Tuesday, January 19, 2021

"Got 'til It's Gone" by Janet Jackson (1997)

In keeping with our current shoutout to Janet Jackson, the next track I will delve into is Got 'til It's Gone (1997) featuring Q-Tip.  And the funny thing is that despite this being one of my JJ favorites, now that I think about it I don't really know any of its actual words.  I guess that's when you know a song really sounds good, when you don't even understand the words yet can still enjoy it.  But that being noted, let's jump straight into the meaning of the lyrics.

The cover art to Janet Jackson's Gone 'til It's Gone (1997).

THE LYRICS

For starters, what I didn't know is that this song actually features two additional vocalists - the aforementioned Q-Tip as well as one Joni Mitchell, a Canadian singer whose peak of fame was during the 1970s.  In fact it is she who Q-Tip is referring when he says "Joni Mitchell never lies", which is like the only easily-discernible line in the entire song.  Moreover, the track itself is largely based on a sample of a tune Joni Mitchell dropped in 1970 entitled Big Yellow Taxi.  And just to note, Janet Jackson also gave a shoutout to "a big yellow taxi" on her 1997 track, The Pleasure Principle.  In fact she's actually a fan of Mitchell's, which we will get into later.

Big Yellow Taxi is actually a protest song against the destruction of the environment.  And it is where the phrase "don't it always seem to go, that you don know what you've got 'til it's gone" is derived from, i.e. the same line that makes up the refrain/chorus of Janet Jackson's song.  But of course, Janet & co. aren't talking about the environment.  Rather she uses it in a romantic context, speaking to the idea of not appreciating someone you love until you lose them.

Meanwhile Q-Tip's verse features the rapper going on about his troubled relationship with his shorty.  Based on his account, she possesses a type of behavior and attitude which is detrimental to their romance.  And as seen in the interlude, he is basically chastising her for behaving in such a manner.  Moreover, given the overall theme of the song, Tip himself would be implying that homegirl is not going to appreciate his love until he ends up cutting her off.

So despite the lyrics being somewhat tough to make out at points, the message of the track is quite simple.  And such would be that fukin up a good relationship and then regretting it afterwards is sort of a normal part of the human experience.

THE TEAM

Q-Tip and Janet Jackson @ Tip's birthday in 2010.

I'm happy to have had the opportunity to work on this song, as it allows me to give a shoutout to Q-Tip and by extension A Tribe Called Quest and by another extension the late Phife Dawg (1970-2016), which I never particularly intended to do on this blog.  Around the same time this track came out Q-Tip had what was I believe was his most-successful solo offering, Vivrant Thing (1999), a song which by the way irritates the hell outta me.  But either way, since then I haven't really heard anything from him except when the Tribe were talking about dropping a new project in the wake of Phife's death.  But as can be seen by the pic above, he and Janet have apparently remained cool throughout the years.  However this is the only track they have ever actually dropped together.

Joni Michell and Janet Jackson in 2020.

And the same can pretty much be said concerning Miss Jackson's relationship with Joni Mitchell.  In fact Janet was known as being a fan of Joni's even before this song ever came out.  And in the process of securing the rights to use Mitchell's sample on this track, Joni likewise asked Janet to be featured on a tribute album that was being put together in her (Mitchell's) honor.  Janet went on to comply by actually covering a Joni Mitchell track outright, one of her personal favorites, which would be 1988's Beat of Black Wings.  However said cover was never officially released.

Gone 'til It's Gone was produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who as pointed out in the last article were instrumental in launching Janet into music superstardom.  It's like the best music Janet has made, she did so alongside this musical pair.  And it must be said that this song in particular does in fact feature some impressive production.  For instance it is very difficult for none-rap tunes to effectively incorporate scratching effects, but this one does so beautifully.

Richard Branson, head of Virgin Records, getting quite close to
Janet Jackson, who would remain under the label for almost two decades.

This particular offering was released through Virgin Records whose co-founder, the eccentric Richard Branson, put a whole lotta of energy (and money) into signing Jackson in 1990.

