As I type this article, I am listening to a remix of “State of the World”, the eighth and final single from the phenomenal concept album, “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” (RN1814). For a significant portion of my teenage life, this was my all-time favorite song. In retrospect, it might have even been transformative in the course my life took after the Rhythm Nation era concluded in 1991. The lyrics of “State of the World”, similar to much of the political message behind RN1814, are still as powerfully poignant and relevant today, in 2019, as they were three decades ago.
Depending on your point of view, this revelation could either be an indicator of amazing progress in our societies or, alternatively, disconcerting regress. Should the political message of a thirty-year-old album still be so reflective and consequential in our lives today? What does that say about us, as different nations of people around the globe? Are we evolving, devolving, or bewilderingly stagnant? Are we incorrigible? These are some of the questions that I have posed to myself in the year of RN1814’s 30th anniversary.
In the meantime, let’s briefly go back to 1989 when RN1814 was released — when RN1814 was, in effect, born onto this world.
A Rhythm Nation Born in the Storms of Worldwide Revolutions
Without a doubt, I would call 1989 an extraordinary year that could be summarized in one word: Revolution.
By September 1989, virtually the entire world was feverish with revolution and regime change. If the world order — what we recognized back then as the “Cold War” between democracies and authoritarian nations — could be described metaphorically as a thick glacier of ice, then 1989 was the year that gigantic glacier (once an unmovable, monolithic conglomerate) began to crack incessantly and shatter into innumerous pieces of ice crystals, each shard shining brilliantly. The world was in a perpetual state of political revolution and evolution. Alas, that was the “State of the World” in 1989. People from Poland to China vocally and rigorously demanded for democracy and liberty from their existing communist governments. Unbeknownst to us that year, Apartheid, the painfully egregious regime that essentially became synonymous with the nation we know as South Africa, only had a few years remaining to exist as a means to govern.
Janet’s fourth studio album was released in the third quarter of the year in which multiple political, cultural, and social revolutions were taking place simultaneously and/or consecutively around the planet. Without rehashing a litany of the events that took place (which would be impossible for a single blog article), here is a list containing only a few of the significant events that took place that year before September 19th:
- George H.W. Bush was sworn in as the 41st President of the United States.
- The nearly decade-long occupation of Afghanistan by the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics a.k.a. the USSR a.k.a. the Soviet Union (presently Russia) concluded with the Soviets’ withdrawal.
- Investigations were underway for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in Lockerbie, Scotland (the deadliest terrorist attack to have occurred in the United Kingdom).
- National pro-democracy protests erupted in Beijing triggering the government of China’s declaration of martial law, culminating in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Tiananmen Square, and shocking the entire international community.
- Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, publicly called for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”.
- Multiple revolutions occurred across the Eastern Bloc of Europe, resulting in several countries shifting from authoritarian, communist rule to democracy, inevitably destroying the Iron Curtain that both figuratively and literally divided Europe since World War II had commenced five decades earlier.
- The parricide of the parents of Lyle and Erik Menendez in Los Angeles became an international news story that would receive media coverage well into the mid-1990s.
- F.W. de Klerk became South Africa’s last State President during the Era of Apartheid.
- Nelson Mandela was serving a 27-year sentence in prison. (1989 would be the last full year of his imprisonment).
- There were two Germanies: East Germany and West Germany.
- There were also two Berlins, partitioned into East Berlin and West Berlin.
- The first season of “Seinfeld” debuted on television.
- Nintendo introduced the portable “Gameboy” video game system.
In essence, a LOT was happening in the world (not just the United States) when Janet released this thought-provoking album, which featured songs in response to what was taking place — and the response was POWERFUL. Considering she was only 23 years of age at the time, releasing a protest album with a strong political message and theme was novel in 1989. “Groundbreaking” does not really describe the sheer depth of how profound RN1814 was during the years of 1989, 1990, and 1991. The world had changed considerably in those three consecutive years, and it was a remarkable time to witness events unfold. Also, to witness a woman address societal issues ranging from racism, bigotry, and hatred to education, homelessness, and gun violence in a thoughtfully conceived and composed album alongside the visuals provided by the accompanying music videos — all of that, summarily, was a new revolution for humanity and the human soul.
