As I noted in my review of the Rhythm Nation Compilation, for me and most people, Janet Jackson’s musical career didn’t begin until the release of 1986’s Control. At that time, she paired with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and created a team that continues to produce hits, as seen with their most recent offering, 2001’s All For You. Janet recorded two albums prior to Control - 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street - but both fizzled, so fans can be forgiven if they ignore the earlier work.
Heck, Janet herself seems eager to forget those first two albums, at least based on her retrospective package called Design of a Decade 1986-1996. That remains a goofy title, since it actually came out in 1995, but maybe Janet already planned to stay idle in 1996 when she put out the set. Hey, the “1986-1996” thing sounds good anyway, so we’ll forgive the premature nature of the title.
In any case, the name of the release clearly relates to us that we’ll find nothing from Janet Jackson or Dream Street. I’ve never heard either of those albums, so I wish Design had tossed us some material just for historical purposes. I seriously doubt the music was any good, but it’d be interesting to check out early Janet.
However, since Control was the launching point of her career, I’m fine with Design’s orientation toward those years. The DVD covers all of the videos from Control and 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814 as well as a few later tracks. Janet recorded her first four albums for A&M but she moved to Virgin with 1993’s Janet.. Apparently she still had some contractual obligation to her former employers, for Design tosses in some Virgin-era material. We find a totally new track in “Runaway” as well as two songs from Janet.: that record’s lead-off single, “That’s the Way Love Goes” as well as “Whoops Now”, a hidden tune that appears at the very end of the album. (The audio version of Design duplicates the DVD’s tracklist except it loses “Whoops Now” and adds another then-new song, “Twenty Foreplay”.)
All 16 of the videos run in their order of release, which means we start with the six clips from Control. Obviously, we open with its leadoff single, “What Have You Done For Me Lately”. This piece set the tone for new-era Janet. One of the gals but in charge of her life, Janet mildly tells off a negligent boyfriend before they ultimately resolve their dispute. Some dated fashions and dance moves appear - along with Paula Abdul, who seems pretty dated herself - but the video still seems fun and compelling.
”Lately” is a pretty simple piece, as it takes place within the confines of a diner. Flush off its success, “Nasty” encompasses a broader spectrum. Here Janet gets pestered by some obnoxious boys at a movie. When she hits her limit, she yells “stop!” and magically blendes into the flick. From there, she tells her tale of respect. Yeah, parts of “Nasty” also haven’t aged terribly well, but it remains a great tune and a clever clip. And we get more Paula, too!
The most elaborate of her Control era videos, “When I Think Of You” offers a giddy romp in which Janet dances through a cityscape and inspires lots of fun and merriment. The hook here is that the clip seems to include no cuts; it comes across as one running take. That’s not true; if you pay attention, you’ll detect a few edits. Nonetheless, it’s a bright and entertaining piece and another good song. Note, however, that “When I Think Of You” marks Chunky Janet at her heaviest; it’s very weird to see this version of Miss Jackson compared with today’s hardbody.
Janet didn’t tour behind Control, but she did perform a live vocal for the video of the title song. I think the musical backing to “Control” was canned, but Janet’s singing definitely came live, an ironic fact since she seems to lip-synch a fair amount during actual concerts.
Anyway, “Control” offers a minor storyline at the start in which she runs into a conflict with her parents, but most of the video shows Janet in a live performance. I like the alternate rendition of the song, but Janet’s on-stage behavior looks amateurish; she eventually matured into a good concert performer, but not until the 1993-1994 tour.
Compared with today’s horny sexpot, Janet circa 1986-87 was a serious prude, as evidence in “Let’s Wait Awhile”. The song urges patience on the part of a lover, and the video follows up that theme with a romantic trip through New York. It’s a simple video but it’s quite effective, as director Dominic Sena - who directed a few subsequent Janet clips and who would later achieve moderate Hollywood success with flicks like Gone In Sixty Seconds and Swordfish - gives it all a lovely air.
As I’ll also note when I get to Rhythm Nation’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”, the final videos from both of Janet’s first two hit albums marked a distinct change in her character. In the case of Control’s “The Pleasure Principle”, we saw our first glimpse of Sexy Janet. While she looked cute in the other videos, she did tend to the heavy side - especially in “When I Think of You” - and she displayed little heat. “Pleasure” doesn’t match up with later clips such as “Together Again (Deeper)” and “Every Time”, but Janet certainly seems much more fit, and her aggressive dance routine stands in contrast to her lighter persona of prior videos.
