top of page

Track By Track: Janet Jackson's Control

Janet Jackson's breakthrough album Control turns 35 this year. While I heard songs from this album in various projects over the years, ranging from Disney specials to "Weird" Al Yankovic polka medleys, I wouldn't hear the whole album until I purchased it in the mid-00s. Every single track, from the dance songs to the ballads, was dynamite material, and to honor the album's 35th anniversary, I would now like to go track-by-track to share the impact the album had on me.

We start off with the title track.

This was the song that announced that Janet would no longer be under her abusive father Joe's thumb, or anybody's thumb for that matter. She was taking charge and living life on her terms. Control is the definition of dancing to the beat of your own drummer. We've all had to deal with situations where our possibilities were being held down or held back by people and institutions with authority. It's not a pleasant experience, but there will come a time when you do gain control, and you can finally be the captain of your own life.

Speaking for myself, when I heard the song Control in the second half of the 00s, I thought I heard a reflection of what I had, but the truth is that I was under other people's control during that time. I lived with a mother who didn't understand autism spectrum disorders, and I suffered a lot of emotional and mental abuse from her as a lack of her understanding. I was seeing a psychologist who didn't understand autism spectrum disorders, either, and would occasionally engage in bullying tactics as a result of not understanding those disorders. I was living a very limited life.

I wouldn't know true control until 2011, half-a-year after my mom passed away and a little over two years after my psychologist moved away suddenly, pawning me off on a male psychologist whose words and actions undid whatever progress I'd made with her. I was out of control in the first part of 2011, and I was told I needed help. I started seeing my current psychologist, who has a better understanding of autism spectrum disorders, and she helped guide me to a better day. I also started seeing a psychiatrist who had a poor bedside manner, but a wiseness about medicine that put me on the right mix of medication to deal with my issues. I finally got the control I sought when I turned 30, and my life has been better for it.

Jumping back to Janet Jackson, we now come to Nasty, the second track on Control. Nasty is a scorching putdown of how some men can be jerks.

I first heard Nasty accompanying a montage of rude Disney characters in the 1988 special Disney's Totally Minnie, but as I was five years old at the time, the words "nasty boys" were the only ones I was able to make out. I would revisit the song as an adult, and I found it to be a great dance song, as well as another song affirming the concept of Control. Janet was doing things her way, on her terms, and that included telling rude men off.

Truthfully, though, I was something of a nasty boy myself in my 20s. I wasn't thinking before I spoke, so I would blurt out all sorts of things, at work and at home, that would make people uncomfortable. I didn't just say sexual things that unnerved women. I also talked about sexual practices that unnerved men as well. I can recall mentioning one particular fetish to some of my male coworkers in the mid-00s, and they all left the room in unison when I brought it up.

It took me a long time to get the idea that there were some things you could talk about in mixed company, and some things you could only discuss once you and others had developed a level of comfort with each other. That's another way in which I learned to take control. I learned to be more polite around others. Sometimes, though, I still speak without thinking, although it's no longer about sexual matters, but more about responding to criticisms of how I do my job. It's still a learning process.

Moving to the next track on Control, we come to another classic song about telling someone off. It's What Have You Done For Me Lately?, a song about how relationships can go south fast when one person isn't putting enough effort into it.

While the song is ostensibly about romantic relationships, I feel the song can be about relationships of any kind, including those with family and friends. I know my mom certainly came to feel the sentiments of this song when it came to me. As I wasn't able to properly explain at the time how my autism spectrum disorder impacted my life, my mom thought I was an ingrate who only cared about myself and not her or anybody else.

I can still recall getting what TV Tropes would call a Reason You Suck Speech from my mom a few months before her passing. She outlined all the faults she had with me, and didn't have anything positive to say. She didn't even do a compliment sandwich, where you start out with something positive, then list the negative, then end with another positive thing. She just went all in about what a horrible person she thought I was, and nothing I could say could change her mind. It still haunts me to this day.

On a lighter note, if you want to hear some stories from the music video for What Have You Done For Me Lately?, check out an interview I did for Pop Geeks in 2019 with Larry Hankin, the veteran actor and writer who played a diner owner in the video:

The fourth song on Control is You Can Be Mine, another song about what it takes to get someone to love you.

We all have different ideas of what we want from our relationships with others. Some people, though, get the wrong idea of what draws people together. These people are the so-called "nice guys". I know what they're like as I used to be one myself before I honestly looked at what I was like. "Nice guys", and not the quotation marks, think that simply doing something kind for another person entitles them to that person's love and admiration. They only see what people are like on the surface without knowing the depths of their character. That's why they mistake men who seem rude and beligerent on the surface to actually be that when, in fact, they could be teddy bears of men who just have an unusual sense of wording.

While it sounds like Janet wants a nice guy in this song, I can tell she doesn't want a "nice guy". If you're going to be nice, you need to be genuine about it. If you're acting nice because you want to get people to like you, or even love you, then you're not really being nice. You're just a pretender, and you need to work on your character. Don't be "nice". Be nice.

