45 at 33: the feminist Control of Janet Jackson’s What Have You Done For Me Lately

Janet Jackson is the most successful member of the Jackson family after her big brother Michael. Jackson has scored 17 UK Top 10 singles in her career as well as a No.1 album, 1993’s Janet. But her creative and commercial coming of age really got going when she gained Control.

By 19, Janet Jackson had already appeared in several television shows, been married and divorced, and released two bubblegum pop albums. But it wasn’t until Control, a record as genre-defining as it was career-defining, that she was empowered enough to reclaim her body, her art, and her story.

Released in February 1986, Janet Jackson’s third album is, not only her breakthrough but, for me, her masterpiece. And that’s in no small part thanks to producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who also co-wrote most of the songs on Control with Jackson and helped her find her own true songwriting self.

Within the album’s nine tracks, Jackson oscillates between warm, feminine sexuality and stony strength. The explosive title track doubles as a mission statement, while screeds like Nasty demand respect and raise the standards for who could have the pleasure of her company. Elsewhere, the flirty When I Think Of You and the sentimental ballad Let’s Wait Awhile offset her take-no-prisoners attitude with girlish crushing—the kind of vulnerability that is reflective of a soft heart but isn’t a full surrender.

Janet separated herself from the overbearing men in her life and those who sought to write her narrative, and found more natural collaborators in producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. She did what she needed to do for herself, which remains one of the most revolutionary things a black woman can do. In finding her voice on Control, Janet Jackson cut a path by which future women pop stars could chart their own trajectory. 

Deliciously laden with bags of ass-kicking attitude, the kiss-off What Have You Done For Me Lately is the pivotal track the first 45, issued a month in advance of the long-player, which would spearhead an hour’s worth of minimalist synth-driven funk and swoonsome ballads that totally redefined Jackson and turned her into a pop superstar.

Hitting third position in Britain that April (dastardly George Michael and, er, Falco were the culprits not giving Janet complete chart control), What Have You Done For Me Lately and the subsequent singles Nasty and the title track Control can be seen as forerunners of an entire generation’s worth of female R&B artists and their songs, showing their male counterparts where it’s really at.

Janet Jackson may not be considered a feminist performer by most, but that tantalising triumvirate were undeniably important for a lot of future female performers, kicking some serious collective butt along the way. Forgive me if this sounds shallow, it’s not meant to. I totally regard this song as a fierce feminist anthem, and JJ sounds as tough as nails. Certainly a lot less troubled than Michael.

She makes him want to scream

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: Slightly embarrassing personal anecdote this, but I had no idea who Janet Jackson was until I came home from college one afternoon in February 1986 to find my mum and sister watching Sky Channel’s pop video show Sky Trax. Brand spanking new, What Have You Done For Me Lately was playing, and I thought I recognised the singer as a member of a family pop group. “Oh, the other one from Five Star is singing lead for a change,” said I. Close, but no nipple clamp.

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Steve Pafford
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