During “Pleasure”, Janet doesn’t smash or hit anything, but she appears moderately angry and takes it out in this solo effort. It’s a surprisingly captivating video as she maintains the camera’s hold on her own. In live shows, Janet often has seemed afraid to take center stage, but she can definitely do it, and “Pleasure” demonstrates her magnetism. All of the Control videos remain interesting, but “Pleasure” is my favorite of the bunch.
With that we leave the Control era and move ahead to Rhythm Nation 1814, which allows us to remember Janet circa 1989-90. This section includes seven tunes in all: “Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, “Escapade”, “Come Back to Me”, “Alright”, “Black Cat”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You”. The first two of these actually resulted from a longform video that offered some sort of cheesy “Janet rescues the needy inner city children” plot. I haven’t seen the long Rhythm Nation piece in a while, but I don’t remember it fondly.
On their own, “Miss You Much” and “Rhythm Nation” aren’t bad, but oddly, they suffer due to their removal from the longform program. Granted, they didn’t make a lot of sense within its confines, but they seem even less comprehendible when excerpted from it. “Miss You Much” is a good tune, and the clip has some dated but good dancing, but it does look kind of strange on its own; you feel like you’re missing something.
The same goes for “Rhythm Nation”. Possible the best song off of the album, it has some good martial choreography that appropriately fits the number, but again, it seems like something’s absent from the equation. Most of the video stands well enough on its own, but we get some glimpses of the Rhythm Nation world that lead things astray, such as a desperate-looking boy. Who is he? What’s up with him? You’ll know only if you examine the entire Rhythm Nation video. (Not to be confused with the Rhythm Nation Compilation, the longform piece has not yet appeared on DVD.)
To make it clear, I’m not just picking on Janet about this issue. Whenever a song is stripped of its full-length video environs, it often becomes nonsensical. This happened with the tune-only version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and it also harmed the song-only rendition of David Bowie’s “Blue Jean”. The longform Jazzin’ For Blue Jean video is possibly the greatest ever made, but when you see the song on its own, it makes little sense. I still liked the clips for “Miss You Much” and “Rhythm Nation”, but the videos don’t exhibit the tunes to their best advantage.
Although the longform Rhythm Nation included other songs from the album, none of the remaining five videos from the Rhythm Nation record came from that piece. As I noted during my review of the All For You video compilation, Janet’s videos tend to fall into two camps: big, dancer-filled production numbers and small, intimate and erotic numbers. During the early part of her career - before 1993’s Janet. - this distinction strongly favored the former. I guarantee Nineties Janet would have offered a much hotter clip for “Miss You Much”, and even the romantic notions of “Come Back to Me” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” are quite tame, especially when compared to her later work.
“Escapade” officially qualifies as one of the big production numbers, though it seemed like it’s being viewed through the eyes of Salvador Dali. The clip lacks real dance numbers, but it pours on the eccentric personalities for a warped little circus world through which Janet traipses. While the video seems moderately entertaining, I think it tries a little too hard to be unusual, and it comes across as forced.
On the other hand, “Come Back to Me” suffers from a moderate lack of ambition. Essentially Janet reminisces about a lost lover and pines for him as she wanders through the scenic Parisian landscape. The scenery looks nice, but the overall effect seems bland and unmemorable. It reminds me of a less compelling version of “Let’s Wait Awhile”; the fact that Dominic Sena directed both doesn’t appear coincidental.
More effective is “Alright”, the biggest of the big production numbers. The longest of the clips at more than nine minutes, it features a minor storyline in which Janet dreams she’s gone back in the past and will attend a vintage Cab Calloway concert. The piece guest stars Calloway himself as well as Cyd Charisse and a bonus rap from Heavy D. (What the heck ever happened to him, by the way?)
At its best, “Alright” seems fun and vibrant, as Janet and company spin through a fantasy world of the Forties. It includes some goofy but fun choreography and feels like a generally entertaining piece. Unfortunately, it’s way too long. Chop off a couple of minutes and “Alright” becomes a better video, but as it stands, it keeps going past the point of usefulness.
