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The Number Ones: Janet Jackson's When I Think of You

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Joe Jackson was pissed off. Joe, the patriarch of the Jackson family, paced in his Los Angeles office, barking at the reporter from SPIN. Janet, the youngest of Joe’s 10 kids, was finally starting to make some money, and Joe wasn’t part of it. Joe had overseen Janet’s career for pretty much Janet’s entire life. He’d gotten her booked at Vegas casinos, cast in sitcoms, signed to A&M. “I was putting her on stages back when she was a little girl,” Joe told SPIN‘s J.C. Stevenson. “The wheels had already been set in motion for Janet Jackson. Anyone who jumps on now will be getting a free ride. And I don’t intend for that to happen.”

Joe didn’t have a choice in the matter. A 19-year-old Janet had fired her father. She’d gone instead to John McClain, the A&M records executive who’d been a friend of her family since she was a toddler. (Janet told SPIN that McClain used to change her diapers.) But Joe wasn’t done fighting yet. Joe didn’t like Janet’s new album Control. He didn’t think it was the right direction for her. “If Janet listens to me and works a little harder, she’ll be as big as Michael,” Joe told SPIN. Janet didn’t listen to him. Within a few years, she was even bigger than Michael.

The process had already started. By the time Joe was yelling at that SPIN reporter, Janet had already scored her first #1 hit.


The fact that Janet Jackson was able to carve out any kind of autonomy is a minor miracle. Janet had been surrounded by wealth and fame for her entire life. Before she was born, Janet’s father had relentlessly, abusively rehearsed five of her older brothers, turning them into a disciplined entertainment machine. Janet was born in Gary, Indiana during her family’s final years in that town. (The #1 single in America on the day of Janet’s birth was the Mamas & The Papa’s “Monday, Monday.”) She was three years old when her older brothers made it to #1 with “I Want You Back.”

Janet wasn’t part of the Jackson 5, but her father didn’t wait long to draft her into the family business. Janet was seven when she first performed in Las Vegas, and she was 10 when she first performed on her family’s CBS variety show. At 11, she joined the cast of Good Times, the hit Norman Lear sitcom, on the first episode of the show’s fifth season. Janet played Penny, an abused girl adopted into the show’s family.

Jackson starred on Good Times for the show’s last two seasons. After that, she moved on to Diff’rent Strokes, taking the recurring role of Willis’ girlfriend Charlene. In 1984, Jackson starred as one of the kids in the performing-arts school on Fame, a one-season role that she hated doing. By then she’d already started recording. At 16, Janet’s father got her a deal at A&M. She later said that she didn’t even want to make her self-titled 1982 debut album, that she just did it for her family. Jackson’s father oversaw the album’s production, and it sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies — a great number for anyone with a last name other than Jackson. A couple of her singles made the lower reaches of the Hot 100. (“Come Give Your Love To Me,” Jackson’s biggest pre-Control hit, peaked at #58.)

By the time Janet made her sophomore album, 1984’s Dream Street, Janet’s older brother Michael was the biggest star in the world, and he’d separated himself from Joe Jackson’s clutches. Janet, on the other hand, was still very much under her father’s thumb. For about half of Dream Street, Joe paired Janet up with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. On the single “Two To The Power Of Love,” Joe also teamed Janet with Cliff Richard, the British easy-listening star who’d been around since long before Janet had been born. Dream Street sold about the same as Jackson’s debut, but all of its singles missed the Hot 100.

Around the same time that Dream Street came out, an 18-year-old Janet secretly married the 21-year-old James DeBarge, a member of the group DeBarge. (DeBarge’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Rhythm Of The Night,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Jackson’s parents were furious about the marriage, and she had it annulled a year later. Soon afterward, Jackson fired her father and grabbed control of her music. She’d never much liked the frothy soft-pop sound of her first two albums, and she had a different idea for where she wanted to go with her next one. She wanted to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

James Harris III and Terry Lewis grew up in Minneapolis, and they’d known each other since high school. As teenagers in the early ’70s, they played together a local funk band called Flyte Time. Harris, who called himself Jimmy Jam, played keyboards, and Lewis played bass. Cynthia Johnson, Flyte Time’s original singer, went on to do lead vocals on Lipps, Inc’s 1980 chart-topper “Funkytown.” A year later, Prince took Flyte Time under his wing and changed the group’s name to the Time. Prince installed a flashy, flamboyant, larger-than-life figure named Morris Day as the group’s new singer, and the Time became one of the world’s most purely entertaining funk bands. (The Time’s highest-charting single is 1989’s “Jerk Out,” which Prince and Morris Day co-wrote with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It peaked at #9, and it’s a 9.)

