Thursday, September 10, 2015

But What Has "What Have You Done For Me Lately" Done For Me Lately?

So, after the sonic mouthwash that was Dream Street, Janet Jackson decided to rebel against her family - in two ways. One of those ways turned out to be a bad idea, and the other one of those ways turned out to be a great idea.

The bad idea was marrying James DeBarge - you know, of the DeBarges, AKA that Motown singing family that was even more fucked up than the Jacksons were? Those Jacksons certainly tried to warn her, stating words, I'm sure, to the effect of "That boy is just no good!" But did she listen? Sometimes a Jackson just has to find things out the hard way. The marriage apparently lasted a year before she managed to get it annulled.

The great idea was firing her father as manager and producer, instead hiring John McClain as her new manager (A&M Records' senior vice president of artists and repertoire, not, sadly, the protagonist of Die Hard), and hiring a Minneapolis duo named Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as her new producers. Personally, I have a hard time taking anyone who goes by the name of "Jimmy Jam" too seriously, but when the music's this good, he can call himself whatever the hell he wants to.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were originally part of the Prince entourage as members of The Time. According to AMG, although the Time did go on tour and play songs live as their own unit, in the studio, Prince wrote and played almost all of The Time's material himself. Well you know what, Prince? You just weren't Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' R&B superstar, OK?

So Janet needed producers, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis needed a singer. They didn't need a great singer, and while I would not be the first to suggest that Janet does not have the most powerful set of pipes, she's got a certain girlish passion that's effective and distinctive. It's funny, years and years passed before I stopped and thought one day, "You know, Janet Jackson's voice is kind of ... weak!" Because the way she's used it, it's rarely seemed like a shortcoming. Although it sure helps to pick the right collaborators, is all I'm sayin'. Wikipedia calls the duo's sound "a fusion of rhythm and blues, rap vocals, funk, disco and synthesized percussion." That's not a genre name. Let's just call it ... Minneapolis Funk. Ooh yeah! I guess Jam and Lewis weren't too concerned about fame and glory, because they could have easily put their own names on the Control record sleeve. In the AMG review from the old print edition, William Ruhlmann writes, "... the album is primarily a production showcase; it may be tailored to Janet's persona, but the real artists are Jam and Lewis."

Well, whoever was in charge picked a great lead-off single. According to Wikipedia, the song was "originally penned for one of Jam and Lewis's own records. Jam remembered, 'She was sitting outside in the lounge and said, "Man, that's a funky track. Who's that for?" And we said, "It's for you", and she said, '"Oh, cool."'" So not only were they good producers, they were also good liars! Well, it turns out one positive thing did come out of that ill-advised DeBarge marriage, because the three of them re-wrote the lyrics of that Jam & Lewis demo to express Janet's feelings on the matter. Merely speaking from her own personal experience, she managed to speak for millions of fed up girlfriends everywhere.

In the annals of great spoken word openings, the intro for "What Have You Done For Me Lately" must rank at or near the very peak. In its pitch-perfect recreation of black female barbershop banter, it has never been equaled:
Friend: What's up girl?
Janet: He stood me up again.
Friend: Again?
Janet: Mmm-Hmm.
Friend: Well what's up with this guy? Do you really like him that much?
Janet: Yes honey, I love him. He is fine. He does a lot of nice things for me.
Friend: I know he used to do nice stuff for you, but what has he done for you laaaaate-leeeeee?
Yes, Janet, what has he done for you laaaaaate-leeeee? See, this is the exact element that was missing from Janet's first two albums: a sense of spontaneity. She didn't have to come up with a little twenty second intro, but she went the extra mile and did. It reflected an element of risk - precisely what was absent under Daddy's discretion. Here, Janet may have been drawing the ire of the presumably honorable boyfriends of the world, but the long-suffering girlfriends of the world must have gleefully nodded their heads in sympathy. In other words, "What Have You Done For Me Lately," like almost all the singles from Control, has the quality that I believe Greek philosopher Aristotle once defined in Poetics as "tude."

And so, the world was introduced to Janet 2.0. The verses almost have a rap feeling, with Janet being joined by a male voice (either Jam's or Lewis', I'm not sure which) mixed quietly in the background, but it's key - key - because it makes Janet's accusations sound like they have some serious authority behind them. Like, "Hey, if you think I'm making this shit up about you, just tell it to my armed bodyguard right here":
Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Used to brag about it all the time
Your friends seem to think that you're so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind
Who's right?

What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah
What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah

Used to go to dinner almost every night
Dancin' 'til I thought I'd lose my breath
Now it seems your dancing feet are always on my couch
Good thing I cook or else we'd starve to death
Ain't that a shame?
On paper, the non-rhyming chorus looks lazy, but in practice, it feels extra snappy, like "I'm so right-on about what a crappy boyfriend you are (and we both know it) that I don't even need to say anything else other than 'ooh ooh ooh yeah.'" Then suddenly there's a super-sparkly bridge with a super-sparkly melody, hinting at a kinder side to Janet, as if to say, "See, I can be a really nice girl when I'm actually being treated fairly. But you're not ever going to see that girl again unless you get your act together Mister":
I never ask for more than I deserve
You know it's the truth
You seem to think you're God's gift to this earth
I'm tellin' you no way
Right around 2:53 there's a hot keyboard solo, accompanied by some choice Janet ad-libs ("Get with it!"; "Let me know"), which, after some rapid-fire beat slams at 3:09, morphs into some jazzy piano tinkling straight out of "Holiday," peppered with a fetching series of "dee-dee-doos" from Janet, who brings it all to an unexpectedly positive ending with the exclamation, "This is wild, I swear!" For someone bitching out her ex-husband, she sure sounds like she's having a pretty good time.

The good times in the studio must have carried over to the video, likely the first Janet Jackson clip most people ever saw, where Janet's talented choreographer, a certain Miss Paula Abdul, plays the role of Janet's concerned friend, although I doubt it was Paula's voice on the actual recording. The action takes place in what appears to be a pitifully underfunded diner, where key appliances such as cash registers and jukeboxes had to be painted into the walls (and all the customers seem to be afflicted with a terrible shoulder-shimmying condition). Don't miss the disgruntled diner chef, who at 2:47 looks up from the counter with a facial expression which all but says, "Damn kids, always dancing in my diner!"

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