“Black Cat” spotlights Janet’s 1990 tour - her first live trek, by the way. For the most part, it focuses on a live performance of “Cat” itself, but a number of images from other concert renditions also fly by us in this extremely quick-cut piece. I think this offers a true live rendition of the song, but with Janet, it’s very hard to tell; over the span of eight concerts I’ve attended, I can never quite detect how much is her and how much is tape. In any case, “Black Cat” sums up the Rhythm Nation show fairly well; actually, I found that performance to be somewhat lackluster, so the video probably makes it look better than it was.
We didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” heralded Janet’s future direction. The song itself is very good but nothing revolutionary; it was the video that hinted at Janet’s upcoming route. During the Control and Rhythm Nation periods, Janet wasn’t the sex symbol she is today. While cute, she was a bit chunky and gawky; she hadn’t quite matured yet.
However, the video for “Love” changed all of that. Still photographer turned occasional video director Herb Ritts - who also did a very similar clip for Madonna’s “Cherish”, which appears on The Immaculate Collection - surrounded the newly-buffed Janet with some hunky guys and created a fairly sexy and intimate piece. Actually, it looks a bit chaste compared to her later sexy videos, but it still was something very new for Janet as she entered the Nineties. It remains a simple but effective video.
A moderately stronger sign of erotic Janet comes from “That’s the Way Love Goes”, the first tune off of 1993’s Janet. The song itself is reasonably seductive and sexy, while the video doesn’t really capture that. Still, it came across as a nicely low-key way to launch the new album, and the video seems moderately compelling.
Two notes: yes, that is Jennifer Lopez, and although “That’s the Way Love Goes” also appears on the All For You DVD, the two versions differ. The Design rendition includes an opening piece that All For You chops for no apparent reason. This means that the Design version makes a little more sense, though the difference isn’t extreme.
Though it came from the era covered by the All For You compilation - and is on a Virgin album - “Whoops Now” is exclusive to Design. Its absence from All For You shouldn’t be regarded as a negative, as “Whoops” offers easily the weakest video in this package. Essentially a collection of low-quality vacation home movies, I don’t know if the material literally came from a holiday, but it’s an exceptionally cheap-looking affair that appears to have been made in a day or two with a budget of about twelve bucks. The song itself’s a bouncy little neo-Motown number, but the video’s a serious dud.
“Runaway” may not have appeared until Design’s release in 1995, but it sounds suspiciously like a reject from an earlier project. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t make the cut for a prior album and Janet resurrected it to finish off her A&M contract. Actually, it’s not a bad little tune, but it doesn’t compare with her better work, as it seems somewhat derivative and lackluster.
The video, on the other hand, is a fair amount of fun. It pours on the production values as it shows Janet in lots of green-screen situations all over the world. If you don’t like the video, watch the documentary that I’ll discuss later; it might change your mind.
For Janet fans, Design of a Decade 1986-1996 offers a truly terrific package. Along with the recent All For You set, we can now obtain a largely complete set of her videos; between the two, we discover a whopping 31 clips. Yes, a few remain absent, but that’s still a strong collection. Design nicely spotlights Janet’s early years of success and is a definite must-have for those who love her music.
One final note: though Design largely supersedes The Rhythm Nation Compilation, the latter does include a few elements not found here. Its “Miss You Much” adds a few seconds to the ending, while “Alright” runs about a minute longer as well. The package also includes an “Epilogue” with some fans and brief “behind the scenes” bits between videos. If that material’s important to you, then I guess you’ll want both DVDs. However, I thought the changes were very minor and inconsequential. I don’t know why Design shortened a couple of the videos, but I didn’t feel they were harmed. Heck, I always felt “Alright” lasted too long anyway.
Design of a Decade 1986-1996 appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. A few of the videos are letterboxed; “Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, and “Come Back to Me” seem to be 1.78:1, while “The Pleasure Principle” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” appear to be 1.66:1. However, most of the program features a fullframe presentation. For the most part, Design looked fairly good, but it lacked many special qualities.