THE SHOWING

To be honest I always thought this was one of those tracks that just a select few people, such as myself, like.  Instead upon actually researching I see that it was a major international success, charting in well over 20 nations, including amazingly enough Taiwan.  Its most notable showing was on the UK R&B Chart, where it reached the number one position.  It also scored a number one in Canada, on RPM's Dance/Urban list.  However it did not appear on the Billboard Hot 100 itself due to the fact that, according to Wikipedia, the track was not released as a "commercial single", whatever that means.  But still it is acknowledged as being the first single dropped from Janet Jackson's sixth album, The Velvet Rope.

Cover art to Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope (1997).

VISUALS

It's pretty obvious the cover art to this song (as seen at the beginning of the article) is sending some sort of message, though what exactly I can't tell.  What does seem obvious though is that the overall pose Janet Jackson is making is some type of allusion to the Negro minstrel shows of old.  At its foundation this form of entertainment was not racist in its origin, but as the genre evolved (as rendered by White people) it became largely so.  The music video also, which was directed by Mark Romanek, does at points deal with the topic of old-school racism.  And in all I think it's safe to say that the clip is an Afrocentric affair, as there was sort of this Black pride vibe in African-American music at the time (i.e. Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, India Arie).

And as for the glowing red background on the cover art, I would say as far as the music industry in particular is concerned such is usually a reference to (hell)fire.  But I don't really want to go too far off the deep end, especially since the lyrics themselves read like a straight-up love/breakup song, and there doesn't really seem to be any subliminal messages in the video.

As for the video itself, again it's sort of a product of its era, when this kinda nostalgic Black pride was trending.  That seems to happen in African-American entertainment from time to time.  There is also arguably some sort of female-sexual liberation thing kinda going on here.  Also there's a picture of Joni Mitchell at the beginning of clip, and I can imagine people at home who don't actually know who she is being like 'who the hell is that', considering that this is once again a very-Black video.

CONCLUSION

By the time the late 90s rolled around, Michael Jackson was no longer a trending musician per se.  Yes, Invincible (2001) may have featured some nice tracks, in addition to being a Billboard 200 chart topper.  And throughout the last three decades of his life, Michael was undoubtedly the most popular musician in the world.  But it's like he wasn't really cool anymore, not like Janet Jackson proved to be with songs like this.  Or let's say that just like her big bro helped her get a foot in the door, later on she returned the favor by helping to keep the family name hot.

UPDATE (30 JANUARY 2021)

Mark Romanek, the director of the well-received
music video to this song, decided to give it what
he deemed as an authentic (South) African look and feel.

I recently did some additional research on this song and just wanted to point out a few facts and ideas that I totally overlooked the first time around.  At the top of list is the fact that the music video does indeed deal with racism, in an indirect way, as in being set in Apartheid-era South Africa.  By the time Got 'til It's Gone came out the overtly-racist apartheid system itself had already been outlawed for a few years.  However it was the idea of Mark Romanek to give the clip an old-school African motif.  And in all it did prove to be a wise artistic decision, as the visual was dubbed Best Short Form Music Video at the 40th Grammy Awards (1998).

Also concerning Janet's hairstyle, it may not have been meant to callback to the days of Negro minstrels but rather, at least as one website has interpreted the look, some form of African spirituality.  That's on the music video itself.  But as far as the cover art it seems pretty obvious, at least to me, that Jackson is alluding to early-20th century African-American entertainment; though perhaps I'm misreading it, and she may be referring to that of South Africa instead.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

"When I Think of You" by Janet Jackson (1986)

The cover to Janet Jackson's When I Think of You (1986)
from the album she dropped that same year, Control.

 PERSONAL INSPIRATION

Recently I was doing research on the Jackson 5.  And while in the midst of such I had came to a startling realization.  Yes, the constant presence of his (big) brothers early in his career logically helped Michael Jackson become grounded in the music industry.  But none of his siblings, outside of Janet, actually contributed to his immense fame in adulthood.  Now I know Jermaine may have had a hit or two, and cheesus used to play the damn out of Rebbie Jackson's Centipede (1984).  But only Janet proved herself successful enough entertainment-wise on a level worthy of being a sibling of Michael Jackson.