Going back to Janet, we now come to the fifth track on the album, and my personal favorite, The Pleasure Principle.

The Pleasure Principle is a sterling musical example of something I mentioned earlier, the Reason You Suck Speech. In this song, Janet is telling off a lover who treats her poorly and doesn't show her love she's shown them. We've all been in relationships like this. From romances to friendships, we've all encountered the person who takes more than they give. Hell, there have even been times when we've been that person, as shameful as it is to consider.

The music video is a tremendous example of how dance can reflect a song's intent. In the video, Janet is dancing in an abandoned warehouse which, to me, is a visual symbol of how empty the relationship is. The dancing is what I interpret as Janet's way of lashing out at this lover, dancing on and knocking over a chair symbolizing her striking back against being stepped on, doing a backwards flip from a high height representing how things can go wrong and fall down rapidly. It's an amazing piece of work, and easily one of the best music videos of the 80s.

The sixth track on Control is When I Think Of You, a song about how thinking of her lover cheers Janet up.

Although I'm aromantic, and thus can't relate to the more romance-oriented parts of the song, I can relate to it as a whole because I've certainly been in my share of situations where people have talked to me in a disrespectful and rude tone, leading me down a painful path and making me think of past hurts. I then take a moment to think about the people who care for me, my family and friends, and I realize I'll always have them in my corner to make me feel better.

We all seek that kind of connection with people. Whether we get it or not is a roll of the dice, but when you get that connection, it does make you feel good. It doesn't necessarily have to be a romance. It could be a friendship or a connection with a family member. If there's someone in your life who cheers you up, you can always think of them when things go topsy-turvy, and that will lead to more positive days down the line.

Moving along, Control's 7th track is He Doesn't Know I'm Alive.

In this song, Janet's singing from the perspective of someone whose object of desire doesn't acknowledge her at all. This is something that all teenagers go through, the idea of unrequited love. Being afraid of what someone might say if you share your feelings about them is a natural feeling. You hope that, by telling the truth of your heart, you'll be able to make someone notice you.

Again, though, you need to think about why you're telling someone your deepest feelings. Do you really see someone to love when you look at the person, or are you looking to get your rocks off? It's easy to confuse the two when you're younger, but hopefully you'll have it figured out by the time you're in your 30s. Speaking for myself, there were some people I thought I could love, but then I realized I had to love myself first before I could love someone else. Of course, by the time I learned to love myself, I realized that I don't need a romantic partner. I can just be happy with myself. I just wish I could've learned that lesson sooner.

Returning to Control, we come to the album's 8th track, Let's Wait Awhile.

This song is about not wanting to rush into the sexual part of a relationship. There's really no other way to say it. Janet wants to get to know her lover better before having sex. The lyrics aren't explicit, as the explicit Janet wouldn't make herself known until the 90s, but they again illustrate an important idea, the idea that relationships take time. Lessons like that come with maturity.

Of course, we were all driven by hormones in our teens and 20s, and we were all getting messages from pop culture about the importance of having sex, but eventually you realize that sex isn't the be-all and end-all you think it might be. It's not a reflection on who you are as a person just because you happen to be a virgin. Everybody moves at their own pace, if you'll pardon the turn of phrase, so you need to make sure you're ready for it when it's right, and don't be afraid to say no if you're uncomfortable.

Wrapping up the album, we come to the 9th track, Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun).

Having shown various stages of relationships throughout the album, Funny How Time Flies brings things to a close with the concept of how Janet has to get going from a date, but eventually decides to let the loving go on a little while longer. It's a simple lyrical conceit, and half the song is in French, but as with so many songs on the album, it illustrates a universal concept.

The concept? All good things must come to an end, but that doesn't mean you have to stop the fun cold. You can find ways to make the time last a little longer before you really have to get going. That goes for all relationships. For example, think of a time when you were hanging out with your friends and sharing all sorts of jokes and stories. Eventually it got to be late, and you all had to go home, but you could've done something like driven everybody home and dropped them off one at a time, or gotten everybody home and picked up the conversation on the phone later. Time flies, but the fun doesn't have to stop.

In summation, Control is one of the best albums of the 80s. It details the ups and downs of love in a variety of ways, from energetic dance songs to lush ballads, and it's still making an impact 35 years after its' release. What are your favorite songs from Control, or your favorite memories of listening to the album? Feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you as always for reading

1 comment

1 Comment

Mar 04, 2021

Control is one of my favorite albums of the decade. It's one that I can listen to from start to finish. My favorite tracks have changed over the years from when I first bought it in 1986 until now. At this point, I will have to say that my favorites are "When I Think of You" and "Let's Wait Awhile". But I'm a big fan of this album and her Rhythm Nation album which closed out the decade and crossed over into the '90s. Thanks for sharing!

bottom of page