For the most part, sharpness seemed fairly good. The Control videos showed light softness at times. This never became dominant, though “Control” itself appeared a little too fuzzy for my liking. Both of the clips from the longform Rhythm Nation program showed good clarity and definition, but “Escapade” came across as slightly fuzzy. “Come Back to Me” also demonstrated a modestly gauzy look that made it less well focused than I’d like. Otherwise, I thought the videos appeared adequately crisp and accurate. Not surprisingly, “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Runaway” displayed the strongest definition; along with the intentionally murky “Whoops Now”, those were the newest in the package, so I expected higher quality.
Some examples of jagged edges and moiré effects cropped up from time to time. These never seemed excessive, but they caused occasional concerns. Periodic examples of edge enhancement marred the presentation as well. This seemed most noticeable during “Let’s Wait Awhile” but a few others showed a little edge enhancement also.
Source flaws largely seemed minor. Some speckles and video artifacts appeared at times, but these stayed reasonably modest throughout the videos. Among the Control clips, the pre-concert introduction for the song showed the biggest issues, as it looked rather grainy. For the Rhythm Nation bits, “Miss You Much” and “Rhythm Nation” probably showed the strongest concerns in this area, though I suspect that some of these may have been intentional to give the program a “gritty” look. In any case, the videos generally seemed fairly clean.
Colors varied but usually appeared acceptably vibrant. Many Eighties videos came across as somewhat muddy and murky, and the Control clips fit into that mold. At times the hues looked nicely bright and vivid, but they also periodically showed some of that traditional Eighties heaviness. “When I Think Of You” suffered from some thick red lighting, and similar concerns affected “Control”.
“Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” were black and white, but the others featured fairly solid stylized tones. During “Escapade”, I felt the colors looked a bit muddy, but the other videos looked reasonably clear and vivid. “That’s the Way Love Goes” used a restricted palette, and “Whoops Now” was an intentional mess, but “Runaway” showed wonderfully bright and vivid tones that matched the exotic landscapes.
Overall, dark tones worked pretty well for these videos. At times the Control clips were a little dull, but “Nasty” showed nice depth to its blacks, and the monochrome “Let’s Wait Awhile” demonstrated solid contrast and accuracy. Black levels came across as a little murky during “Rhythm” and “Miss”, but they were decently deep and rich at other times; “Love” worked especially well in that regard. Overall, this program remained very watchable at all times, but it never appeared impressive.
As for the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack of Design of a Decade, it also seemed decent but lackluster. The soundfield primarily stayed with the normal stereo spread. The imaging seemed a bit ordinary, as the center domain tended to dominate the proceedings. The sides offered reasonable audio, but it wasn’t a terribly vivid and distinct presentation. The surrounds provided modest reinforcement of the audio but nothing else.
Audio quality was good but not special. Highs sounded reasonably distinct, though they lacked tremendous brightness or clarity; they reproduced those elements acceptably but not with any particular merit. Bass response seemed similarly decent but unspectacular. Low-end sounds were fairly deep and tight, but the production lacked much real punch.
I must note that a lot of the audio quality strongly corresponded to the production of the original album. Control displayed deeper bass than Rhythm Nation, while Janet. kicked butt in that regard. As such, the Nation tracks seemed more subdued and thinner than the others. However, Control suffered from some mildly rough and edgy high-end that didn’t affect Nation. Ultimately, Design of a Decade provided very adequate sound but it didn’t often rise above that level.
In regard to extras, don’t look for any in the “Special Features” area. All we find there is the option for “Continuous Play”. Oddly, the “Audio Set-up” options appear in that domain as well.
However, Design does include one supplement, and it’s a surprisingly good one. We get a documentary about the making of the video for “Runaway”. This piece lasts a mere eight minutes but it provides some excellent information. We hear interview snippets from Janet and director Marcus Nispel and see lots of good footage from the shoot. They really put Janet through the ringer for this video, and the documentary neatly demonstrates all of the work she had to do. Heck, at one point she nearly got chopped up by a plane’s propeller! It’s a very compelling program; I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff.
Over the last decade and a half, Janet Jackson has grown from her cage as Michael’s little sister to become one of the world’s biggest stars. Design of a Decade 1986-1996 nicely encapsulates the years during which she earned her first successes. We get a fine collection of interesting music videos; some look dated, but most have held up pretty well. The DVD even includes a very interesting documentary about the making of a video. All in all, this is a solid set that I strongly recommend for any Janet fan.