Sunday, August 21, 2016

When I Think Of A Great Janet Jackson Song ... Strangely, My Mind Goes Blank

If one were to evaluate Janet Jackson's love life by the contents of Control's first two singles, one would conclude that every man in Janet's life had either been a narcissistic, lazy, ungrateful boyfriend or a disrespectful, leering, horny felon-to-be. Surely not all men were complete and utter drags? A nice girl like her - you know what she needed? She needed to get herself a handsome lawyer or a doctor, you know, settle down, stop surrounding herself with all this riff-raff. Well, it looks like there was at least one man who treated her right.

I feel like "When I Think Of You" is Janet Jackson's "Holiday," her "Girls Just Want To Have Fun": no matter how many great singles she's released throughout her career, let's get real here. This shit can't be topped. It's the kind of song you can only make when you're young and on the way up and you feel absolutely zero pressure to out-do yourself.

But another part of the charm of "When I Think Of You" is that it's a breather, a respite from Control's dominant mood of defensiveness and self-empowerment. Here, for four minutes at any rate, Janet simply skips down the street like a carefree schoolgirl walking off the bus, waiting to meet a (finally) non-abusive boyfriend! But the masterstroke is that the music sounds like that feeling. First of all, it has one of those patented '80s irresistable intros where each sparkling element enters the mix in staggered, piece-by-piece fashion:
  1. Two chiming keyboard chords, isolated, forsaken
  2. Frisky multi-octave synthesized bass line, bringing a sludgy light to the darkness
  3. Eminently skippable drum machine rhythm
  4. More chiming keyboard chords (that chime in a completely different way from the other chiming keyboard chords)
  5. Tacky imitation brass synth blasts, coupled with funky rhythm guitar, and then, finally...
  6. Janet
How can you lose with an intro like that? She had me at "Oooooh! Bay-beh." And the whole song just rides those two keyboard chords. There's no bridge or modulation or anything. And yet somehow the song never becomes boring or seems like it's repeating itself. That's probably because, at the halfway point, Jam & Lewis shake things up in a number of delightfully imaginative ways:
  • 1:56 - A chorus of mini-Janets playfully chant "So-In-Love" in conjunction with the chiming keyboard melody discussed in bullet point #4 above
  • 2:13 - The bass line unexpectedly disappears, and then Janet recites the song title in deadpan spoken word form (helpfully, when the bass re-enters at 2:29, Janet speaks the word "bass" in the same ennui-laden tone)
  • 2:46 - Now the chorus of mini-Janets create an entirely new melody, and also sound like a hive of monosyllabic robot people ("I'm. So. In. Love. I. Just. Think. Of. You.")
  • 3:19 - Thwarting the expectations of all but the most prescient listeners, Janet suddenly utters the word "break" and she and Jam, or she and Lewis (or perhaps all three of them?), descend into several seconds of indecipherable grunt-speak. Janet's gone ... Animal Planet?
  • 3:36 - The doors of Hades sound like they're about to burst open and let all the evil spirits of the underworld run rampant on '80s R&B radio, until...
  • 3:39 - Janet lets out an impassioned squack, holding the devil's children at bay, which she promptly follows with...
  • 3:40 - A disarmingly natural-sounding giggle, the carefree effervescence of which probably took even Jam & Lewis by surprise, followed by a sloppy, post-chuckle "Feels so good!"
This is, to quote The Maltese Falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of."



Naturally, as with "Everything She Wants," the official video features a completely different (and, in my opinion, less enjoyable) mix, which I've never heard on the radio ever, of a song which, in its original incarnation, was the definition of flawless, leaving me reluctant to ever watch it. In other words, when I think of "When I Think Of You," I never think of this mix. The drum machine pounds instead of skips, the snippets of dialogue are jarring, etc. etc. The most egregious addition is an extra keyboard riff (on top of the other two keyboard riffs that were already present!) that sounds like it belongs on Janet's subsequent "Love Will Never Do Without You" but shouldn't have been let 10 miles near "When I Think Of You." It's like that scene in Amadeus where the Emperor tells Mozart that his composition is excellent, except it contains "too many notes." Substitute Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for Mozart, and you know what? The Emperor was right!

The video appears to take place on the set of a post-war MGM musical, modeled after a crowded New York tenement, complete with ladies who shake their rugs off balconies, rowdy sailors on shore leave, zoot-suited swing dancers, lazy neighborhood loiterers who sleep in other people's convertibles, photographers who still use flash bulbs, hobos juggling torches, a disgruntled old geezer who keeps threatening to call the cops for no apparent reason, and, nostalgically, a pair of cops who don't actually beat the shit out of people. And then there's Janet, who looks exactly like how she always looked in 1986. The video gives the illusion of having been filmed in one shot, but is actually five smaller shots combined - sort of like a menu item at Taco Bell. Between you and me, while I admire the scale of the production, it feels at odds with the more elemental "Janet and a couple of keyboards" arrangement of the song. Where's the "Lucky Star"/three-dancers-and-a-white-background approach when you need it?