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How Janet Jackson's 'Control' shook the room for decades

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Janet Jackson opened her album "Control" not with a song, but with a statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

JANET JACKSON: This is a story about control, my control.

CORNISH: That set the course for nine songs where Janet defined herself and her sound. What she didn't realize at the time was that her sound would change pop music as we know it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

JACKSON: (Singing) Control, now I've got a lot. Control, to get what I want.

CORNISH: But after the wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Janet's reputation took a hit, and she's yet to receive the flowers she deserves. "Control" turns 35 this week, and our friend Sam Sanders wanted to set the record straight. He's been talking to some of the album's producers on his show, It's Been A Minute, and he joins us now.

Welcome back, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: All right, so what made you want to take a deep dive into Janet history?

SANDERS: I mean, she means so much to me. I grew up watching her videos, playing all of her albums. And when I think of the pop stars that we look back on and still think of fondly from that era - you know, Prince, Michael, Madonna - we never have Janet on that list. And we should.

CORNISH: I want to talk about her work with you. And you start in a way with her third album, which was called "Control," as we mentioned. What was different about this work?

SANDERS: Yeah, lots of folks think that "Control" is her first album because the first two before "Control" were such flops. They were kind of a bubblegum pop. And so when she makes "Control," she is sought out by these two producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and they see that her music career has kind of stalled. But they also recall young Janet as a kid on, like, "The Sonny And Cher Show" with this energy and flair and spunk. And they say this will work musically if we just give Janet the right songs. And so they work with her and give her a lot of songs that end up being part of this Minneapolis sound - funky, big percussion, kind of Prince-influenced. And it was just a match made in heaven.

CORNISH: I want to talk more about this match, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They're the people who put these big dance beats behind her. When she went to Minneapolis to work with them, what did she hear in their sound?

SANDERS: Yeah. So when she gets up there, they don't start making music right away. They just hang out. And these two producers have these really intense conversations with Janet about her life, and that became part of the process. So here's Jimmy Jam.

JIMMY JAM: Well, really, the first sessions were not recording sessions. They were more therapy sessions, I guess I would call them. We spent a lot of time just hanging out together. We were - you know, we would go to movies. We would hang out at clubs. We would ride around the lakes and just kind of hang out. And then we'd have discussions. And our discussions were not that we were trying to analyze her, but we were just trying to get to know her better and know what was important to her and what she wanted to talk about and what she wanted to sing about. And after about a week of just kind of hanging out, doing that, Janet said, well, when are we going to start working?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JIMMY JAM: And we said - and we said, oh, we're working. And we showed her the lyrics to "Control."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

JACKSON: (Singing) When I was 17, I did what people told me.

SANDERS: And they end up making a lot of songs that have that emotion and those big, in-your-face beats.

CORNISH: When I think back to this work - kind of hearing this music again is really (laughter) kind of intense. But her voice, it's never been big, but it always cuts through. Like, did her producers talk about her style and how her singing style had developed?

SANDERS: They did a lot. You know, these beats were so big, and her voice has always been so soft. And she'll admit, they'll admit she was not a belter. She doesn't really sing loud. But she conveys a lot of emotion with her voice. So they told me that there are these moments on the album where there'll be these little sighs or these heavy breaths. There's this one moment in "When I Think Of You," which becomes her first No. 1 single, where the music is built into this big crescendo. And in the midst of it, Janet just giggles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

JACKSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: And it was spontaneous, and it stays in the song. And so many small, off-the-cuff things like that became part of "Control."

JIMMY JAM: One of the things she shared with Michael was that rhythmic breathing, I call it...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

JACKSON: (Singing) Ooh, baby...

JIMMY JAM: ...Where her breath before she starts singing is on a beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

JACKSON: (Singing) All I have to do to calm it...

JIMMY JAM: And when she sings - even the way she ends her sentences when she sang, it wasn't like she would hit the last word. She'd hit the last word, but then there'd be like a little uh (ph).

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

JACKSON: (Singing) Baby, all I think about is our love.

JIMMY JAM: Those are the things that we loved because those became literally part of the funkiness of the songs.

SANDERS: And this is like another thing that I don't think we give her enough credit for. There was this precision and control with her vocals, even if it was soft, you know?

CORNISH: Why was this a jolt to kind of mainstream music and kind of the approach that, like, young women in particular were taking at a time up on stage?

SANDERS: These loud, big songs, they hit at this moment when pop was just full of ballots, like, slow songs on all kinds of radio stations - white, Black stations. And without even knowing it, these stations and listeners wanted stuff to make you dance. And "Control" gave them that. You know, this album ends up giving Janet five songs that go to the Top 5 on Billboard.

CORNISH: So fast-forward to 2004. And performing at the Super Bowl is obviously a very big deal. At the same time, I think one of the kind of assessments that I've heard in the aftermath of the so-called wardrobe malfunction was that somehow her career had already peaked and that there was just sort of - like, this was an excuse to move her off from center stage. Do you agree with that?

SANDERS: I mean, somewhat. I think the public is always ready to cancel women celebrities at a certain age, especially if their bread and butter is singing and dancing. But I also think it's important to think of what her cancellation after that halftime show says about how we view things like agency and intention as it's tied to race and gender. I mean, we know that Justin Timberlake, this white man, he was involved in this thing as well. But he got to spin it as a mistake, and he was almost innocent. And then Janet, she's cast as this devious figure who wanted to flash us all and be nefarious. She has made the harlot. And I think that points to the ways that we usually always assume the worst intent of Black women when something goes wrong. And in those same moments, we give so much more benefit of the doubt to white men like Justin Timberlake.

CORNISH: Janet Jackson is still making music. Her career is still going. What do you see in terms of her legacy, though? Where does it play out in other areas of pop music today?

SANDERS: I think of Britney Spears the most. There are large swaths of her career where she's just doing Janet Jackson drag. The choreography, the soft and flirty singing - it's so Janet. And still admit it. You know, when I think about the amazing videos that she made and longform videos with intricate choreography, I can look at "Rhythm Nation" and say, oh, well, that was kind of Beyonce's "Lemonade" before Beyonce made "Lemonade." You know, what I want is for all of us to understand that pop still kind of lives in Janet's world. And I think we should acknowledge that and perhaps dance again to those hits in the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANET JACKSON SONG, "THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE")

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sam Sanders, host of It's Been A Minute.

Thanks so much.

SANDERS: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE")

JACKSON: (Singing) You might think I'm crazy, but I'm serious. It's better you know now. What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss. You can take a bow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.