Prince wrote and produced the Time’s songs, and he played all the instruments on the Time’s records. Jam and Lewis watched and learned. In the early ’80s, Jam and Lewis started writing and producing their own tracks for other artists: The SOS Band, Cherrelle, former Flyte Tyme member Alexander O’Neal. They carved out their own style, too — a hard, percussive, club-ready synth-funk R&B. Tracks like the 1985 Cherrelle/O’Neal duet “Saturday Love,” which peaked at #26, owed something to Prince’s sparsest, hardest tracks, but they were even more spare and kinetic. Prince might not have been too happy about the duo’s success. One night, when the Time were supposed to open for Prince, Jam and Lewis were late. They’d been recording with the SOS band in Atlanta, and a blizzard had stranded them. Prince fired them both.

Janet Jackson loved the Time. In that aforementioned SPIN cover story, Jackson told J.C. Stevenson about seeing the Time in Chicago when she was 16: “They were great, and sooooo nasty. I was sitting out in the audience next to my mom, and I got so embarrassed that I had to move a few seats away from her.” By the time Jackson met with Jam and Lewis, they’d already started making hits. (Jam and Lewis wrote and produced “Tender Love,” a Force MDs ballad from the soundtrack of 1985’s Krush Groove. “Tender Love” peaked at #10, and it’s a 6.) Jam and Lewis had stared writing songs for Sharon Bryant, the former singer of the R&B group Atlantic Starr, but Bryant didn’t think their songs were smooth enough. So Jam and Lewis hung onto all those songs, and those songs became the bedrock of Jackson’s Control album. (Bryant’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “Let Go,” peaked at #34. Atlantic Starr will eventually appear in this column.)

I absolutely love that Janet Jackson, the younger sister of the world’s biggest pop star, consciously moved away from any sounds that might link her with her family — and, by extension, her brother. Michael had also detached himself from Joe’s control by this point, but it’s still striking that Janet decided to make her album in Minneapolis, with two producers who’d previously been associated with Prince, Michael’s biggest competitor. If you loved pop music in the ’80s, you pretty much had to decide if you were a Michael Jackson person or a Prince person. Janet Jackson, Michael’s baby sister, took a good look at the landscape and decided that she was a Prince person. That rules. Joe Jackson was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Janet making something that might sound anything like Prince, and he didn’t like the idea of her recording in Minneapolis instead of Los Angeles. But Janet had control, and she used it.

Jam and Lewis worked with Janet to adapt the songs they’d already written for Sharon Bryant, rewriting and adjusting them. (Jackson has a co-writing credit on every song from Control.) Together, they made a sleek, sharp, occasionally abrasive album. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Control, the record that turned pop and R&B into something crisp and hard. Jackson was never a powerhouse singer, but she was a presence. On Control, she’s fierce and defiant, and she floats over Jam and Lewis’ 808 thuds and Fairlight clangs with muscular grace. All the cybernetic, futuristic R&B of the past 35 years owes something to Control.

On top of that Control was huge. The album only has nine songs, and five of those songs made the top five on the Hot 100. (A sixth single, “The Pleasure Principle,” peaked at #14.) Control is one of those albums that plays like a ready-made greatest-hits collection. The album went quintuple platinum, and Billboard named it the #6 album of the year. The first of the hit singles from Control was the brash, tough “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 9.) Jackson followed that one up with the brasher, tougher “Nasty,” and that one did even better, peaking at #3. (It’s an 8.) By this point, it was pretty much inevitable that a Janet Jackson single would top the Hot 100, and the third single from Control was the one that took her there.

“When I Think Of You,” the first of many #1 hits for Janet Jackson, doesn’t have the intensity of those first two singles. “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty” are both confrontational songs, songs that exist to make a point. “When I Think Of You” has a lighter touch. It’s not a declaration of independence, and it doesn’t want to do anything other than make you dance. “When I Think Of You” is a breezy, joyous love song. Its lyrics are simple: Whenever Jackson’s world gets crazy, she thinks about you, and that makes her happy. Melodically, the song is brighter and more liquid than Jackson’s previous two singles, but it still bangs.

In a lot of ways, “When I Think Of You” isn’t too far removed from disco. Jam and Lewis built the track on a fast, bubbly roller-rink beat. The song is full of different drum sounds, all of them synthetic: An insistent metronomic rattle, a few skittering congas, a tumbling syncopated boom. The darting, staccato bassline kind of sounds like drums, too. The orchestra-hit Fairlight noises — the same sound effect that Trevor Horn hammered so hard on Yes’ “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” — definitely sounds like drums. But there are breezy, hooky keyboard melodies in there, too, sweetening the thump.

