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The Dream of the Dance: Meditations on Janet Jackson’s early music videos

It is early spring, and I’m newly transplanted from Brooklyn to the Bay Area. I’m involved in a long-distance relationship, traveling back and forth each month. The layers of my heartbreak are missing her, missing home, and falling in love with California. I’m eating amazing tacos in the East Bay with my friend Poulomi, the romantic Freudian, who is offering me some stern advice on attachment: “You’ve read Beyond the Pleasure Principle, right?”

I’m confused. “If you mean the Janet Jackson video ‘The Pleasure Principle’ then yes —”

Poulomi interjects with Freud’s retelling of Tancred and Chlorinda. Tancred is off fighting in the Crusades, and Chlorinda can’t live without him, so she dresses up as a man and goes off to war. Disguised on the battlefield, Chlorinda sees Tancred and rushes up to him! But he kills her because she is disguised in the armor of an enemy knight. After her funeral, he disappears into the enchanted forest, miserable. He is gnashing his teeth, screaming to the top of the forest, enacting all the melodrama that epic heroes enjoy. He gets so worked up he strikes his sword into a tree. But you know what? The tree cries, and then gushes blood because Chlorinda had transformed into a tree, and now Tancred has killed his wife again.

The tale is so horrid and familiar I nearly cry.

And yet, whatever Poulomi understands about cyclical grief pales in comparison to the vengeance that is Janet’s in her video for “Nasty” (1983).

     Janet Jackson, “Nasty,” 1986 (choreo. Paula Abdul)

After she and Paula Abdul are sexually harassed on their way into a movie theater, Janet has had enough. Janet and Paula are just trying to see the film Nasty, as indicated on the marquee in the opening shot. When a boy touches her thigh in a close-up, Janet yells “Stop!” and the audience emits audible shock, a chorus of gasps. A gap in the chorus of forms being performed. Ever blasé, so self-possessed, Janet simply stands, walks up to the screen, and backflips into the actual movie in an alluring application of slow motion technology. Like Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics, Janet sticks her land, only to find herself in a future scene from the music video for her own song.

I almost never laugh at this act of rebellion. Who has the guts to agree to, much less perform, a transtextual backflip in this day and age? At the end of the video, Janet and her friends trap the boys inside the movie and walk away through the empty theater. It’s a satisfying conclusion to this gum-smacking, hard femme epic that has one of my favorite opening synth attacks of any Janet Jackson tune ever. Make no mistake, this is Janet’s business jam.

Cause privacy is my middle name
And my last name is control

The experiment was for us to decide on a coast: California or New York. My heartbreak was a split between the theater and the screen; which life was I living now? Watching Janet Jackson videos on repeat became a suitable meditation practice, apropos of the meditative nature of Jackson’s oeuvre. Before long, I realized that whatever is most outré in a Janet Jackson video provides the greatest comfort. These looping metatextual realms of signification, like the dance labyrinth of “Nasty” and the rotational orbit of that backflip, became codes I needed to crack.

I’m living for the black-and-white flash-forwardness of “Rhythm Nation” when I revisit Stormy Weather, the 1943 classic film with an all-Black cast featuring the likes of Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Dooley Wilson, and Katherine Dunham.

The plot is loosely based on the life of Robinson, who by that point had become the highest paid African-American entertainer of the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a difficult film to watch because its minstrelized scenarios systematically undermine the virtuosic performances, which are themselves, in a word, mesmerizing. The film archives a particular moment in dance where innovative movement and cultural critique coalesce and agitate from within the white power structure. In Stormy Weather, dance provides a way to say what one cannot speak.

     Excerpt from Stormy Weather, 1943

In the sand dance, a string of solos on the deck of a riverboat culminates in a striking turn to synchronized movement — rhythmic jumps that seem so obviously anarchic. It’s a spit in the eye of white supremacy, despite the smiles the industry paints on the performers’ faces. These are the moves bodies move to try to get free. The stomps of the sand dance pound out future sonics of the protest march, approximating too the punk pogo, and — I see it now — the radical footwork of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.”

Five four three two one

The video takes place in a post-apocalyptic underground where an Everyman is surrounded by industrial capitalism’s instruments of power and control — incidentally, a similar scenario to Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Both videos were released in 1989, the year marked by Michael Jordan’s iconic shot, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the end of the disastrous Reagan administration. While “Express Yourself” calls for the expression of gay affirmations of self, “Rhythm Nation” disavows both self and state. The glory of Janet’s seriousness — her stare, the absence of her smile, her no-nonsense ponytail — is in perfect balance with the vague ideals of which she sings.

     Janet Jackson, “Rhythm Nation,” 1989 (choreo. Anthony Thomas)

The transcendence of “Rhythm Nation” comes from its deployment of dance as coded political language. The opening series contains a recitation and coordinated shouts; the movement is an athletic mash-up of drill exercises, tutting, and high kicks. Each gesture is a glyph in an elaborate alphabet of steps and angles, slaps and smacks. In this lavish vortex of sounds and signals, the uniformed dancers are all legs and arms, hands framing the face.