When TIA Became a Part of the Rhythm Nation
Now that I have briefly described the era in which Janet’s album came into our collective conscience, it’s time to get a bit more personal about the album and its impact on me. When I travel and engage in my photography, it is extremely rare that I’m not listening to music simultaneously. When I’m on an airplane in between cities, I’m listening to music. When I commute between locations in my car, I’m listening to music. As I compose this article, a revelation has become crystal clear to me: I don’t think there has been a day when I’m listening to music that I have not heard Janet’s voice. That means, ever since I became a fan, which was in the middle of the RN1814 era, I have been hearing Janet’s voice in my mind for 30 years. That is significant. Her voice is as recognizable as that of my mother, my father, my sister, and my closest friends.
In 1989, I was a teenager and “oil brat” living in Stavanger, Norway, along the coast of the North Sea, attending the International School of Stavanger (which had previously been called the Stavanger American School). I had been living in a small town in Oklahoma previously (and had a slight southwestern drawl when I spoke). Back then, I was not a connoisseur of music from any genre. My mother loved classical music as well as pop music from the 1950s and 1960s. My dad liked disco, R&B, country music, and West African pop. I never had a preference for any genre, and I was never familiar with what was popular among my friends in school or what MTV communicated was cool or trendy. I never paid attention. Back then, I was very much into photography, computer programming, creative writing, and video games. I knew little about Janet Jackson, but I knew she had a song called “Nasty” because so many people quoted the unforgettable line, “My name ain’t baby. It’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty!”
That all changed (forever) in June 1990. I was in my uncle’s apartment in Geneva, Switzerland. I had a very annoying cousin who could not (and would not) stop watching MTV Europe. Essentially, due to having to share the same room and air with this fellow, I inevitably became subject to MTV Europe and its programming for several days. Funnily enough, that’s all it took for my interest in music to sprout. I remember, distinctively, that there were three music videos that appeared to be in constant, heavy rotation, broadcast every other hour. They were Snap’s “The Power”, Madonna’s “Vogue”, and Janet’s “Alright”.
By the time I had returned to Norway, I was a pop music fanatic. When I turned on the radio, the DJs were always playing singles from RN1814, which is how I came to know Janet had many other songs in addition to “Alright”. If that wasn’t enough, I discovered there were such things as REMIXES to the original songs. I wanted them all. On a funny note, I must mention that, in Germanic languages, words starting with the letter “J” are pronounced as though they started with the letter “Y” in English. I always chuckled when a Norwegian DJ would enthusiastically announce on the radio that listeners had just heard “Yanet Yackson Black Cat” from the album “Yanet Yackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814”. It was very endearing when I heard their voices and accents.
My Janet Jackson fandom ignited shortly thereafter. One of my friends from the UK initially dubbed the RN1814 album for me. When that wasn’t enough, I started searching for the cd singles and vinyl singles from RN1814. The first Janet single I ever owned was a UK edition of “Black Cat” that a classmate got for me while she was in London. I had found a West German edition of “Alright” at a popular music store in The Hague later on. (It’s intriguing to consider that the RN1814 singles are, in fact, “Cold War” singles). My mother bought the album for me on compact disc. Before I graduated from high school, my RN1814 collection was developing handsomely.
I was such a fan of Janet by then that a special, customized senior class superlative was assigned to me (see below). In my senior class individual portrait, my official quote was “I’ve Got the Power!” because I had claimed Snap’s first single as my high school anthem. I also signed my portrait with the initials and numerals “R.N. 1814”. When the principal of the school had to double-check all the pages of the high school yearbook to sign off on them before publishing, I remember she had asked the yearbook staff director whether there was an offensive or ulterior message in having those two letters and four numerals next to my name. When the yearbook director had told her what “RN1814” stood for, the principal permitted it. (I would have been furious otherwise).
After I had graduated, I went on to attend undergraduate school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the city in which RN1814 was recorded and Janet gave a shout out in the third single, “Escapade”. (No, I didn’t go to Minneapolis for these reasons)! Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations & Foreign Policy and later a Master’s degree for the same subject at the University of Denver a few years later. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the “State of the World” song and its message might have partially influenced my decision to choose this academic field of study. During the RN1814 era and living in Europe, I had witnessed (via the news) the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the release of Nelson Mandela, the beginning and end of the Gulf War, the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At a very young age, I had always been curious about the relationship between countries and historical events that could help explain the complicated interactions of nations around the world. When I was a child — maybe eight or nine years old at the time — I remember one adult telling me, “Don’t watch the news too much. You’re still a kid.” I think I had always watched because I was always so frightened about talk of nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. I had never understood why human beings would want to eradicate each others’ existence. Even as a grown man today, and as much as I’ve studied the relationships between nations and foreign leaders, and their respective ideologies, I’ll concede that I still don’t understand why we would need to have such utterly devastating and destructive weapons, especially when humans are so sensitive and prone to misunderstand intentions.