Michael (1958) was about seven and-a-half years older than Janet (1966).

So then after coming to that conclusion I was like okay, let me write an article about Janet Jackson.  Then it came down to ascertaining which of her songs, When I Think of You or that track she did with Q-Tip, was actually my favorite.  Ultimately, even though I would say the latter has more of a timeless quality, I went with the former because it's older and affords more of a reason to delve more into Janet's history.

 ACCOLADES

And historically When I Think of You is in fact a significant song as it was the first time Miss Jackson, who went on to become one of the most-successful female singers ever, topped the Billboard Hot 100.  (She's achieved 10 number ones on the Hot 100 as of 2001).  It has also garnered gold certification in the US and has made it onto 10 music charts around the world.

Now going back to doing Michael justice, when this song made it to number 1 it also made Janet and Michael the only two siblings in history to both individually top the Hot 100.  And even now, over 30 years later, that's an achievement that's still yet to be matched.

When I Think of You, despite being an undeniable hit, didn't sell like crazy.  But it is the song which put Janet Jackson on the road to superstardom in a way that legitimized the Jacksons as a genuine musical family.  In fact even as I'm writing this article Michael Jackson's daughter (?) Paris just dropped her first song.  And that's what you call a true musical legacy - like Bob Marley for instance - that when anyone in your immediate family decides to come out with a track, the industry has to at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

Janet Jackson is in fact the youngest member of
the Jackson family.  But as you can see, even from
early on she already knew what time it was.






THE TEAM

In fact Janet Jackson herself was far from what you would call a musical prodigy.  That's a somewhat-euphemistic way of saying that her first two albums before Control (1986) - with her debut project coming out when she was 16 years old - both "bombed".  Meanwhile if you or I were lucky enough to get signed to a record label and dropped even one corny album, our music careers would pretty much be over.  But again, this is not only a Jackson we're talking about but also one who didn't give in easily.  So as mentioned above, A&M Records still gave her the benefit of the doubt with Control.

Janet Jackson in the studio with Jimmy Jam (left)
and Terry Lewis (right) circa 1993. The pair produced
9
of her aforementioned 10 Hot 100 number 1s.

And this time around she not only 'got out from under her father' but also employed the services of producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.  And even though you rarely hear about them these days, back in the dawgs they were amongst the musicians who defined the sound of R&B.  And interestingly out of the numerous hits they help create - working alongside the likes of Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey and the late George Michael - the artist they are most known for partnering with is indeed Janet Jackson.  And in addition to producing When I Think of You they also wrote the song, with Janet also being a co-writer.

Moreover outside of this track, they produced other hits from Control which went on to define Miss Janet's music career such as Nasty and the equally-unforgettable What Have You Done for Me Lately.  And by the time all was said and done, the album proved successful enough the earn the pair a Producer of the Year Grammy Award.

 

Meanwhile the music video was directed by an industry vet named Julien TempleAccording to IMDb it features Paula Abdul (although I couldn't spot her anywhere offhand).  It is also said to contain two of Janet's nephews (via her brother Tito), Taryll and TJ Jackson.  The pair later went on to become two-thirds of 3T, the group who dropped what I remember to be a slightly-frightening music video alongside uncle Micheal (which would be 1995's Why).  You may also notice that Janet is a bit on the thick side in the clip.  I remember back in the days there were rumors of her having weight loss surgery, but according to the singer herself those were lies.  Yet either way, it's pretty obvious comparing her then to now that she's had facial surgery.  And in noticing how pretty she was back then, well, let's just say it's bit challenging to understand how she rationalized that decision even though at the end of the day we know that she (and others) followed the lead of MJ.

THE SONG

And now comes to the real nitty-gritty, actually analyzing what the song means.  To be totally honest even though this is one of my favorites, I don't know any of the words to the actual verses.  However I would presume it's about, you know, love.  And whereas the wording isn't anything even remotely complex, the two verses do take slightly-different approaches to the matter at hand.

