I’ve always been a big fan of the music of the Jackson family. As a child I loved such Jackson 5 songs as “ABC” and “I Want You Back”. During the 1980s, Michael Jackson dominated the 1980s with such classic 1980s albums as Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. The Jackson’s have created some of our most loved and influential music. Though their music has had great influence on our musical tastes, it has rarely touched upon the pressing problems that our society suffers from. This changed in a major way with Janet Jackson’s album Rhythm Nation 1814.
Janet Jackson had just had a breakout hit with her previous album Control and she was looking to tackle more serious subjects with her second album. Influenced by social conscience musicians like Tracy Chapman and U2, Jackson was at a stage in her life where she was maturing and becoming more concerned with the world around her. Janet Jackson wrote in her book True You:
It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s, when I began working on Rhythm Nation, that I began to view myself in completely grown-up terms. Control was a necessary first step in moving from childhood to adulthood. But it was with Rhythm Nation that I felt mature enough to address urgent social concerns. I also felt strong enough to ignore those business advisers who argued against making a record that dealt with issues like racism.
Looking back, I see that I made the decision as a confident adult, not a frightened child. I stuck to my beliefs, and not because I was stubborn or felt compelled to prove anything. I stuck to my beliefs because they were important to me. They were born out of my view of the world. I didn’t see myself as an expert on social issues, any more than I see myself as an expert on more personal issues. At the same time, I couldn’t ignore the blatant injustice in a country pledged to equality. I felt obliged to speak about troubling aspects of our society.
“We are in a race between education and catastrophe,” I sang in “Race”. I believed it then; and twenty-two years later, I still do.
I was very gratified when I saw my songs reach deep into the hearts of so many young people, living in every condition imaginable. I received a flood of responses to my music, much of it surprisingly personal.
The state of the nation that Janet Jackson was reacting to was a steady deterioration in the economic opportunities of people living in the inner cities and the rural towns of America. Between 1984 and 1990, an epidemic of the use of crack cocaine devasted the lives of inner city residents and fueled an upsurge in violent crime and caused economic decline and social disintegration within those communities. The African American and Latino communities were especially hard hit. According to research by two prominent economists from the University of Chicago, Steven Levitt and Kevin Murphy:
As the authors had conjectured, their measure of crack consumption is very highly correlated with black youth homicide spikes.
The rise in crack use from 1984 to 1989 is associated with a doubling of the number of murdered black males aged 14 to 17, a 30 percent increase for those aged 18 to 24, and a 10 percent increase for those 25 and over. Thus, crack accounts for much of the observed variation in homicide rates over this time period.
In addition, the proportion of black children in foster care more than doubled, fetal death rates and weapons arrests of blacks rose by more than 25 percent, and black babies with low birth weights increased five percent.
The impoverished conditions create impediments in inner city residents where there is less economic opportunity and thus less economic mobility for people to rise to a higher economic status. A report by Christopher Jenck and Susan E. Mayer called Inner City Poverty In The United States notes how children in more affluent school districts have better economic opportunities than children in poorer school districts:
Children from affluent schools know more, stay in school longer, and end up with better jobs than children from schools that enroll mostly poor children. Children who live in affluent neighborhoods get into less trouble with the law and have fewer illegitimate children than children who live in poor neighborhoods.
…Many observers (notably W. Wilson, 1987) believe that when poor children have predominately poor neighbors, their chances of escaping from poverty decline. If this is so, a strong case can be made for government efforts to reduce the geographic isolation of poor children. Yet such evidence as we have suggests that the poor- or at least poor blacks- are becoming more geographically isolated rather than less so…
Another report by Eloise Dunlap, Andrew Golub, and Bruce D. Johnson stated:
Entering the 1980s, many African American families were facing tremendous structural challenges in poor inner-city areas. Massey & Denton (1993) provided a comprehensive analysis of the increasing hypersegregration of African Americans and the historical forces behind this phenomenon. After World War I and continuing into the 1960s, a massive wave of African Americans migrated to cities in pursuit of industrial jobs. They were forced into a few increasingly crowded, dilapidated neighborhoods through violence, restrictive covenants (from 1900 until a 1948 Supreme Court decision), and discriminatory practices by real estate agents. Meanwhile, white families were moving to segregated suburban areas, especially following World War II. Wilson (1987, 1996) contended the civil rights movement in the 1960s had a perverse unintended impact on the inner city. Successful African Americans moved their families to newly-integrated communities leaving an even higher concentration of poverty in the predominately African American inner city.
Based on an extensive literature review, Small & Newman (2001) identified the increasing concentration of poverty during the 1970s and into the 1980s, particularly among African Americans, as primarily the result of three phenomena: black middle-class flight, continued residential discrimination (especially against less wealthy African Americans), and the departure of low-skilled jobs from Northeast and Midwest cities. Economically, the 1970s was a particularly difficult period for inner-city families (Kasarda, 1993; Small & Newman, 2001; Sullivan, 1989): there was a recession, manufacturing plants moved to the sunbelt and abroad, many of the employers that remained in the North moved to suburban areas placing them out of the range of public-transportation for inner-city residents, and the new economy emphasized advanced education and computer literacy. Many African Americans were left unemployed and unqualified for emerging opportunities.
