Janet Jackson: Nasty
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
'Cuz Privacy is my middle name / My last name is Control
It's really all about control. The album and title-track were monster hits during the tween years of MTV, and my tween years of this thing called Life. I was hooked on this stuff, and I couldn't tell you why. I didn't necessarily love the music, though most of it has an entire lobe in my brain devoted to it then and now. Perhaps it was more fun than listening to the radio which, without all the pictures, was too much like reading or something, but between MTV and Nintendo, the world was conspiring against me leaving the house, no matter the weather, until about 1995. I sure as hell didn't understand any of it; looking back now, it seems that much of MTV's regular line-up of videos hinged in some way or another on sexual politics and power struggles, something I wouldn't even conceive of until years later. The artists, at least the ones from that period worth remembering, seem so much more assured, so much more intent on figuring out what they want and taking it. Is it possible that MTV in the mid-'80s was just a more interesting place, Ground Zero for some Grand Experiment? Was it actually pitched to adults? It's so hard to believe now.
The three early Janet videos all meld together in my head, as do—let's be real here—the songs. Jam & Lewis had created a remarkable system, in which a set of punched cards consisting of melodic modulations which would be tethered inextricably, without human intervention, to a rhythmic structure were fed into an old Casio keyboard, converted to presets, and poof!, a hit is born! People loved it though; something about those stiletto keys, bordering on the oppressive, spoke volumes to 1986. The Neptunes attempted this same automation trick about two years ago, to much less spectacular effect. Anyway, though their various choruses have all re-lodged themselves in my head over the last few weeks, it's only the break from “Nasty” that still sucker-punches now. I didn't realize until recently that this break is actually a quatrain; there are two lines that apparently I'd just glossed right over, perhaps for being less interesting than the other two, maybe a little too straightforward. Or mayhaps because if you told my 8-year-old self that you wanted “privacy” and “control,” I'd just look at you blankly, but if you told me somebody was just “nasty,” I could come up with some suitable image.
And no, my name ain't baby, it's Janet...
Ms. Damita Jo Jackson started off, like her brothers before her, as a child star (most notably on Diff'rent Strokes where she played What Willis Was Talkin' 'Bout), and Control was her third album, and her first real hit. But if you look at those early videos for the first time now, using our current pop landscape as a conceptual foundation, there's something just slightly odd about Janet's character and image; she isn't the Janet Jackson of the New Millennium. In fact, almost all the early female MTV stars seem unusual now: Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar, Annie Lennox; none of them were what you'd call conventional beauties, and certainly none of them would have a place on today's teenager-owned-and-operated MTV. Janet was no exception. She was a zaftiger Janet, a more humanly-proportioned woman, not the Janet who does insane amounts of pilates so you and I don't have to. The head-to-toe black burqua-inspired clothes she wore in these early videos—even compared to what she wears now, which in the grand scheme are relatively demure—reflect either her very real discomfort with her body, or discomfort on the part of label execs and video directors. But there's something about her general shape and look, like those of her contemporaries, that made her calls for sexual equality all the more forceful. This isn't a breathy moan against objectification from some vamped-up plastic surgery victim, it is a demand for respect from every woman you know, and every woman whose head you've ever messed with.
... Miss Jackson if you're nasty
And why would you do such a thing? Because you're nasty. And you're nasty not just because you've got no respect, but because you don't know when to stop. Janet wants a nasty groove, and also to see your nasty body move. See, it's a contradic— Alright, look, you and I both know this isn't that complicated. Minus any artfully/overly complex hermeneutics, this is about the strongest smack-down in pop music. Go ahead, find one better, more direct, with more force and conviction. This is the kick-ass Janet, the strongest Janet in every possible sense of that word. Let's just go back over her memorable hits. On the one hand, you've got “Escapade,” “All for You,” Love Will Never Do”; the shy, sweet, coquettish Janet, the non-threatening Janet. On the other hand, you've got “Rhythm Nation,” “Black Cat,” “Son of a Gun,” “Miss You Much,” and everything here. The aggressive dancing, hard-ass beats, her growing comfort with her own body and sexuality and the acknowledgment of all the new power it's given her since the time of this song. Hell, between the sexual politics of Control and the lock-step martial throb of Rhythm Nation, you've got her two biggest-selling albums. It's painfully obvious that, even while the doe-eyed, ever-smiling Janet provides a certain balance (I guess), it's really the tough, ovaries-on-the-outside Janet that we all like and respect and need. Just watch your damn tone, and keep your hands to yourself.
By: Jeff Siegel
Published on: 2006-04-17