But what does the Rhythm Nation want?

It’s impossible to watch this video without thinking of the coordinated efforts since Michael Brown’s murder — the uprisings in Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, the protest gesture of “Hands up, Don’t shoot.” The video opens on the anguished face of a Black teenager. Eventually, the camera pulls back to show us that he is the spectator: we are watching him watch the dance. This triangulation is essential to the politic of the video, where multiple languages speak to multiple audiences. Watching the watcher makes us aware of the tension between our passive voyeurism and the activating potential of movement.

Change rarely comes from the content of the chant; it’s the form of the chant and its repetition that brings change. With its precision formation and epauleted shoulder shrugs, the choreography of “Rhythm Nation” commemorates, if not the collective, than the collectivized impulse of Black social dance.

Let’s work together come on now

I’m in Oakland when the Internet can’t decide whether Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance cites the Black Panther Party or Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” — or, for that matter, Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl performance in Pasadena, CA. Beyoncé’s most local citations gesture of course to her own video for “Formation” (which was released one day before the Bay Area Super Bowl 50), her future masterpiece Lemonade, and the #BLM movement, referenced in one dancer’s sign that demanded “Justice 4 Mario Woods,” a twenty-six-year-old man shot in the back by San Francisco police.

In her book On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Racial icons, especially in the realm of social and political movements, make us want to do something.” Some artists produce the affect before the action.

The necessary, inevitable collision of “Rhythm Nation,” Beyoncé, and #BLM at the most mainstream of corporate entertainment venues is an intertextual Big Bang that argues for the political power of style, the build-up and release of prophetic aesthetic movements. At the Super Bowl, Beyoncé reassembles historic militancy into a coded political ritual that wants to threaten and to heal. She resurrects and recodes Rhythm Nation in Silicon Valley, and she does it all at the site of Jackson’s public shaming in 2004.

It started with “Escapade” on the radio, and a profound feeling of relief and recognition that felt disproportionate to the song’s upbeat adoration of weekend abandon. The intro’s spry bell chime seemed to call to life something within me that had been lying dormant for decades. Of course pop invades the soul, but what could “Escapade” want from me now?

I listened to it on repeat for days, trying to feel my way into whatever the pleasure was. Something about how Janet’s voice soars into upper registers during the chorus, taking me up with her, carving out little enclosures where I could be. Unlike some pop songs that aspire to emptiness, Janet’s relaxed repetitions make room for us. The instrument of her laugh, the ease of her harmonies, and even her signature vocal squeaks construct the aural architectures of her songs. It’s absurd to be invited, but I’ll always accept, especially if some of the joy comes from the promise of passivity: Yes, Janet, I will let you take me on an escapade.

Lucky for us, Janet Jackson songs never end. Like Poulomi’s favorite medieval saga, Janet’s extravagant outros and decoy endings meditate on the cyclicality of endings. These videos help me watch where I’m watching from, even as I work to understand what I hear. The intense frivolity of “Escapade” reminds me of the risks of the act, how listening feels: the coarseness of pushing pause on the tape deck. I remember being afraid I might damage part of the song, so I developed, I guess, a taste for never turning things off, just letting things go on and on.

Like a moth to a flame burned by desire

In its celebration of female friendship and ambivalence about romantic entanglements, “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1993) is the Waiting to Exhale (1995) of music videos. Janet requests Sade in the tape deck but her friends pester her into playing her new demo. Such reluctant self-staging is a trope throughout the catalog. In “Miss You Much,” she’s coaxed into dancing; in the Herb Ritts’ disaster “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” she pretends to play coy for the camera. To watch Janet replay herself from deep within every high concept situation is to enjoy the finest of relaxed performance, to see the absurdity of life’s dramatizations: making and doing oneself over and over again. In these early videos, Janet rehearses Janet Jackson; concepts are repurposed and replayed in circling iterations. (“Rhythm Nation” and “Miss You Much” are conceptual and choreographic twins. “What Have You Done for Me, Lately?” is a warm-up for “When I Think of You,” which is a warm-up for “Alright” ad infinitum.)

     Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” 1993 (choreo. Tina Landon)

“That’s the Way Love Goes” metameditates on the inevitability of sex and/or the “who cares” of love. The track represents the moment when Jackson’s exuberant dance anthems transform into more serious meditative grooves. Her videos theorize sociality over the spectacle, maybe in part because Janet doesn’t like being the center of attention. She just loves to dance. What the early videos perfected is an extravagant seriousness of movement that never topples into the inauthentic or ironic. It’s ridiculous, the whole idea of it, really over the top, but then grounded (boom!) in an instant. So goes the logic of the slow motion backflip, the Olympic gymnast, the Jordan dunk. And in “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Janet’s controlled ease and appreciation for lazy foreplay make us trust and thrust in the apparent paradox of her production, a sex jam unconcerned, really, with sex.

