19 January 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).


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.