“We are a nation with no geographic boundaries bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals with a common vision pushing toward a world rid of color-lines.”
Thus begins Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” arguably the magnum opus of ‘80s pop and the pioneer of social justice in the Top 40. Unfortunately for Miss Jackson and 98 percent of my generation, she is best remembered for her infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at Super Bowl XXXVIII, which, if you can believe it, was more than 10 years ago.
What many people have forgotten over the years is the tremendous success Janet Jackson had with “Control,” the album preceding “Rhythm Nation” in 1986. “Control” was considered by label executives to be a safe, surefire success. “Rhythm Nation” was a departure from that, a conscious act of rebellion on Janet’s part directed against her pop label. She wanted to make an album that would challenge the status quo, and indeed it did.
The album addresses a number of social issues, including bigotry, poverty and substance abuse. More than one song was written as a response to crises covered by the media, such as “State of the World,” written about the Stockton playground murders. Perhaps an extension from the war on drugs that occurred throughout the 1980s, a major theme on “Rhythm Nation” is living a sober life free from drugs and alcohol, which was then, and continues to be, the antithesis of the “rock star lifestyle.”
“Rhythm Nation” also served as the trailblazer for a sub genre of music that has become known as “pop anthems.” It’s all but expected now for singers to have a platform or at least a song or two about social consciousness.
It’s been trendy for the last five years or so to advocate “being yourself,” with singers like Katy Perry, P!nk, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and several others promoting this mantra through their music. Many contemporary artists apply this message specifically to the gay rights movement, but Janet was one of the first to put her money where her mouth is and use “Rhythm Nation” to protest social injustices surrounding not just sexual orientation but also race, gender and social class.
Even the aesthetic from the music video for “Rhythm Nation” can be seen mirrored in contemporary artists’ work. The black and white cinematography, while not inherently groundbreaking, has been cited as inspiration for renowned photographer Steven Klein. The military inspired fashion and choreography are present in performances by Madonna in her Blonde Ambition tour, Ke$ha in her Warrior tour and Lady Gaga in her Born This Way Ball tour. Janet Jackson was obviously not the first person to dance in a military uniform — I can name three instances off the top of my head from 1950-60 when performers did this — but she brought the trend back from the dead and opened the door for dozens of pop artists to draw inspiration from the same source.
Maybe you don’t listen to Janet Jackson every day — and that’s okay, I guess. You may have never even heard of “Rhythm Nation,” which is forgivable but also something I’m glad I could correct. It’s not an album present in our catalogue of recent trends, but it has directly influenced so many of the artists who are contemporary or trendy that if you even scratch the surface of one of the videos playing on MTV, you’ll find Janet’s impact underneath. There’s no denying the visible effect “Rhythm Nation” has had on pop music and, as a result, us.