I was sitting in a bar in Vermont on the night before we were scheduled to run the 2014 Vermont Tough Mudder and at some point someone put on Janet Jackson's "That's The Way Love Goes." And I am sure that I've heard it at some point in the last 20 years since the album, janet.
, came out, but for that moment, it felt like the reappearance of an old friend, of a resurgence of nostalgia for the summers of college years marked by their stamp of idleness and potential. And it didn't matter that there was this incongruity of being on the precipice of running an event with mud, barbed wire, ice water and fire, all that I could think of during that moment was, "oh, my God, I forgot. This song is so good
That revelation launched me into a small month of having to indulge in Spotify's private listening feature so that I wouldn't have to expose my friends to the guilty pleasure of my Janet Jackson binges. That phase is slowing down, but before it does, let's take a moment right now to acknowledge the genius that is the "If" music video. I had sort of forgotten about it, letting my mind be preoccupied by 'art' or 'worthy' crap like the imbecilic viral marketing campaign
for the last Boards of Canada album1
. But I revisited the "If" video last week and I was kind of blown away with how well it's aged. I mean, it's a music video that's set in a vaguely cyberpunk Chinese speakeasy (!) with a gender-bending race-ambiguous clientele (!!) who flirt and seduce each other over webcams and digitally mediated interfaces (!!!), and it was filmed in 1993 (!V) which, alone, is kind of mindblowing. Virtual voyeurism as a metaphor for unrequited yearning was not yet a cliche. Cyberspace was still a term for William Gibson's fiction, and Joss Whedon was four years away from producing Buffy, much less promulgating his Pan-Chinese Firefly Future. Based simply on the setting, I remember watching "If" when I was 19 and thinking it looked like a gorgeous future. I now see it as a 39 year old, and I want to high-five everyone for getting so much right. Where is the producer who conceived of this video and why didn't they go on to make an entire movie on the concept of Janet Jackson as an android superfly dancing Pinocchio in a dystopian Asian cityscape?
And, I'm just talking about the setting and aesthetic. I'm not even talking about the song, which as a dance number is still fantastic today. The samples, the solid drum machine backbeat and the oh-so-90s use of guitar flair -- it is a fantastic emblem of its time. The choreography is also pretty amazing with the breakdown sequence in the bridge at 3:30 being an emblematic memory for many of us who grew up in the 90s, when music video choreography flourished in the wake of Paula Abdul and her various acolytes2
, and before hiphop/R&B dance collapsed into the bump'n'grind.
There are some who say that it's a bit tragic that Janet lived in the shadow of Michael and Madonna, but I think it's arguable about who has been more "deserving" of fame. Janet wasn't as provocative or as bold as Madonna in declaring her sexuality or in using her star power to setup broader conversations about religion or homosexuality, so that would always limit the amount of attention and influence that she could wield. However, I think that Janet presented a good alternative path for pop careers, building success on solid music, choreography and consistent quality rather than controversy. She may not be as iconically hegemonic as Madonna, but in terms of spirituals heirs and leaving a legacy, Janet Jackson's done pretty well. If anything, you can take this cover by K-Pop powerhouse, Girls Generation
as your primary bit of evidence of Janet's legacy. As a sign of history moving in a loop, it's kind of amazing. Because once again, we find ourselves in Asia with midriff-baring dancers, surrounded by video screens and networked cameras, but it's not some near future fantasy but our now. Here we are, caught up to your vision. Well done, Miss Jackson. Well done, indeed.
1 I mean, yeah, I love most of BoC's stuff, but will anyone be talking about that marketing campaign in 20 years? I don't think so.
2 in my minor Janet Jackson fetish frenzy, I looked up the Wikipedia article for "If", and it turns out the choreographer is Tina Landon, a former Laker Girl and apprentice to Ms. Abdul. I swear if somebody does a biopic of Paula and just makes it about all of these classic moments of MTV music video choreography, I would love it so deeply.