Reassessing Janet Jackson's 'Control' and legacy : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders On the 35th anniversary of Janet Jackson's first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, we look back at Control, her career-defining album that changed the trajectory of pop music in the late '80s and '90s. In the second episode of a three-part series exploring crossover in pop music, we look at Jackson's musical and cultural legacy over the years. We also reconsider how Jackson was vilified after her Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance, and why. You can follow us on Twitter at @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

Janet Jackson Once Had 'Control' of the Charts. We Don't Give Her Enough Credit

Janet Jackson Once Had 'Control' of the Charts. We Don't Give Her Enough Credit

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Thirty-five years ago, Janet Jackson released an album that changed the course of her career, and of pop music. Blake Cale for NPR hide caption

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Blake Cale for NPR

Thirty-five years ago, Janet Jackson released an album that changed the course of her career, and of pop music.

Blake Cale for NPR

Thirty-five years ago, Janet Jackson released an album that changed the course of her career, and of pop music. Control took over radio, reinvented the playbook for Black artists crossing over into pop and ushered in a whole new sound for R&B. For more than a decade after, Jackson released hit after hit and No. 1 album after No. 1 album, alongside her production and writing partners Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Jackson's influence is still evident throughout pop music: the way stars choreograph their videos, their vocal intonations, their visual presentation, the very ways in which they navigate celebrity. But today, she's rarely considered at the level of her musical peers from the '80s and '90s, such as Prince, Madonna and her brother Michael. And the moral uproar that followed her performance at the Super Bowl in 2004 showed all the ways popular culture can erase Black women and their accomplishments. Now, as society reconsiders the ways it has treated celebrities like Britney Spears, we reconsider Janet Jackson and her body of work — with help from Jam and Lewis themselves, as well as music journalist Danyel Smith.

Sam Sanders, host of It's Been a Minute


How Control came to be

By the time she began work on her third album, Jackson was starting to chart her own path: She had annulled her marriage to singer James DeBarge and gone to Minneapolis to record with music producers James "Jimmy Jam" Harris III and Terry Lewis. On Control, Jam and Lewis wanted to write songs that drew from Jackson's own experiences.

Janet Jackson with music producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam during the opening of Flyte Tyme Studios in 1989. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images hide caption

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Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Janet Jackson with music producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam during the opening of Flyte Tyme Studios in 1989.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Jimmy Jam: She had a beautiful voice, first of all. But what we thought was ... when she was young, she had all this attitude. She was like Miss Attitude. ... And so our thought was if we could work with her, we could bring a little bit of that attitude out.

Terry Lewis: There's a couple words that describe her if I had to break it down: fearless, relentless, beautiful. Like a beautiful texture, and very in control.

Jam: She was ready to go out on her own. And the other piece to the puzzle here was that she was really ready to sing. The first two albums that she did, she did between a lot of other things — and the idea of her singing wasn't really her idea, it was more her dad's idea. ... When we got around to Control she was in a space where she actually wanted to be an artist. When we showed her some of the Control lyrics she said, well, wait a minute, this is what we've been talking about.

Janet Jackson poses for a portrait session in August 1985 in Los Angeles. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Janet Jackson poses for a portrait session in August 1985 in Los Angeles.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lewis: A lot of people say that Janet is not a great singer, but Janet is a great singer. In order to be a great singer, you don't have to be the loudest singer. You just have to have control of what you like to do. And to me, style wins over volume.

Jam: Those little elements — the breath, the sighs, the laughs — those things she would always do, we would just leave them in there. A lot of times it was a mistake. ... For us, all the things that were outtakes were always the pieces that we always tried to make sure was in there because that was the personality of her.

How Control and Rhythm Nation made Jackson an icon

The cover of Janet Jackson's Control. hide caption

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The cover of Janet Jackson's Control.

Control went on to sell roughly 14 million copies and was certified platinum five times. It spent more than 90 weeks on the Billboard charts and earned multiple Grammy nominations, including a nomination for album of the year. Jackson's next album, Rhythm Nation, was also a major hit, and the tour for it sold out in minutes.

Jam: With Control, we said, we want our album to be that album that everybody's blasting out their house in [our] neighborhood. ... [But] we were going for the blackest, funkiest album we could make.

Those albums ended up changing the way that music sounded because it changed the way radio sounded. ... All the great pop music came out of Sweden at a certain point. You know, you had Max Martin, you had everyone from Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears to all of those records [made with Swedish songwriters and producers]. And they were all, to me, based on what Control and what Rhythm Nation was. And if you talked to them, they will tell you. I remember Max Martin — we went in the Songwriters Hall of Fame the same year he did — and he said, "Hey man, when we were making those records, we were basically trying to do what you guys were doing."

How Super Bowl XXXVIII halted Jackson's career

After the so-called "wardrobe malfunction" during Jackson's performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the Federal Communications Commission fined CBS $550,000 for indecency. Clips were played over and over again in the media, and TiVo announced that it had been the most replayed moment in the service's history.

Janet Jackson performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images hide caption

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Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Janet Jackson performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Danyel Smith (music journalist and host of the podcast Black Girl Songbook): It was as if that piece of fabric that was ripped from her clothing was replaced with some big scarlet letter. ... It was just as if the world said, we're done with you now, because of this.

It's a similar thing to me of how we have to keep seeing Black people getting beat up by the cops over and over again. Or seeing the child get shot by law enforcement. ... It does two things — it, one, grinds it into your brain, but it can also be numbing, right? But in either case, it's also like, why? Why is this violent moment being shown to us over and over and over again?

Of course, the main question is why did it do so much damage to Janet's reputation, without doing similar damage to Justin's? ... I really think that it's criminal that we forget the impact that Janet Jackson has had on music. It's bloody and it's criminal.

[Think about] the days when people like Leontyne Price were having to fight, you know, to be on stage at some of the best opera houses around the world. When Marian Anderson can't sleep in hotels in the cities where she's playing to packed houses of Black and non-Black audiences. When you think about how hard Motown had to fight to get Black music played on pop stations, which again is the same battle that artists like Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, the fights they still had to fight to get played on pop radio. ... And then we have to be in a situation where Janet is victimized on Super Bowl Sunday. ... The takeaway is, wow, it hasn't changed that much.

Jackson's legacy

Janet Jackson accepts the music dance visual award at the BET Awards in 2015. Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP hide caption

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Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Janet Jackson accepts the music dance visual award at the BET Awards in 2015.

Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Smith: I've interviewed Janet any number of times, and in one of our conversations, she just acknowledged the fact that she kind of created herself. Like, I think that Beyoncé would be the first person to say that without the influence of — yes, definitely Tina Turner, and I always want to add Donna Summer when I think about Beyoncé — but if there was not a Janet Jackson, especially with regard to singing and dancing at the same time ... you know, Beyoncé pulls from all of that.

There are just many of us that say if you want to understand, especially Black women, and really just women — to understand what it felt like to be in love, to come into your own as a 20-year-old, as a 25-year-old — Janet takes us on all the beats. Janet has sung our life to us.

This episode was adapted for the web by Anjuli Sastry. It was produced and edited for broadcast by Jinae West and Jordana Hochman. We had additional help from Liam McBain and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Special thanks Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Jacob Ganz from NPR Music. Thanks also to Kimberly Sullivan, Sarah Knight, and Neil Tevault. You can follow us on Twitter at @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.