I could learn to like this
Listen up

When Jackson’s choreography figures the everyday through musical theater, enthusiastic accessorizing and novelty sized shoulder pads materialize as the basic principles of urban life. Janet’s early experiments in musical theater epics, “Nasty,” “When I Think of You,” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” — all from Control (1986; all choreographed by Abdul) —  lead here, to a Harlem soundstage bursting with theatrical costumes, historical references, and a complex social world that revolves around allegories of chance and astonishment. The intricacy of the video serves again as dramatic counterpoint to the expansive void of the lyrics. If meditation requires disidentification with content, then this song achieves perfect emptiness.

The dream of “Alright” (choreo. Anthony Thomas, 1990) reproduces the same dream of the dance in Stormy Weather. In addition to featuring living cast members from Stormy Weather, with cameos from Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers, and then adding Cyd Charisse because of course why not — this paean to the Hollywood musical unfolds as a dream within a dream because of course! Janet goes back in time, interacts with her heroes, and in a scene on the red carpet in front of a faux Cotton Club momentarily inhabits the role of a 1940’s celebrity. When master bandleader Cab Calloway in his yellow monochromatic tux exits the vintage limousine, zoot suit Janet fangirls out only to see herself emerging from the car after her hero.

In many ways, “Alright” is the most absurdly ambitious of Janet’s videos, like Abdul’s campy Rebel Without a Cause remake “Rush, Rush” (1991) but with historical gravitas. The choreography remixes cartoonish cavorting, tap dance, and gimmicky ensemble routines to offer an optimistic movement that honors the virtuosic defiance in Stormy Weather. Janet’s fantasy in “Alright” is about seeing oneself across history and offering recognition to a musical tradition undercut by racism. What sounds like “alright” ambivalence repeated in the song lyrics takes on more profound meaning in the video’s celebration of past styles of resistance, almost as if to say, “stay here, I’ll keep you safe.”

You’re alright with me

     Excerpt from Stormy Weather, 1943

Minneapolis musicians and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis became Jackson’s lifelong collaborators after she left her agent-father. “Control” makes meta-theater out of this moment of personal liberation, with Jam, Lewis, and Jackson playing alternate versions of themselves on the eve of a big performance. In this mini-soap opera, the character Janet fights with her character Dad after he gravely scolds her in the outrageous terms that scripted Janet’s real life: “Your limousine is here.” She chooses instead to ride with her band mates to the show, where proto-Janet enters the stage on a swing that descends from the ceiling, her hair reaching for heaven, her power blazer ruling the office.

Janet has said she went to Minneapolis because of The Time, the band Prince groomed, produced, and assembled from members of Flyte Tyme, Jimmy Jam and Lewis’s band. The two men toured with Prince and Vanity 6 before co-producing Control and then Rhythm Nation 1814, their collaborations with Jackson coming to define the sound of new jack swing. How much of Prince influenced the making of Janet Jackson?

Her performances, pleasure as protest, privacy’s revolts — all of this brings me here. My own protest, as a heartbroken lover and a queer, are small and personal, enclosed within this sociopolitical movement as it coalesces and gives voice to a history of racial injustice.

I know what you mean to me

In “The Pleasure Principle,” my favorite of them all, Janet roams a warehouse in a scripted scene of improvisational denim where the final video re-enacts the dress rehearsal, or really, the rehearsal before the rehearsal. This glamorization of practice — which merges the raw (the truth?) and its twin, the artifice — means Janet’s signature knee drops and wide second position are in development, not yet implicated in the perfect funk jazz combos of her future. In her armor of kneepads and tiny Adidas — and those bangs! — the virtuosic performer dancer flashbacks to private rehearsal. “The Pleasure Principle” is dance for dance’s sake, a video about the meaning of movement, the freedom to be found in the body.

“The Pleasure Principle” captures the joy of artistic practice while also mythologizing it, paying the tribute. Jackson’s recently released, critically acclaimed Unbreakable is the first album she’s produced with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in ten years. The first single, “No Sleeep,” is a perfect throwback to the genius of “That’s the Way Love Goes,” where the sociality of the neo-soul chill jam once again eclipses the snoozefest of conventional courtship. As with “Escapade,” “Lonely,” and so many of the early songs, the paradox of “No Sleeep” is the way it calls me out of myself to wonder.

the logic of attachment — the movement — dictates shape
                 Baby you can’t hold me down
what I love about rhythm is noise
                 The only nasty thing I like is a nasty groove
ways to wreck the order while making the order
                 To improve our way of life
what I love about rehearsal is materializing
                 I don’t wanna rule the world, just wanna run my life
form of protest, form of dreaming
                Shot, like an arrow going through my heart
the rest and work of reference
                 I like to watch us play
in that cellular space of listening
to what you love
the dream of the dance
the surface of the song

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