Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Janet Jackson (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Livin’ on the edge: Janet Jackson’s love of rock in one electrifying hour

Janet Jackson (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

On March 29, 2019, Janet Jackson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame by fellow performer Janelle Monáe. The honor felt overdue for a number of reasons, including the fact that her brothers Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon, Randy, and Michael had long ago been inducted. (Michael was actually a two-time honoree, once as boy band legend and again as a soloist.) More importantly, Janet had earned her spot among the legends way back in 1989 when she released “Black Cat,” the quintessential Janet Jackson jam that would cement her place in pop and rock history. A hard rock departure from her lilting dance and R&B repertoire, “Black Cat” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, making her the first solo artist to earn two No. 1 hits in the ’90s. The song was also the first hard rock single to enter the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, where it peaked at No. 10. With one song, Janet Jackson and the rock genre were inextricably linked.

But even as lauded as the Grammy-nominated “Black Cat” is, it is far from Janet Jackson’s only taste of rock. Her relationship with the genre runs deep, stemming from her 1982 debut and carrying some of her greatest treasures throughout her sprawling discography. Hits like “If” and “Rhythm Nation” not only packed a powerful punch, but signaled significant shifts in her approach to music and her public image. When the icon wants to drive home a special message, she frequently turns to rock as a form of high-octane delivery. This Power Hour celebrates Janet Jackson’s love of electrifying riffs, percussion, and a raspy wail. Some are chart toppers, others are deep cuts, but they all shred in their own way thanks to a woman who remains in control.

“Come Give Your Love To Me” (1982)

As the earliest sign of Janet’s ability to tap into her rocker sensibilities, “Come Give Your Love To Me” was the most adult-leaning track on the then-16-year-old’s self-titled debut. While we wouldn’t necessarily urge today’s young stars to play for an older crowd, the album’s closer showcased an artist with a slightly deeper musical palate than her peers—taste inherited from her famous family, surely—and nudged her just a little further out of her shell. Anchored by a patient bass and a searing electric guitar solo, the song melds popular ’80s electro-pop and classic rock sounds, marking the youngest Jackson sibling as a genre-surfing, up-and-coming pop idol who could thrive beyond the shadows of her brothers.

“Rhythm Nation” (1989)

It would be totally fair to call “Rhythm Nation” a cultural reset. By her fourth studio album, Janet Jackson had built both a distinct sound and a viable platform. Now firmly in her adulthood, Jackson explored her passion for social justice with a concept album that dug into racism, poverty, and substance abuse. The title track of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 signals the arrival of change with just a zip of bass that marries rock and Jackson’s proclivity for industrial dance-pop. As she became bolder as an artist, Janet began leaning more on rock tones to bolster her stronger messages, especially when it came to human rights. This career-defining track in particular signaled the rise of a burgeoning humanitarian.

“Black Cat” (1989)

Nobody could deny the unadulterated rock appeal of Rhythm Nation 1814’s sixth single“Black Cat,” or Janet Jackson’s genre-less star power. In some ways, the song felt like a major departure from her existing discography, as it was the first of her rock-leaning tracks that didn’t cling to her dance-pop roots. At the same time, the idol had already sewn the seeds for an effort of this magnitude in previous years. And as the video of this song would prove, fans would find the soul of a Janet-esque dance track between the dirty riffs and the drums and still move their feet, an indication of her already strong legacy at the age of 23.

“If” (1993)

All it takes is the right beat, courtesy of a drum machine, to blend warped, grimy rock with contemporary R&B. “If” remains the embodiment of Janet Jackson: sexy, confident, unpredictable, and an instantly good time on any stage. While there are a number of genres rolled into this one certified gold track, rock once again serves as the arrival of a new era in Janet’s career: “If” presented a more sexually unrestrained performer, flaunting a levy of autonomy that wasn’t afforded to all of her peers. Composition-wise, the song is also the home of one of the most recognizable bridges in R&B, thanks to both the whirring electric guitar lead-in and the instantly familiar choreography.

“Gon’ B Alright” (2015)

Psychedelic rock is practically a Jackson family birthright. “Gon’ B Alright” is a straight shot of serotonin chased with persistent guitar riffs, sweet horns, and a Sly & The Family Stone-esque verve. Consider this effort another show of the songstress’s penchant for dramatics: Every leading voice on the track belongs to Janet Jackson, according to collaborator Jimmy Jam. “Gon’B Alright” is reminiscent of the pop-rock that made Motown a household name, and its Bohemian groove sounds like something directly off of a Jackson 5 album.

