The bros go ‘full Janet’ while Janet thinks she shoulda known better

Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a splash on with some hardcore Janet drag. Performing an edit of Rhythm Nation 1814, he dressed up like Janet from the video, complete with ponytail. The most impressive part was his execution of the video’s (and really, late 80s Michael/Janet style) choreography.



If anything, Gordon-Levitt’s performance made it obvious how little gender played a role in Jackson’s original performance. The dancing wasn’t sexualized in a way to indicate any particular (hetero)gender, nor were the costumes, nor the vocals, even.

Anyway, just as Gordon-Levitt’s “full Janet” visual drag made a splash on the internet, Justin Bieber released a track, “Children,” that goes sonically “full Janet,” or at least the “full Janet” of the 1814 album. “Children” starts out with breathy vocals (like most of the songs on “Purpose”) talking about making a better future for “the Children.” This hopeful social message is classic Janet (and Michael–think about the children onlookers in both Rhythm Nation and Smooth Criminal, for example), and “Rhythm Nation,” both the song and the album, is solidly within this “hopeful social message” subecategory of Janet styles. After the hopeful social message in breathy vocals, “Children” soars up as he sings “we can make a difference!” if only we open our hearts enough and make ourselves receptive and vulnerable enough; this white liberal message (social change means reforming individual attitudes not institutions) does depart from Rhythm Nation’s orientation to more collective and relational actions. The soar crests on some very New Jack snares, the same sort of New Jack percussion that was ALL OVER 1814 (thanks Jimmy and Terry!), and that’s all over the post-soar part of the chorus. There’s also a ton of faint clips of vocal melisma in the background–faint echoes of the falsetto hooks that are all over two of the three big singles Skrillex produced, “Sorry” and “Where are U Now?” (That exhale noise at the end of the “Sorry” sample is interesting–why keep it in there?). These vocal samples don’t sound like the iconic “Yeah! Woo!” that Jam & Lewis sample, but structurally they’re analogous: short vocal samples that function more rhythmically, like instruments, than vocals. I’m almost willing to go as far as saying that Skrillex, with his combo of trap, hip hop, and dance pop, is at least possibly to 2015 what Jam and Lewis were to 1989-91 with Rhythm Nation. Recalling “Rhythm Nation” in its music, “Children” goes sonically full Janet…

…at a time when Janet herself is pulling back a bit and reflecting on precisely the work Bieber’s recalling. Talking about how “Rhythm Nation was the dream,” her 2015 song “Shoulda Known Better” explicitly reflects on her past work.



For example, in the coda, she says “I had this great epiphany/And Rhythm Nation was the dream/Guess next time I’ll know better.” In the last 25 years, music by our side hasn’t been enough to break the color line. Music hasn’t be enough to overcome white supremacy, and “Shoulda Known Better” is all about the melancholy (in my technical sense that I develop in R&M) of that misfired overcoming. But, perhaps more interestingly, the song’s music also reworks the sonic manifestations of resilient overcoming–in particular, the soar/drop pop that the likes of Harris, Guetta, and Martin put under post-feminist pop anthems–into something more, well, melancholy.

Compositionally, this song is Jam & Lewis’s take on Max Martin’s pop-drop songs like “Bad Blood” or Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” These songs take a softened dubstep drop as the climax that leads into the two choruses at the end of the song after the bridge (a standard pop structure, bridge/chorus/chorus), and often use Lumiere’s-style “HEY!”s peppered through the song for rythmic emphasis. In other words, Martin’s songs combine elements of black dance music, hip hop, and white pop into a mix that reads as having transcended the racial differences it also posits. This positing-and-transcending racialized genre difference into unmarked “pop” is what Michael pioneered and Janet perfected in the 1980s. Martin, in other words, is copying Jam & Lewis’s schtick, updating it for the 2010s. In “Shoulda Known Better,” they take his version of their move, putting in some drops, soars, and plenty of Lumieers’-style “HEY!”s in the back half of some measures in the choruses. [2] But, unlike Martin, they undercut the drops and soars so they don’t feel as powerful as they conventionally do. First, the soar-drop mechanism is really underplayed through the pre-bridge material, mere background work that doesn’t come to the foreground as a major musical moment of tension and release. Then, in the song’s main climax they reverse the order of soar and drop. Conventionally, a song soars up to a pause-drop, sometimes filled with a “Hey!” or a vocal melisma, or, in “Bad Blood,” the line “blood runs thin!”. That pause-drop then lands extra hard on the downbeat of the next measure. In “Shoulda Known Better,” however, the drop comes first, and then there’s a soar to nowhere. Right around the 3:00 mark, there’s the descending bass sound that constitutes the drop. This drops us on a “Hey!” on the downbeat, but this “Hey” doesn’t resolve anything, sonically; it just suspends rhythmic and timbral tension, much like a “feminine ending” suspends harmonic tension so that it resolves not on the downbeat but on an offbeat. “Shoulda Known Better”’s drop is a “feminine ending” for the EDM-pop era. It resolves on beat two of the following measure, on a “WOOO!” that clearly is the hit that resolves the rhythmic and timbral tension. (For the record, it’s easy to tell this isn’t an extra beat because the next measure after the “Hey!/WOO!” falls clearly into 4/4 with patterns of emphasis that show there was no extra beat added to the song.) There’s no overcoming here, no redemption of damange and return to normalcy, only further not-quite-normalcy. (In the terms of R&M, “Shoulda Known Better”’s main drop maintains structural feminization, whereas resilient drops disarticulate feminine identity from structural feminization.)


So, after this drop, THEN there’s a soar. It’s a version of the pre-bridge soars, the trap snares brapp-brapp-brapping their way up to a crest. But we soar up to nowhere: there’s no landing, just an actual pause before we get to the coda, which yet again doesn’t gratify us with a climactic release of sonic tension. We get another variation on a verse. We then build into another chorus, with its wimpy soar-drop at the end. This then leads us into a SECOND coda, where everything drops out but Janet and a piano and she sings the above-quoted lyrics about Rhythm Nation and knowing better.

So, “Shoulda Known Better” reinforces the melancholy of the lyrics and the vocal performance with sonic melancholy as I define it in R&M: it undercuts the soars and drops so that damage isn’t spectacularly and pleasurably overcome, and so that Janet can’t be seen as having overcome the limits of structural feminization. Even though the album is titled “Unbreakable,” Janet is performing anything but resilience, and Jam & Lewis’s songwriting help us see exactly how that works.

At a time when Janet is becoming a cool reference (and never quite getting the credit she’s due, even now…), Janet and her team push her work to be just as cutting-edge and perhaps more politically and aesthetically incisive than she was at the height of Rhythm Nation…probably because she knows better now.


[1] Notice how, like Bieber’s video for “Children,” her live performance of the song starts out with images of poor, implicitly third-world children. As these images scroll, she sings softly in her upper register, similar to the intro to “Children.” But then, we go from images of suffering kids to images of Black Lives Matter protests (there’s a specific reference to Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe” and Mike Brown’s “hands up don’t shoot”). There’s a shift immediately from individual hearts-and-minds warm fuzzy liberalism to collective action. And “Rhythm Nation” itself was always talking collectively: “we’ll work together to improve our way of life,” etc etc.
[2] Lumieers’ style “HEY!”s are distinguished from trap-style “HEY!”s because the former are both androgynously voiced and occur only once a measure, usually in the back half of it, and the latter are decidedly masculine in voice and occur on each fo the four beats of the measure, continuously, like “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.”