You know that stunning cover of “Rolling Stone” where an unknown person has their hands over Janet’s breasts?  That was Elizondo.

DATE RELEASED: August 28, 1990

I’ll admit that I was a bit shocked to learn that this song had become Janet’s third #1 hit from “Rhythm Nation”, but not overly surprised.  “Black Cat” was a song that got a person up on their feet with the guitar riffs and rock and roll beat.  It was also a song that was personally special for Janet, as she wrote the lyrics to the song completely solo.

The video for this song is also a departure from her heavily choreographed videos with stunning settings.  The video was actually filmed in April 1990 at a concert stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, directed by Wayne Isham.

And, well, that’s about all that I have to say about “Black Cat”.  It may have been a number one hit, but there was surprisingly little information on it.  The final single of “Rhythm Nation 1814” on the other hand...

DATE RELEASED: October 2, 1990

When this single hit the top of the Billboard charts the week of January 19, 1991, it helped Janet achieve a milestone.  She had #1 singles in three different calendar years from the same album.  I can’t think of another person who ever reached that same milestone (for some reason I think that Katy Perry achieved that goal in 2012, but I would have to look that up).  And considering that her seventh single was released fourteen months after the first single from “Rhythm Nation 1814” hit the charts, and still made the top of the charts?  That’s incredible.

If the video (which is the only one I can't seem to link to) sort of looks similar to an ad for Calvin Klein fashions, it’s because some of the people in the video were closely linked to the Calvin Klein brand.  Djimon Hounson and Antonio Sabato Jr were underwear models for Calvin Klein at the time they were both cast as the men who danced along with Janet Jackson in the video.  Personally speaking, while the song is fantastic, I wasn’t as wowed by the video as I’m sure millions of females were...gee...I can’t imagine why that would be the case.  J

The video itself was directed by famous fashion photographer, the late Herb Ritts, who had previously directed the videos for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and Madonna’s “Cherish”.  And, while most people have seen the black and white version of the video, a colourized version exists as well.  I believe that both are included in the video compilation “Design of a Decade 1986/1996”. 

Oh, and there is a reason why the first verse of the song is sung by Jackson in a low, low voice.  When the song was written for Jackson by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, it was intended as a DUET!  They toyed with the idea of getting a male vocalist to sing alongside Janet for the single, and some of the ideas that they had for singers included Prince, Johnny Gill, or Ralph Tresvant.  But for whatever reason, the plans never materialized.  The producers instructed Janet to “sing it low, like some guy would sing it” on the first verse, and when she did, they liked what they heard so much that they kept it.

One more piece of trivia.  The song was the last single to hit the Billboard charts, but was one of the first songs recorded for the album (background vocals were recorded in late 1988, main vocals recorded in early 1989).

And, those are the seven singles that helped catapult Janet Jackson to super stardom...Janet Jackson’s “Thriller”, if you will.  And, while certainly her other releases (1993’s janet, 1997’s “The Velvet Rope”, 2001’s “All For You”) had varying levels of success and more #1 songs to add to her discography, there’s no comparing the success that “Rhythm Nation 1814” brought to Janet Jackson.  It was an album that promoted social commentary, helped bridge the gap between races, and got people dancing all over the world.

It was the album that made Janet Jackson a household name. 

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