Janet Jackson in 1989
Photo: Courtesy of artist
Janet Jackson's Iconic 'Rhythm Nation 1814' Turns 30 Today & We Still Have Work To Do
30 years ago today, a 23-year old Janet Jackson released her groundbreaking, GRAMMY-nominated fourth studio album, Rhythm Nation 1814. The chart-topping 20-track epic not only shook up the music world with its futuristic, raw, industrial soundscape, it also paved the way for socially conscious pop at a poignant time. It followed 1986's GRAMMY-nominated breakout hit album Control, which was the first time Jackson was given creative control over her music.
As with its predecessor, Jackson worked with GRAMMY-winning musical powerhouses Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, diving deeper into the collaborative co-writing and co-production process they had established. On Rhythm Nation her professional and personal empowerment shines through as she reflects on the madness of the times, and it still hits today. Unfortunately, her message for a safer, more equal world is still is a relevant today as it was then. It's definitely time to revisit the powerful album and take its words and rhythms to heart.
The year was 1989, and the first mass-shooting since the dawn of CNN (in 1980) had, understandably, shaken up the American public, Jackson included. The horrific, racially charged attack took place at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., leaving five of students dead and 30 other people injured.
On Rhythm Nation 1814's heart-breaking 11th track, "Livin' In A World (They Didn't Make)," Janet echoes the tragedy in the chorus: "Livin' in a world that's filled with hate. / Livin' in a world where grown-ups break the rules / (And they're just) Livin' in a world they didn't make / Payin' for a lot of adult mistakes. / How much of this madness can they take, our children?"
The song ends with gunshots and children's screams, as a clip of a reporter announcing the news of the shooting pulses in and out of the track, fading into the background, almost like an additional, jarring interlude. This specific tragedy may have faded from our social memory, but, even more tragically, sounds eerily similar to breaking news in 2019, and to the countless shootings this nation has endured the past 30 years.
"The fact that the lyrics remain relevant is a bit of a disappointment actually. It means we haven't moved too far away from the prejudice, ignorance, hate and racial bias that we spoke about 30 years ago," Jam recently told Billboard. Yet just because it's downright sad that we're still here doesn't mean we don't have the ability to truly move forward and grow as a nation, for everyone.
"I still believe the power of music is the healing force for all things. It transcends language, race, age, and unites all the commonalities that we have. It's necessary like the air we breathe and we're going to continue to use our gifts to try to change lives in a positive way," he added.
Jam also spoke to her far-reaching influence on music, beyond her unmistakable pop footprint, over the years:
"Janet being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was well-deserved. So many of the trends in music today and the idea of female empowerment on all musical levels owe so much to her. Her innovations in staging, from her headset microphone to the elaborate arena size theatrical sets, and groundbreaking music videos incorporating innovative dance steps have been, and are still being, emulated by all artists across the board, not just rock n' roll. The Rhythm Nation album was designed to use music to inspire and inform people."
It's safe to say that the album did, and still does, make waves. The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, seven out of eight of its singles hit the Top 10 and the album and singles earned seven GRAMMY nods across two shows. At the 32nd GRAMMY Awards, in addition to the trio all earning Producer Of The Year (Non-Classical) nominations, the 30-minute album visual won Best Music Video, Long Form.
"I feel that most socially conscious artists—like Tracy Chapman, U2—I love their music, but I feel their audience is already socially conscious," Jackson told Rolling Stone in 1990. "I feel that I could reach a different audience, let them know what’s going on and that you have to be a little bit wiser than you are and watch yourself."
Maybe we just need to play it a little louder.