Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 was released on this day in 1989. For some of you reading this, that was well before your time. For others, it seems like only yesterday. Regardless of your age, you know the hit songs that flesh out its track listing — "Miss You Much," "Rhythm Nation," "Escapade," "Alright," "Come Back to Me," "Black Cat," and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," all of which classify as timeless.
But Rhythm Nation's accomplishments — four No. 1s, two No. 2s, and the record for the most top 5 hits from a single album — are not why I have kept it in regular rotation for 27 years (minus that painfully long stretch between Christmases after my cassette tape snapped). Instead, what appealed to me then just as much as now is the cohesion felt throughout Rhythm Nation and how that sense of unity translated into the social messages it preached.
Obviously the latter occurs on the title track, whose lyrics call for the youth of America to "break the color lines." Supported by a black-and-white music video featuring a troop of similarly dressed dancers — distinguishable only and barely by their faces, skin tones, and heights — the clip's rainbow coalition moved in sync with a common goal of community, coming together to groove.
But that message of racial unity would be complemented by the too-often-heard negative news cycle, which rears its head on album-follower "State of the World," strongly declaring some of the problems we still face today and pleading for solutions to solve them. It would be punctuated by a call to end "isms" on "The Knowledge," joined by equally important demands for education and empowerment for struggling communities. It would rock hard, epitomizing the adventure and speculative danger of drug use on "Black Cat." It would culminate in tear-inducing cries to "save the babies" from the cruel, cruel world (and gunshots) in "Livin' In a World They Didn't Make."
But despite being released in the era of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police," Rhythm Nation was not a straight protest record packed solely with "make you think" music. In the vein of a certain website, it was an easier entry for many into discussion of serious topics thanks to missives of escapism ("Escapade"), friendship ("Alright" and "Lonely"), and love ("Love Will Never Do (Without You)," "Miss You Much," and "Someday is Tonight") interspersed between the anthems for societal change. Connected by the seconds-long, tempo-appropriate interludes that fell between tracks, Rhythm Nation can be heard as a transitioning story, one with ups, downs, subplots, and cliffhangers, but all returning to a main point that's so rarely compounded in today's singles-driven music market.
Rhythm Nation comes from an era where albums mattered (though, as the late Prince once said, they still do). One could take the listener through a mix of emotions and messages, and Rhythm Nation did that and also carried over to the dance floor — where that togetherness inspired the Running Man and other moves from a diverse mix of individuals celebrating the spirit of uplift.
For me, the music from Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 resonates in a way the rest of her catalogue — which I also love — just doesn't. Because of their identifiable sonics (I'm a devout lover of the New Jack Swing sound), the deeper meanings within the lyrics (though the female-empowerment anthems of Control are quite thematic, quotable, and competitive in their own right), and the come-togetherness that doesn't rely on color-blind or "forget about the problems of the world" theories, the songs that make up Rhythm Nation served as an introduction to the grown-up issues I recognize today. It wasn't the first album to address these themes, nor the last, but the reality was sugar-coated in a way my tween-age mind could comprehend before I aged into deeper dives into such subject matter. Able to transcend time yet firmly of the moment, this album made me a proud, lifelong, card-carrying member of the Rhythm Nation and even today is my soundtrack when championing social justice.
Cover image via A&M Records