Poverty and long-term joblessness have been associated with a constellation of other negative consequences (Anderson, 1999; Bourgois, 1995; Currie, 1993; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Kasarda, 1992; Kozol, 1996; Wilson, 1987, 1996): overcrowded housing, poor physical and mental health, despair, post-traumatic stress disorder, family dissolution, teen pregnancy, school dropout, interpersonal violence, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse, among others. These factors help perpetuate disadvantage across generations. Some of these factors are the direct consequences of structural disadvantage. Others involve personal volition, particular those regarding sexuality, relationships, violence, and illicit drug use.
Thus, when Janet Jackson collaborated with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the songs of Rhythm Nation, they were reacting to a severe crisis is poor and minority communities during the 1980s. The song “Rhythm Nation” is about racism, “State of the World” deals with the issue of homelessness, “The Knowledge” tackles the subject of drugs and illiteracy. Jackson’s music emphasized the role of education as a key to economic progress for the many young listeners of her album. At a time when a sense of community was missing in many of the crime-ridden areas that she was trying to reach with her music, Jackson wanted to convey a sense of youthful community with her fictional Rhythm Nation.
Wikipedia gives a good description on the process of making “Rhythm Nation” of Janet Jackson and her collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis when they were composing the songs for the album:
Producer James “Jimmy Jam” Harris recalled: “We would always have a TV turned on, usually to CNN … And I think the social slant of songs like ‘Rhythm Nation’, ‘State of the World’ and ‘The Knowledge’ came from that.” He commented that the Stockton massacre inspired the song “Living in a World (They Didn’t Make)”, explaining, “[i]t says that kids aren’t responsible for what the adults have done.” Jackson was also inspired by reports of youth-based communities throughout New York City, which were formed as a means of creating a common identity. She stated: “I thought it would be great if we could create our own nation … one that would have a positive message and that everyone would be free to join.” Her album’s title is inspired by the pledge, “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color-lines” and her creed, “Music, Poetry, Dance, Unity”.”
Vince Aletti wrote in the 1989 Rolling Stones review of Rhythm Nation:
The community Jackson, Jam and Lewis imagine and encourage here is an activist extension of George Clinton’s one nation under a groove. Their “Rhythm Nation” is a multiracial, multinational network “looking for a better way of life” on and off the dance floor. “Come forth with me,” Jackson urges over a densely textured, agitated track whose syncopated yelps recall the sampled James Brown squeals of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.” Though a revolution might make for a terrific video, Jackson isn’t suggesting a revolt of the masses, only a kind of compassionate, dedicated people power. Sure, these are protest songs for the upwardly mobile, balancing despair with optimism, anger with hope, in the currently fashionable formula, but they’re realistic enough to acknowledge the hard work that goes into change: “No struggle no progress.”
The album’s first three songs touch lightly on drugs, hunger and homelessness but zero in on illiteracy and self-help. In “The Knowledge” — which Jackson prefaces by saying, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe” — she warns that “you don’t find the knowledge in a pipe” and propagandizes for the school system: “If you wanna be in control/You gotta get yourself in the know.” The messages Jackson is putting across are radical only in their simplicity and directness. “If we’re gonna change the way the world is run,” she says, we should start with the basics and eliminate “prejudice and ignorance.”
I loved this album when I heard it. And I immediately noticed the social commentary that Janet Jackson put in her lyrics. I was this nerdy kid who didn’t look very good on the dance floor, but I really didn’t mind as long as my girlfriend at the time liked to dance. When we went to clubs, I didn’t like dancing on the edge, where a lot of people were observing and noticing my flailing attempts at rhythm. I would try to dance in a middle of a crowd of dancers, where the lack of space made my lack of dancing skills less noticable. It was a lot of fun.
I admired Janet Jackson’s willingness to make a social comment on important issues with Rhythm Nation. After that album, she retreated a bit from making social commentary with her music. But she continues to work for many just causes in her private life. According to website that tracks the charitable work of celebrities Janet Jackson received a humanitarian award in 2008 from the Lisa Lopes Foundation for supporting organizations that help out children, conservation, hunger and animals. During the 9/11 tragedy, Jackson supported the victims through the ClearChannel.com Relief Fund and helped victims of the Tsunami disaster through donations to the American Red Cross. Janet Jackson is an ongoing supporter of the Lisa Lopes Foundation, the Orca Network and Feeding America.
A video on the making of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” half hour video special
Janet Jackson’s video for “Rhythm Nation”
Janet Jackson’s video for “The Knowledge”
A video of Janet Jackson at the annual amfAR event at Milan Fashion Week to fight HIV and AIDS