Rhythm Nation, Vangelis, and Blade Runner
One day at the gym I was listening to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album (an album that I first bought on cassette tape, at a record store in Tri-County Mall, back in the late 80s).
The very first track or “interlude,” “Pledge,” leads into the album’s titular single. As I listened to “Pledge,” I realized that the percussive sound at 0:08 in the clip below really, really resembles the percussive sounds that are in the Vangelis-scored opening scenes of Blade Runner. So, let’s compare:
First, the Jackson album. Listen especially at 0:08 for the percussive sound.
You can hear that effect here, in this concert performance, also at around 0:08.
And now Blade Runner: You can find it here. (start around 0:40, listening especially at, for example, 0:43 and 0:53).
So, Jackson’s introductory Interlude and Vangelis’s intro for Blade Runner are sonically pretty similar. As an 11-year-old, I didn’t make the connection between the two back in 1989, mainly because I had not seen Blade Runner, and also because, you know, I was 11. But now it seems pretty likely that anyone reasonably familiar with the Vangelis soundtrack would easily recognize the reference in the opening of Jackson’s album.
So, this sonic similarity (reference? Was this an intentional move on JJ and her producers’ part?), what does it mean? I’m still working that out; I’m at the stage of raising questions, not answering them. BUT, here are some of these questions:
1. Is it an intentional reference? Is Rhythm Nation 1814, the song and the video, referencing Blade Runner the film, if not just Vangelis’s score? On this point it’s worth noting that both Blade Runner and the 1814 video were filmed in LA’s Ray Bradbury building.
Here’s the official video for Rhythm Nation:
2. What’s the comparison between Jackson’s Gary, Indiana, circa 1989, and Scott/Dick’s Los Angeles circa 2019? When I lived in Chicago, I drove by all the old steel mills on the lake, through Gary and Hammond and all the other rust-belt, African-American towns on the South Shore. They sorta look like a 20th century version of the smokestack-filled LA that Scott gives us in the film. And think about it: they’re both cities that whites have abandoned for cleaner air, economic opportunity, globalization/intergalactic colonization, etc.
3. Clearly there are Afrofuturist elements of both 1814 and Blade Runner (which is, after all, about slavery). But is this just a general similarity, or do their Afrofuturisms intersect?
4. Along those lines, does New Jack, or at least some aspects/manifestations of New Jack aesthetics, serve as a sort of black cyberpunk? (I’m appealing to New Jack here because the 1814 track is really influenced by New Jack Swing & House, in addition to R&B.) 90s cyberpunk was really, really white (Fishbourne’s role in The Matrix nonwithstanding). What are the connections between New Jack, House, and Techno? If Chicago house and Detroit techno are black “industrial” musics, what relationship do they have to the genre we call “Industrial,” which is really pretty white? If white cyberpunk music is generally an outgrowth of the white industrial scene, can we locate a black cyberpunk that grows out of or is influenced by house and techno (or some other African-American genre)? And, is this question about black cyberpunk even worth asking, or does the term itself obscure and/or assimilate too much?
5. Has anyone written anything on the Blade Runner/Janet Jackson connection before? Or on New Jack’s connection to cyberpunk?
So I have a lot to think about. If you have any suggestions or other responses to my questions, that’s awesome. I need help working through this.