In the first, the singer is telling her sweetheart that whenever she's stressed out, thinking of him calms her down.  And the second verse is somewhat similar, whereas she likens dude to an anti-depressant.  But she also alludes to the notion of her love for him continually growing as time progresses.  Indeed when she thinks of him her thoughts doesn't drift to the things she don't like, you know, like a normal lover would do.  Rather whenever he comes to mind, 'all she thinks about is their love'.  So it really does sound like Janet is portraying the role of someone who is in the early stages of a romance, before you start also noticing things about that special someone which turn you off.  But I'm not trying to spoil the mood or anything.  After all, Janet was a tender 20 years old when this track came out.  So it's like, I just wonder if she'd be privy to drop a song like this today.

CONCLUSION

To me the 1980s and the mega-success of soloists such as Janet Jackson and Madonna marked a shift in the music industry.  Janet was someone who got her foot in the door due to, as aforementioned, the success of Michael Jackson in particular.  In other words she was not born with natural singing talent, as was Michael.  In fact she has an average singing voice, albeit one that has been thoroughly trained and on this track one can even say computerized.  Or stated otherwise, Janet's talent didn't make her a star; her drive did.  And since the 80s it has become more common for vocalists, who really don't possess anymore singing talent than the next man, to blow up.  Or let's put it like this - nowadays a pop musician's drive is perhaps even more important than his or her talent.

And this isn't a diss or anything, not as far as Janet is concerned.  Whereas she and Michael may not have been as buddy-buddy as some of us would like to think, again it was her efforts which truly legitimized the Jacksons, as a whole, as a musical family.  And she was one of the premiere artists who defined late 20th century music.  So I may just follow-up this article by researching Got Til It's Gone, i.e. the track she dropped with Q-Tip in 1997.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

"Stranger in Moscow" by Michael Jackson (1996)

This is another track I decided to analyze in depth because it's been playing in my head lately.  In fact a few days ago I found myself on the roadside spontaneously singing it, for at times I too feel "like a stranger in Moscow".  But it was also upon doing so I realized that, outside of the chorus, I don't even really know the words to it.  So it's like not knowing the words to one of your favorite songs is as good of a reason to research it as any.

The cover art to Stranger in Moscow (1996)

Speaking of Michael Jackson (1958-2009), he was indeed a polarizing figure.  I guess such is to be expected when you're the most-popular singular human being to walk the Earth during the 20th century.  People are going to be all up in your business, and along with the good comes the bad and even the straight-up lies.

But one thing I will say about Michael is this.  Even though he was hands-down the top musician in the world, he didn't come out with mediocre songs or drop half-ass collaborations just to make a quick buck.  No, MJ put his all into his music career.  In fact it has been said that part of the reason he died prematurely was because he overworked himself to death.  So even though Stranger in Moscow (1996) came out like a decade after his heyday, you can still tell that he put his full emotion into the track.

Who knew that Sonic, in his own way, contributed to the
creation of Stranger in Moscow?

MICHAEL JACKSON & SEGA

But with that being noted, here's an interesting fact.  Brad Buxer, a composer who worked regularly with Micheal Jackson, has stated that at the "base" of the instrumental for Stranger in Moscow is actually music he and MJ put together to be used for the Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994).  And this is something which Michael himself reportedly admitted to.

An older pic of Brad Buxer, the dude who is said to have helped
Michael Jackson create the musical basis behind Stranger in Moscow
Buxer also worked with other classic Black artists like Stevie Wonder
and Smokey Robinson.

So why did Michael use chords from a song that he actually intended for a videogame?  Well the main console which Sonic 3 was featured on was the Sega Genesis.  And MJ, as implied earlier being a perfectionist, was frustrated with the quality of sound the machine could produce.  So apparently the Moonwalker just got fed up one day and bounced on the project.


