1990: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956.


1990: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

By modern standards, the shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California feels sadly common. It was during the school day on January 17, 1989 when a white nationalist gunman with explosives went to the playground of the school and shot at the kids playing killing 5, all Southeast Asian immigrants, and wounding over 30 more including a teacher before killing himself. At a time when Americans weren’t yet numbed to the constant news of public places being the site of mass bloodshed, the Stockton school massacre was a big story, the first of its kind in the new 24-hour news cycle world, and for people like me who’ve grown up with this news, the coverage can seem alarmingly familiar.

More than three decades and many more mass shootings later, the Stockton school massacre isn’t thought about much compared to what would come later but to the rising pop superstar Janet Jackson, it affected her a lot. Jackson was in Minneapolis the day of the Stockton shooting with her producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis recording the followup to her massive and influential 1986 breakout Control. Being in the studio a lot, the team would watch TV to kill time channel surfing between music and news. When the news from Stockton came in, it affected everyone in the studio that day and for Jackson, it directly inspired her to take a more socially conscious route on her next album. That impact can be felt particularly in the song “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” where towards the end the sound of children screaming and news reports of the Stockton shooting are heard. 

Jackson’s label, A&M Records, on the other hand, wasn’t too thrilled about her plans for the album. Control had been a massive hit, one that famously gave Jackson independence from her father’s previous control over her career and established her as a star in her own right separate from her famous family. With that success, A&M wanted Jackson’s follow-up to be more of the same of what was on Control supposedly even wanting an album called Scandal that would have expanded on Control in Jackson singing about her family and personal life which Jam has denied. But Jackson and her team knew better than to repeat past successes. They wanted to expand on that sound and continue to be ahead of the curve getting into harder and industrial-style beats while still making undeniable hits.

As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan talks about in his Number Ones column, by 1989, Janet Jackson’s impact on the pop music scene was already being felt. Control helped anticipate the era of new jack swing, the hard-hitting and percussive sounding melding of R&B, hip-hop, and dance music with Bobby Brown using that sound to record Don’t Be Cruel, 1989’s best-selling album. Jackson’s former choreographer Paula Abdul started her own singing career largely by aping the sound and style of Control which yielded her enormous success in 1989 with the album Forever Your Girl not far behind Don’t Be Cruel as the #3 album of 1989. In competing with these new stars, Janet basically pulled what her older brother Michael did on Thriller in making an album full of songs that sounded like hits that would appeal to people across a wide swath of genres paired with classic music videos that contain some of Jackson’s most iconic images.

If A&M was worried about the socially conscious nature of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, the number coming from the year Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they wouldn’t worry for long. Rhythm Nation 1814 would become a massive hit and a long-lasting one at that. It hit #1 on the Billboard 200 in October 1989, a month after its release. It only stayed at #1 for four weeks but kept selling well through 1990 that Billboard named it the best-selling album of that year over hit albums from the likes of Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, Aerosmith, and MC Hammer. It also spawned a shit ton of hits over a long period including four #1s in the span from 1989 to 1991. Overall, Rhythm Nation 1814 landed seven Top 5 hits, a record still for any artist though Jackson could’ve gotten an eighth one if A&M hadn’t followed the new music industry playbook of the ‘90s in withholding “State of the World” from a commercial release making it ineligible to chart on the Hot 100 instead peaking at #5 on the Radio Songs Chart.

When people talk about Rhythm Nation 1814, it’s usually regarding its reputation as an album of socially conscious imagery and lyricism. While it certainly plays a big part in the album, it’s also misleading. The more socially conscious songs are largely confined to the beginning of the album complete with short interludes that convey the album’s messages. There’s the title track and perhaps Janet Jackson’s biggest-known song which functions as a call to action for a new multi-cultural nation of equality. There’s the self-explanatory “State of the World” where Jackson bemoans the issues of homelessness and hunger while also referring to the Stockton shooting in the line “Now our kids can’t go out and play.” “The Knowledge” is about using knowledge and education to fight against injustice. And then there’s the aforementioned “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” which aside from the ending is a tender ballad about children growing up in a tumultuous world where grown-ups break the rules.

Outside of those tracks, the rest of Rhythm Nation 1814 doesn’t really concern itself so much with social messaging. The remaining songs are uptempo jams or love ballads. I don’t mind this. Songs such as “Rhythm Nation,” “Escapade,” and “Black Cat” are undeniable bangers. And in the case of “Black Cat,” it’s a kickass take on the then-dominant glam metal rock sounds with Jackson, Jam, and Lewis making a song that rocks even harder than many of the glam metal songs dominating at the time. Even if the album isn’t all that big on social commentary, Rhythm Nation 1814 still works today as a really well-made album full of great songs from an artist and producing team operating at their peak doing what they do best in being ahead of the curve in pop music.

The biggest knock on Janet Jackson is her lack of a big singing voice compared to her pop chart contemporaries of the era like Whitney Houston and the newly ascendant Mariah Carey. Sure, you’re not going to get Janet Jackson doing impressive melisma runs and whistle notes but what she proves is that it’s not about how big your voice is but about how you use your voice that makes the songs work. She brings coolness and confidence that works really well with a lot of the songs. Jackson goes from exuberance on “Escapade” to anger on “Rhythm Nation” to rocking intensity on “Black Cat” all making it work. I’m not too big on the ballads for reasons that go beyond the singing but Jackson doesn’t try to sound like the big-voiced balladeers of the era with her small voice giving them a sense of intimacy that works better than her attempting Whitney or Mariah style vocal runs.

With Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson was undeniably at her peak. She went on her first world tour and the album would eventually be certified six times platinum. When the album promotion was done, Jackson jumped from A&M Records to Virgin Records for a then-record high recording deal. Her first album on Virgin, 1993’s janet., was another smash tying with Rhythm Nation 1814 for her best-selling album also going six times platinum. Jackson wouldn’t reach those heights again but for the next decade continued to be a major force releasing two more multi-platinum albums and more hit singles. All that ended in February 2004 when Justin Timberlake infamously ripped off Jackson’s outfit during their performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show exposing her breast to millions of people causing a massive moral outcry and backlash against Jackson that seems really ridiculous now.

Despite the backlash from the Halftime Show, Janet Jackson has remained active. She continues to release albums, still tours to big crowds, and recently coordinated a two-part documentary series on Lifetime about her life and career. In recent years, there’s been a major reevaluation and appreciation of Janet Jackson mostly in relation to the Halftime Show and in 2019 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seen by many as a long-overdue acknowledgment of her talent and impact on popular music.

In a 1990 Rolling Stone interview, Jackson acknowledged that Rhythm Nation 1814 wasn’t gonna automatically make the world a better place, “I’m not naive—I know an album or a song can’t change the world. I just want my music and my dance to catch the audience’s attention” hoping it would motivate people to “make some sort of difference.”” She’s right about that. After all, the issues Jackson sings about on the album are still very prevalent today. No protest music is gonna solve those problems. But Janet Jackson on Rhythm Nation 1814 undoubtedly succeeded in making music that catches people’s attention. that and more with an influence that is still felt today.

Next time: Technically, the best-selling album of 1991 is Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind in the first year of Billboard using SoundScan to track sales but since his music isn’t widely available I’m going to talk instead about Mariah Carey’s self-titled debut which isn’t far behind at #2 but was named the best-selling album of 1991 by Billboard in their year-end lists so it kinda counts here.

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