The Legacy of the Rhythm Nation “in Complete Darkness” & Hindsight
There’s one last thing I would like to mention in terms of how Janet’s album has influenced my life. It actually pertains more to Janet herself than the album, but the significance is very much intertwined. It has to do with friendship. My closest friend on the planet lives in Toronto. His name is Kirk DeMatas (click here). We’ve been friends — more like brothers, in fact — for almost 20 years, but the friendship began because we were both fans of Janet, and we happened to cross paths on one of the online Janet forums that used to be popular before the days of Facebook and Twitter. I don’t know whether I sent him a private message or if he sent me one, but we realized we had a lot of mutual interests in music in addition to Janet. To be very honest, Janet Jackson is the original, common core and bond between Kirk and myself. Everything else we have in common has been a result of that bond.
We had corresponded online and chatted via MSN Messenger and AOL Messenger (remember those applications?). We eventually met, in person, with other mutual friends in New York City. We have been buddies ever since.
There was a time when Kirk and I were in Denver, Colorado, where I had attended graduate school. I was showing him around the city in between making stops at different, independently owned record stores that sold plenty of vinyl records (particularly Janet’s), of which he is a true and avid connoisseur. While driving through the Mile High City, I remember we had Janet’s inventory of songs, from all of her different album eras, playing randomly from my iTunes. Each song struck up a conversation. Admittedly, one of the best things about having your closest friend like the same music you like is that you never have to worry or argue about music selections when hanging out together. Every song has a meaning or a story to discuss or recall a memory.
There’s another detail about Kirk — before he and I even met — which Janet fans will appreciate. He was the lucky guy who was chosen to come up on stage for the “Rope Burn” performance during Janet’s “Velvet Rope” concert in Toronto back in 1998! I try very hard not to be jealous of my friends, but Kirk will always have the upper hand on this one. I can’t even hold it against him. Janet’s crew clearly liked him, and clearly, he liked them!
Kirk is also a talented and published poet. (Click here).
The point is, I would never know Kirk if not for Janet. He and I both value her artistry, talent, and humility. Many people who subscribe too much to all the gossip and mindless entertainment news don’t know that Janet, in fact, is a humanitarian who donates to multiple causes. Janet also doesn’t discriminate against people, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or orientation. I’ve always found these traits remarkably attractive about Janet, and that has nothing to do with her physical attributes. Her humility is what I find incredibly sexy about Janet, not the superficial stuff and fluff we tend to go on about. At her core, Janet is a decent human being who cares about other people. I believe the Rhythm Nation 1814 album and learning about Janet, her career, her accomplishments, and her struggles have inspired me to be similar. For that reason, I am entirely grateful that my annoying cousin forced me to watch MTV Europe back in 1990. That moment led to how one album and one person influenced my worldview for the better. (I’m talking about Janet, not my cousin).
To the right is a life-size poster I created for Janet’s visit to MTV Studios for “Total Request Live” in New York in July 2000 to promote the “Doesn’t Really Matter” single. I never got a chance to meet her due to a comedy of errors culminating with the NYPD instructing me to leave the median island on Broadway in Times Square because my poster, allegedly, was distracting drivers as I held it up to get Janet’s attention in the studio.
Interestingly, another dear friend from high school made a remark that I won’t forget anytime soon. After he and I had reconnected via Facebook about 10 years ago, he emailed me and said, “So Tosin, you still like Janet after all these years? That’s reassuring because it means there are some things that still make sense in the world.” He was only half-joking. I can say confidently that I have always been a fan of Janet since the RN1814 era. In fact, I have every intention to see her perform in San Francisco this weekend to commemorate the album’s milestone anniversary. I wouldn’t miss it because, conclusively, Janet’s songs have been significant anchors in the soundtrack that is my life.
Fans might agree because they’ll know the reference: Given everything that has transpired over three decades, can we agree that “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” is, beyond a doubt, “Made for Now”?
Happy 30th Anniversary, Rhythm Nation 1814. . .and thanks, Janet.