“Trust A Try” (2001)

“Trust A Try” spares not an ounce of drama as lush, baroque-style strings segue into rowdy rock while Janet makes a case for a second chance at love. It was a fitting addition to her seventh album, All For You, which largely tackled her divorce from dancer and video director René Elizondo Jr. The song was somewhat reminiscent of her earlier days, where the collection largely focused on the ups and downs of romance. This track, however, was the result a seasoned artist still willing to experiment with texture and the more theatric side of pop and R&B. And for an artist who liked to keep the bulk of her personal life out of the spotlight, “Trust A Try” was a vulnerable admission of her willingness to still chase love even after the unfortunate end of a serious relationship.

“What About” (1997)

Though she was already a legend in her own right, the utterly daring The Velvet Rope placed Janet Jackson on par with the likes of Elton John and Rolling Stones, both in terms of hits (as “Together Again” brought Janet Jackson her eighth number one single) and cementing an immovable presence in pop culture. On this unmatched LP, Janet explored sex, queerness, mental health, and the AIDS crisis, a clear sign that this performer had no intentions of holding back any further. “What About” detailed an abusive relationship, oscillating between exposition and a very telling inner dialogue. Though she’s never divulged details, Jackson has noted that elements of the song were drawn from her personal experience, and that the track, much like the rest of the album, highlights the challenge of drawing boundaries for oneself. Slightly withdrawn guitar riffs underscore the honest, internal rage until she gains the courage to confront her lover, allowing the riffs to open themselves up to full-blown wails.

“You” (1997)

A thumping bass claims centerstage in this Velvet Rope banger, toeing the line between rock and and trip hop. (It also samples War’s “The Cisco Kid,” which gives the track some funky DNA.) What nudges this effort toward rock is Janet Jackson’s drawling, raspy vocals, which were often compared to Michael’s. “You” was a clear tour favorite and a standalone single in the U.K. (though it was not eligible to chart there). More than anything, “You” shows Janet forgoing just a bit of polish in exchange for theatrics—a fitting representative for her grandest tour to date, which received the HBO Special Event treatment in 1998.

“Just A Little While” (2004)

Out of all of her albums, Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo fell a bit under the radar. “Just A Little While” was positioned to lead the release; however, it leaked only one day after Janet’s calamitous Super Bowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake, which spawned a multitude of controversy. Though Timberlake recovered from the incident, Janet was blacklisted from radio and TV stations for years. The single and corresponding video were ultimately released overseas. Against an Americana backdrop, “Just A Little While” is playfully romantic and reminiscent of the same vibe that made “All For You” a hit. Contrary to her previous albums that centered on heartbreak and percolating rage, light rock set a warm, celebratory tone for a woman newly in love.

“Scream” (1995)

“Scream” soared with a sound that had one foot planted in the ’90s with its rollicking dance-pop groove and the other in the future with its rousing electropop. The rebellious rock ’n’ roll attitude permeated Michael and Janet’s vocals, their choreography, and the very costly music video, which premiered via simulcast on MTV and BET. Continuing the family’s historically contentious relationship with the media, “Scream” was a scathing indictment of the tabloid industry, which remained affixed on the lives of both siblings. The release broke a number of records: It was the first in Billboard’s history to debut at No. 5 on the Hot 100 and was listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records as one of the most expensive music videos ever made. The exact cost is up for debate—the original $7 million price tag was later refuted by the director—but either way, trashing a CGI set outfitted with 20 custom-made Flying V Gibson guitars can’t be cheap.

“The Great Forever” (2015)

The fourth track on Janet’s criminally underrated Unbreakable sounds like two different songs stitched together, as warped electronica caves to ethereal pop. Drums, bass, and the return of gravelly vocals—once again, eerily close to Michael’s recognizable delivery in spots—blur the genres in a track that sounds like the beginning of a serious voyage. “The Great Forever” benefits from its percussive spirit, keeping the track upbeat as Janet questions the outside curiosity surrounding her marriage to billionaire Wissam Al Mana. The lyrics didn’t exactly age as gracefully as the rest of her discography, considering that the couple in question announced their impending divorce just two years later, but the call for privacy remains as evergreen as the appeal of confident drum beat.

“Well Traveled” (2015)

Unbreakable as a whole rang like the manifesto of an artist realizing that she still has so much left to accomplish. Predating the birth of her son and her second divorce, “Well Traveled” is a hopeful Bon Jovi-esque ballad about entering a renewal phase and carrying the love and energy of a good support system along for the ride. Singing of “destinations unknown,” the performer pondered new beginnings in the cocoon of arena rock. Janet Jackson’s music inherently demands crowd participation, whether it’s meant to inspire thought or fancy footwork. In this case, Janet wants you to sway and wish her well. It’s nearly impossible not to do both.