“When I Think Of You” also has 20-year-old Janet Jackson projecting pure ebullience — the same feeling that her older brother once communicated on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” When the song hits its post-chorus vamp — “I’m! So in love! Ooh! So in love!” — Jackson sounds like she’s floating on pure ecstasy. Jackson doesn’t have the same kind of vocal control as her brother or Prince. She’s not an R&B singer in any kind of classic sense, and there’s no church in her voice. (Whitney Houston got “How Will I Know” only after Janet Jackson turned it down. “How Will I Know” might’ve been written specifically for Jackson, but there’s no way she could’ve handled it as well as Houston did.) But while “When I Think Of You” doesn’t really show Jackson’s vocal chops, which were still forming, it does show her sense of rhythmic timing. It shows that she knows how to disappear into a beat, to become one with it.

“When I Think Of You” isn’t as ambitious or distinctive as a lot of other Janet Jackson songs, but it moves, and that’s what it needs to do. I hear “When I Think Of You” as a connective track in the club-music continuum. The song owes something to disco and to the sort of post-disco club-pop that Madonna was making on her first album. It also foreshadows the propulsive, clattering forms of dance music that were only just starting to take shape around that time: Latin freestyle, new jack swing, house. “When I Think Of You” might’ve helped clear a path for those styles to hit the mainstream in the months and years ahead.

The videos from Control, all of which are built on dance and movement, played a huge part in making Jackson a star. The “When I Think Of You" clip, in particular, is a straight-up Hollywood-backlot musical number, a virtuosic blur of happy motion. Jackson and a hoard of extras prance with precision through a sunny simulacrum of a city street. There’s only one person who isn’t having fun: A grumpy old man who constantly complains and threatens to call the cops and have all the revelers thrown in jail. At the end of the video, the cops do show up, but they shove the complainer against the squad-car hood and then join the party. It’s a utopian vision, a dancing-in-the-streets fantasy with no connection to reality.

Director Julien Temple, who’d already made the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock And Roll Swindle and Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” video, shoots the “When I Think Of You” video to look like one continuous camera shot. Temple pulled something similar in Absolute Beginners, his musical that also came out in 1986. I haven’t seen Absolute Beginners, but Temple’s “When I Think Of You” video is breathtaking. A lot of that comes down to the joyously athletic dancing. Paula Abdul, the former Lakers cheerleader, choreographed the video, as well as the rest of Jackson’s Control clips. Soon afterward, Abdul would become hugely famous by making music that sounded a whole lot like what Jackson did on Control.

That Control model worked out well for everyone involved. We’ll see plenty of Janet Jackson in this column in the days ahead. We’ll also see plenty of Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Paula Abdul.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the excellently named Wally Jump. Jr & The Criminal Element sampling “When I Think Of You” on their 1987 single “Tighten Up (I Just Can’t Stop Dancing)”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Austrian dance group Bingo Boys sampled “When I Think Of You” on the breakdown of their extremely entertaining 1991 hip-house single “How To Dance,” a collaboration with the New York rapper Princessa. Here’s the “How To Dance” video:

(“How To Dance” is the Bingo Boys’ highest-charting single, and it peaked at #25.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: DC house duo Deep Dish put together a bunch of remixes of “When I Think Of You” for a 1995 reissue of the single. Here’s the funky, jazzy nine-minute jam “When I Think Of You (Deep Dish Chocolate City Mix)”:

The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” (stereogum.com)

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Janet Jackson is the true definition of the words "icon" and "legend," and the mere fact one incident in 2004 derailed DECADES of hard-work and acclaim is disgusting.
Control was a great career-changing record, but, Rhythm Nation 1814 was THE record for her.

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Love this song. When I Think Of You is really AMAZING! Control is still one of the best albums ever and one of my favorite albums, looovee it! JANET is and will always be A TRUE ICON and A TRUE LEGEND ♥️♥️

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amazing and timeless song from an amazing and timeless album!

Joe Jackson was pissed off. Joe, the patriarch of the Jackson family, paced in his Los Angeles office, barking at the reporter from SPIN. Janet, the youngest of Joe’s 10 kids, was finally starting to

Janet Jackson is the true definition of the words "icon" and "legend," and the mere fact one incident in 2004 derailed DECADES of hard-work and acclaim is disgusting. Control was a great career-chan

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