However it has also been put forth that the reason he behaved so was due to what he was going through at the time - something we'll get into later.  But that being established, it is still widely held that some of the music he helped create made it onto Sonic, even if he wasn't credited.  So if true, he apparently still retained enough control over what he did produce to use it on his own personal song also, most notably Stranger in Moscow but also quite a few others.  And truth be told, according to the video embedded above, the ending theme to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 does sound, at one point, almost identical to Stranger in Moscow.

THE TEAM

However at the end of the day, whether Michael had help creating this track or not, it is only he who is credited as its producer and writer.  The labels behind that put it out are Epic Records, Sony Music and MJJ Productions - the latter being founded by MJ himself.  The song was officially released on 28 August 1997, and it served as the fifth single from Michael's double-disc project entitled HIStory: Past, Present and Fture, Book I.

Michael Jackson's History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 (1995)
cover art.  As implied by the imagery, he opted to stand strong despite
what he was going through around the time of its release.

The video to this track, which I guess you could say is perhaps the best parts of the song, was directed by an English photographer named Nick Brandt.  And it's obviously the type of visual that's meant to be a work of art, one in which the viewer is tasked with interpreting what the images mean.  But at the same time, combined the lyrics the video is pretty easy to understand.  And as for me personally, I always thought the video was, you know, actually filmed in Moscow.  But it was in fact shot in Los Angeles, which is like Michael Jackson's hometown.  And that brings us to the actual meaning of the song.

THE LYRICS

Despite his aforementioned fame and wealth life wasn't all peachy for MJ, especially around the time Stranger in Moscow came out.  For it was in 1993 when he was first formally accused of child-sexual abuse.  These allegations took a serious and immediate toll on his career as well as health.

Moreover, you know everybody likes making fun of Michael.  This was true even before these accusations came out, and the mocking did not let up while he was going through this ordeal.  In fact in the aftermath, the media persecution of the King of Pop got a lot worse.

And no, they did not stop even after Michael settled with his accuser, Jordan Chandler, for a whopping $23,000,000 in early 1994.  In fact according to the The Washington Post the entire ordeal remained the main story in the news until the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial of September, 1994.  And as many readers can attest to, even well after Michael Jackson passed away in 2009 the media still hasn't stopped f*kin with him.  So I guess you can say this was the negative effect of being as rich and mega-famous - and eccentric - as Michael Jackson was.  Or stated differently he was never actually convicted of sexual abuse, even after a thorough and extremely-humiliating investigation.  Moreover he richly settled the matter with the accuser.  But regardless the media would not let the issue die down.

So in summation Michael was losing tens of millions of dollars in endorsements, even outside of the money he paid to Jordy Chandler.  Also his health got all messed up.  Then on top of that, people wouldn't stop making fun of him and prying into his private life.  Moreover on even an even more-intimate personal level, as this song reveals, he was also in an exceptionally-lonely state.

Wherever Michael went in Moscow, he was flanked by crowds.

According to the legend behind this song, Michael Jackson wrote it while he was indeed in Moscow.  This was during September of 2003, while MJ was conducting his highly-lucrative Dangerous World Tour.  And according to one in-depth account of his time there, despite being constantly mobbed by innumerable fans MJ was "as lonely as maybe never before".  In the same article it has been noted that it was a "surprise" visit he made to Russia just "a couple of weeks after being first publicly accused of child abuse".  Or stated differently, he likely already wasn't in the best of spirits even before he landed there.

Above is a short documentary on Michael's visit to Russia in 1993.  It's pretty informative, despite being in Russian. You can see that wherever he goes, there's multitudes.  Indeed MJ required a presidential level of security, even though he was in fact a long way from Starbucks.

Michael only seems to have one travel companion, some old Black dude that I don't recognize.  And not for nothing, but your chances of making friends are likely minimized when you're like hiding your face in public and running from crowds.  But at the end of the day, logically speaking nobody knows how it feels to be Michael Jackson other than Michael Jackson.  Indeed Michael was rockin' surgical facemasks in public like a good 30 years before they became fashionable.

Michael Jackson wearing a facemask in Russia during September, 1993.

