Technically, 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814 was Janet Jackson’s fourth album, but as far as I’m concerned, it was her second release. During the first half of the Eighties, she put out two records: 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street. I never heard either of these at the time, and neither did many others. They came during the period in which her brother Michael owned the pop world, and everyone even remotely attached to the Jackson family got a record contract. (Anybody else remember Rebbie’s “Centipede”?)
At the time, Janet looked like little more than another sibling trying to ride Michael’s coattails. Prior to 1986, few of these Jackson family releases met with success. Older brother Jermaine achieved a minor success in 1980 with “Let’s Get Serious”, and he also scored a hit in 1984 with “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming”. However, since the latter was a duet with Michael, it didn’t really represent an accomplishment for Jermaine himself; Ernest Borgnine could have topped the charts with a Michael duet during that era.
Still, Jermaine remained the sole solo Jackson not named “Michael” to do anything even remotely popular on his own. Actually, Janet made a modest career for herself as an actress. Starting with her role as Penny on Good Times in the late Seventies, she also earned supporting roles on Fame and Diff’rent Strokes. Janet stayed in the background with these fairly small parts, but at least she created a minor name for herself.
Despite the obscurity of her first two albums, Janet continued to plug away and put out a third release in 1986. With Control, her recording career truly began. Starting with “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”, the first single from the album, Control made a home for itself near the top of the charts and stayed there for quite some time. The combination of Janet’s fresh and lively personality and the “Minneapolis sound” of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis - former members of The Time - Control pumped out hits throughout 1986 and 1987; Janet scored with “Nasty”, “Control”, “When I Think of You”, “Let’s Wait A While” and “The Pleasure Principle”. Dang - that meant two-thirds of the album entered the singles charts!
It also meant that Janet would never be able to surprise the pop world again. Few anticipated that Michael’s little sister to top the charts, so Control emerged as a genuine sensation. Expectations grew exponentially for her follow-up… whenever that might arrive. Janet didn’t exactly rush back to the studio to do her next album, and Rhythm Nation wouldn’t hit shelves until the fall of 1989, about three and a half years after the release of Control.
Despite all the pressure, Nation became a terrific success. I don’t know which album sold the most copies, but Nation created a parade of hit singles that ran longer than even that of Control. After the initial salvo of “Miss You Much”, a steady string of successes followed with “Rhythm Nation”, “Escapade”, “Come Back to Me”, “Alright”, “Black Cat” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”. Did she release seven singles from Nation to purposefully top the six-hit string from Control? Maybe, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that all of them really were genuinely popular. Nation established Janet as a consistent force within the pop world, a title she’s retained over the 12 years and three albums since 1989.
A compilation of music videos from the album, The Rhythm Nation Compilation allows us to remember Janet circa 1989-90. It 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.
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.
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.
Speaking of directors, we hear a little from them during the program. Compilation starts with some words from Ritts and other directors like Dominic Sena, who would go on to become a hotshot feature film creator through flicks like Gone In Sixty Seconds and Swordfish. We also hear a few remarks from producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in this brief introduction.
In addition, some very modest “behind the scenes” snippets crop up between videos. We see some images from the set of the clips and also hear parts of alternate versions of the songs. These components don’t add much, but they spice up the set to a minor degree.
Lastly, an “Epilogue” after “Love” offers a short interview clip with Janet. She discusses the impact Rhythm Nation has on others and tells us of some girls who got their high school diplomas because of the song “The Knowledge”. We also see these girls as they hysterically read their letter to Janet right in front of the singer. While I’m happy Janet made a positive impression and indirectly helped some kids, this element feels awfully self-aggrandizing and seems like something more typical of brother Michael.
Interestingly, the Rhythm Nation period would really be the last in which Janet resided under Michael’s shadow. At that point, her work still largely resembled his, but that would change drastically when Janet embraced her sexuality in the Nineties, something Michael never dared to do. To be sure, Janet has created her own personality during the second half of the Eighties, but I can imagine Michael doing a lot of the work seen on the Rhythm Nation Compilation, where I can’t imagine him creating the songs and videos found on the Virgin Years program. Unlike Michael - who seems to be forever stuck in the glory days of the Reagan presidency - Janet grew and developed over the years.
Not that this should be seen as a slam on Rhythm Nation, which actually may be her best album. I like the ways that she broadened her horizons in the Nineties, but I won’t deny the strong work offered in the second half of the Eighties as well. In regard to her videos, the clips in the Rhythm Nation Compilation seem consistently good but unexceptional; frankly, the songs themselves outclass the visuals. Still, it’s a fairly entertaining collection.
Janet Jackson: The Rhythm Nation Compilation appears mainly 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 with dimensions of approximately 1.78:1; “Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, and “Come Back to Me” use that ratio, but most of the program features a fullframe presentation. For the most part, Nation looked fairly good, but it lacked many special qualities.
For the most part, sharpness seemed fairly good. 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. However, some examples of jagged edges and moiré effects cropped up from time to time. These never seemed excessive, but they caused occasional concerns
Print flaws largely seemed minor. Some speckles and video artifacts appeared at times, but these stayed reasonably modest throughout the videos. “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. “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. 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 Rhythm Nation Compilation, 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. Ultimately, the Rhythm Nation Compilation provided very adequate sound but it didn’t rise above that level.
In regard to extras, the Compilation didn’t really provide any. Sure, some “behind the scenes” material pops up between videos, but that information is minor at best, and since it occurs during the program proper, I don’t consider it to qualify as a supplement. In the “Special Features” area, all we find is the option for “Continuous Play”. Oddly, the “Audio Set-up” options appear in that domain as well.
As a whole, The Rhythm Nation Compilation offers a good look at Janet Jackson circa 1989-90. None of the clips are terribly special, but the songs are good and the visuals accompany them fairly well. The DVD provides reasonably good picture and sound quality but includes no substantial supplements.
Although I like this package, I don’t recommend it. That’s because A&M released another collection of Janet videos a little more than a month after Compilation hit the streets. Design of a Decade includes all seven songs found on Compilation and includes an additional nine, most of which come from Control.
Design does make few small changes, though. Its “Miss You Much” clips a few seconds off the ending, while “Alright” is about a minute shorter as well. The package also omits the “Epilogue” and the “behind the scenes” bits between videos.
As such, Janet completists will want to have The Rhythm Nation Compilation in their collections. It includes enough differences to warrant purchase by the die-hards. However, others will likely be pleased with the more inclusive Design of a Decade and should pursue it instead.