Check out my full article, written for the 25-year anniversary of Janet Jackson’s groundbreaking album, Rhythm Nation 1814, at The Atlantic. Below is an excerpt:
The most culturally significant female artist of the 1980s? Janet Jackson.
I realize that’s a big claim for a decade that included such talents as Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna. It may seem even more dubious given the fact that Janet really only emerged as a major figure in 1986 with the release of Control—and only released two substantial albums over the course of the decade. Janet didn’t have the vocal prowess of Whitney Houston, or the poetic subtlety of Kate Bush; she didn’t have Annie Lennox’s penchant for the avant-garde or Madonna’s predilection for shock.
But none of these artists achieved the cross-racial impact (particularly on youth culture) of Janet. And none of them had an album like Rhythm Nation 1814.
In his Rolling Stone cover story, journalist David Ritz compared Rhythm Nation 1814, released 25 years ago today, to Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 album What’s Going On—a pairing that might seem strange, if not sacrilege. But think about it, and the comparison makes a lot of sense. Both albums are hard-won attempts by black musicians to be taken seriously as songwriters and artists—to communicate something meaningful in the face of great pressure to conform to corporate formulas. Both are concept albums with socially conscious themes addressing poverty, injustice, drug abuse, racism and war. Both blended the sounds, struggles, and voices of the street with cutting-edge studio production. Both fused the personal and the political. And both connected in profound ways with their respective cultural zeitgeists.
Yet while What’s Going On has rightfully been recognized as one of the great albums of the 20th century, Rhythm Nation’s significance has been largely forgotten. At the time, though, it was undeniable: For three solid years (1989-1991), the album ruled the pop universe, the last major multimedia blockbuster of the 1980s. During that time, all seven of its commercial singles soared into the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 (including five songs that reached No. 1), surpassing a seemingly impossible record set by brother Michael’s Thriller (the first album to generate seven Top 10 hits). Janet’s record has yet to be broken.
During its reign, Rhythm Nation shifted more than seven million copies in the U.S., sitting atop the charts for six weeks in 1989 before becoming the bestselling album of 1990. It was the first album in history to produce No. 1 hits in three separate years (1989, 1990, 1991). Meanwhile, its innovative music videos—including the iconic militant imagery and intricate choreography of the title track—were ubiquitous on MTV.
But its impact was far more than commercial. Rhythm Nation was a transformative work that arrived at a transformative moment. Released in 1989—the year of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, protests at Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall—its sounds, its visuals, its messaging spoke to a generation in transition, at once empowered and restless. The Reagan Era was over. The cultural anxiety about what was next, however, was palpable.