So with that in mind it doesn't seem that he actually had beef with the Kremlin, as the first verse of the track implies.  Indeed even on the official Genius explanation of the lyrics it says that the "Kremlin", as used in the song, is meant to be symbolic of the powers-that-be, so to speak.  But Michael does goes on to say in the second verse that he was being 'dogged' by the KGB.  So maybe, considering that he was in fact accused of a heinous crime, the Russian security forces were conducting extra surveillance on him even beyond their already-infamous norm.  And overall, on Stranger in Moscow Jackson partially comes off like a celebrity who wishes he could shed his fame.  Using Russia as an example, he's tired of people always being up in his face wherever he goes.

And remember, once again, that the music video to this song was filmed in Los Angeles.  So ultimately the phrase "stranger in Moscow" can be interpreted as allegorical language, as in the way Michael felt everywhere he goes. This was an individual who, as ironic as it may sound, suffered from intense loneliness.  Indeed according to his own words he used to go out at night and randomly approach people in L.A., looking for a friend.  And with that being said, take a moment to imagine walking down the street and some pinkish-looking Black dude with like relaxed Jheri curls, indeed Michael Jackson himself, suddenly steps to you, trying to spark a random conversation.  You'd probably be left speechless, no pun intended.

So analysts of this song who look past its geographical origins understand that MJ was singing of his overall mental/social state at the time.  He had indeed experienced a "swift and sudden fall from grace" which had left him perturbed.  Or perhaps another way of looking at it is that, despite how many fans Michael may have had, he felt as if the world had turned on him in a way.  But at the end of the day, at least we can say that he got a dope song out of it.

CHART PERFORMANCE

Stranger in Moscow made it onto the Billbaord Hot 100 yet only peaked at number 91.  To put that into perspective, that's the lowest any Michael Jackson song which ever appeared on the Hot 100 has ever charted.  But it did reach number 50 on Billbaord's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

But more importantly, Stranger in Moscow did manage to top the charts in the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain.  Additionally it made it all the way up to number four on the UK Singles Chart and charted in over 20 countries overall.  It also re-charted in handful of European countries in 2006 (again reaching number one in Spain) and in 2009, in the latter case presumably after MJ's passing.  But it didn't sell a gazillion copies like some of his other hits.  And perhaps in this particular instance that wasn't necessarily his goal.

But that being said, as implied earlier the negative press he was receiving affected its performance.  So it's pretty amazing that it still did as well as it did, proving that verily it is a quality track and that at the end of the day the Moonwalker was a force that couldn't be denied.  Indeed HIStory itself sold in excess of 20,000,000 copies.


THE VIDEO

I had to give another shoutout to the music video because now that I think about it, it's my favorite Michael Jackson.  The audio and visual combine to tell a comprehensive, easy-to-follow story, and even to this day I would say the aesthetics are beautiful.  This track has stood the test of time better than most of Michael's bigger hits.  And here's an interesting fact - the slow motion they used in it is said to be a technological predecessor to the bullet-time effect used in The Matrix (1999).

CONCLUSION

I sympathize with what Michael Jackson was going through when he came out with Stranger in Moscow.  No, I'm not trying to insinuate that I know how it feels to have thousands upon thousands fans, unlimited dough and still be lonely.  But one thing this song helped me realize is that chronic loneliness is chronic loneliness, no matter who is suffering from it.

Michael Jackson chillin' with one of his homeys, Hollywood child actor
Macauley Culkin.  It was pretty obvious that Michael was not comfortable
in his natural skin which may have logically, in various ways,
contributed to his loneliness.

Indeed as the old saying goes, "it's lonely at the top".  And truth by told MJ was too rich and famous to be hanging out with other Black celebrities.  In fact I would say that was part of the reason he tried to make himself White, because his success had reached a point where he could no longer identify with his own people, so to speak.  But maybe, just maybe he should have tried a little harder.  After all, you can't spend all of your time hanging out with like Elizabeth Taylor and Macauley Culkin and sh*t.  So conclusively, I guess if there's one ultimate lesson to be learned from Stranger in Moscow it's that even enviable success has its disadvantages.