Janet Jackson kicked off her third studio album, Control, with a spoken word intro. "This is a story about control," she says, "and this time I'm gonna do it my way." Control— released 30 years ago today—is the album that made Janet Jackson a bonafide superstar, shining in her own spotlight apart from her brother, Michael.
Janet was 19 years old in 1986 when this album dropped, and it's clear that she was feeling rebellious. Control has nerve, power, and is designed to prove that Janet Jackson was the boss, and going to do exactly what she wanted. Janet needed Control, because for the first part of her career, she had absolutely none.
Since then, Janet has been one of the most highly-paid performers in popular music. She's sold over 160 million albums and influenced almost every modern pop queen. In honor of the 30th anniversary of Control, we dug through LexisNexis to find some of Janet Jackson's earliest press mentions, and a few of the earliest reviews of Control:
Janet Jackson's debut album, Janet Jackson, which came out in September 1982, was full-throttle bubblegum teen pop. So was her next album, Dream Street. But the critiques and analyses of those albums are few and far between in the surviving historical record. One of the first mentions of Janet is actually in an article about her brother, titled "Michael Jackson's Giddy Optimism"
All eight songs are catchy, and Janet Jackson has a high-pitched giddy voice not unlike her brother Michael's… [she] lets the title line go in a falsetto squeal with all the eagerness of a young romantic unburned by love. With this siren quality, Janet Jackson's debut should go much further than the ill-fated solo records by her sister Latoya.
But that last line? That's what would haunt the first four years of Janet Jackson's musical career: Constant and unrelenting comparisons to her siblings.
Most early reviews of Janet Jackson weren't about her albums at all. Just like her brothers, Janet was a child star. Before her second album's release in 1984, she was probably best known for a reoccuring role on Diff'rent Strokes. In a profile with co-star Todd Bridges for Ebony, the two talked about their fears as young black entertainers:
"The young stars also realize that roles for Blacks are severely limited, a situation that could strongly influence the paths of their acting careers as they grow older. "They only want [Blacks]to play hookers, pimps and dope ad-dicts,” Todd says. Still Janet is optimistic about the future. "They can't hold us back forever," she says.
For most of 1984, Janet Jackson was barely mentioned in notable publications about music. A reference to her name would come up on a list of young black artists, or—more often—in reference to her brother Michael. Not surprising. Janet's sophomore album Dream Street charted pretty highly, but was very safe, keeping her in a purely bubblegum pop realm.
In a Variety story published in March 1984, writer Cynthia Kirk noted that Michael Jackson swept 8 of the Grammy categories, and included that he also picked up four trophies at the "Black Gold Awards." As almost a footnote, she mentioned: "Sister Janet Jackson, meanwhile, was awarded the 'hottest newcomer' prize."
In Billboard that December, George Nelson wrote that Janet was "starting her career off impressively with several popular hits and a good second album." But that article started with the sentence: "This was the year of Michael Jackson."
Control came out in February 1986, and music magazines didn't know what to make it. Billboard named the album a recommended pop pick in February 1986, but the only review of the album is actually about the marketing around Janet Jackson's songs—not about the music itself. It's not until March 1986 that a true review can be found—written by Kris Kirk in "Melody Maker":
First things first. This is one bastard of a dance record. The ninth and youngest of the Jackson siblings has been given a hard-as-nails production, chock-full of tough percussion, screeches and heavy breathing to give the no-longer-little one a soundscape and a half with which to battle. A potential nightmare for most singers, it brings out the best in a young woman who has leapt the chasm between cutesy, sweet-sounding muppet to one helluva tough lady with a voice to match.
Maybe because Janet was acting more grown-up, or maybe because Control has an almost industrial sound, reviewers latched onto the word "tough." I saw it in 1986 editions of Melody Maker, Billboard, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone.
There weren't many exposés or deep analyses of Janet's work for this third album. Instead, most of the reviews for Control were short, a brief paragraph among other short reviews. Like this one from the April edition of Musician Magazine:
Janet's declaration of independence goes well beyond the title track's talk of control, for this youngest Jackson is less interested in getting her own than getting down. 'Course, it doesn't hurt to have Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis grinding out the groves—the drum track alone is enough to give "Nasty" an R rating—but it's Jackson's unabashed femininity that's ultimately winning.
It wasn't until August of 1986 that mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone and Billboard admitted that this third album from the youngest Jackson sibling was an undeniable success. The article in Billboard is titled "Janet's Secret to Success: 'Control'" and it's written in an almost baffled tone, in awe that this young woman could have taken the reigns of her career and steered it to success. In the article, only label executives are quoted and nothing is said about the success of Janet's work besides her sales figures (high) and how remarkable it is that this album succeeded (very.).
But none of that really mattered. Like Janet says at the beginning of the album, she was the one in control.
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early critiques of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.