Sunday, April 19, 2020

"Escapade": Leave Your Worries Behind ... Unless You're A Jackson, In Which Case, Well, Just Do The Best You Can

Once upon a time, in a world where malls contained indoor ice skating rinks, our local rink went by the beguiling name of "Ice Capades." Then one day, out of the blue, Janet Jackson came out with a terrific song extolling the virtues of ... my local skating rink? Why she wanted to proclaim the glory of Ice Capades for all the nation to hear, I had no idea, but who was I to argue? Ice Capades was cool. Ice Capades was exciting. I usually had fun when I went there, as long as I didn't slip on my ass and bruise my knee. Nevertheless, something about Janet's paean to this rather obscure attraction didn't quite add up. I quickly learned that Janet was not singing "Ice Capades" at all, but rather, the mysterious word "Escapade."

"Escapade"? What the fuck was an Escapade?

Yes, "Escapade": the most creative usage of obscure vocabulary in late '80s R&B this side of "My Prerogative." But it takes more than the talents of any old Scrabble champion to create a #1 hit, and while the title may have earned Janet, Jam, and Lewis a couple of extra points, it was the music behind it that truly landed them a triple-word score. One observation I will make about "Escapade" that is neither praise nor criticism: the hookiest, catchiest part of the song is not the chorus, or even the verse, but the pre-chorus. Essentially, the song opens with the melody from the pre-chorus, which flies through the air on a trapeze of synthesized keyboards and chimes. It's a very counter-intuitive structural choice - so I suppose that's praise after all. Another observation that might sound like criticism but is intended as praise: In an era when Madonna was doing everything in her Kabbalah-sanctioned powers to turn her lower register into one resembling Johnny Cash's, Janet was unashamed to let her super-squeally little girl voice soar to the skies. I think I can claim, with some confidence, that at 3:20, she utters the purest, holiest "C'monnnnnnn!" ever uttered in the annals of dance-pop. And I've always enjoyed the way the song awkwardly tumbles to a conclusion, with only some hints of percussion and backing vocals remaining as Janet carries on obliviously, eventually noticing that the party has seemingly ended without anyone having informing her, leading to a slightly haphazard "On-an-escapade bebe," cold stop.

Yeah. Honestly, that's about all I have to say about "Escapade," so let me use the rest of this post to utter a few words on Rhythm Nation 1814 as a whole (although I might reserve discussion of a certain silky ballad for a separate entry). Do I feel comfortable calling Rhythm Nation 1814 a "great album"? It certainly was ahead of the curve in one respect: like a many a '90s album, I'd say it runs a little long. We're talking 64 non-stop minutes of Janet here. In fact, this was arguably one of the first pop albums to be designed primarily for the CD and not LP audience, as 64 minutes is not a great length for an LP (too long for a single album, but a bit skimpy for a double). Some of the length is an illusion: although it appears to have 20 "tracks," at least eight of those are merely spoken word interludes, so in truth, there are only twelve tracks proper. But given that each of those tracks are five minutes long, that's still too many! I wouldn't even call some of the non-hits like "State of the World," "The Knowledge," and "Lonely" "filler." In a way, I feel like the album is actually more consistent than Control. I guess I just prefer my Janet in 45-minute bursts.

At any rate, I knew it was a blockbuster album, but frankly, I forgot how many high-charting hits Rhythm Nation 1814 kept tossing off, as if Janet were the Yankees and the Billboard charts were the World Series. Sure, have another championship trophy, Janet! It's not like anyone else was desperately longing for a #1 hit that week. There are hits from the album I don't even remember hearing back in the day, like "Alright" and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)." I can't say I dislike any of these singles, but upon revisiting them, they all come off a tad ... samey to me. When it took over the airwaves in late 1989, I drooled all over "Miss You Much," but now it sounds a bit underwritten to these ears; I feel like the melody isn't catchy enough for a beat that's so mid-tempo. If your song is going to be powered by the beat, it better be a beat like "Rhythm Nation," you know what I'm saying? "Black Cat" sounds like an early demo of "Escapade," but with a heavy metal guitar riff slapped on top of it. Everybody's made such a big deal about "Janet making a hard rock song!" But isn't "Black Cat" basically what every fifth Prince song, give or take, sounded like? Points for a sprinkling of diversity, but I'm more partial to the idea than to the execution. "Alright" sounds too much like her later hit "Runaway," and I have established, in the court of Little Earl, that it is possible for an artist to plagiarize her future self (see Glenn Frey and "All Those Lies"/"You Belong To The City"). That said, I thought I might as well at least click on the video, and I'm glad I did; picture the video for "When I Think of You" but with unexpected cameos from the swinging (as opposed to New Jack swinging) Cab Calloway and Cyd Charisse. At this point I fear that Janet was beginning to suffer from Paula Abdul Syndrome, which is defined as the following: "An affliction common in the dance-pop genre, where an artist's videos are sometimes considered more entertaining than the songs they are promoting."

"Love Will Never Do (Without You)" has a more melodic chorus than "Miss You Much," I'll grant it that, but ... I dunno. I just feel like these five songs are essentially five different versions of the same basic template, with "Escapade" being the absolute very best version of that template.

Final thought: as I watch the "Escapade" video again (which strikes me as perhaps a mash-up of Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" video, Black Orpheus, and Mad Max?), I'm also having trouble with what you might call the "Janet/Michael" Conundrum, best summed up by a male peer of mine in the mid-'90s: "Janet's so good-looking and hot, but ... she looks like Michael, and Michael is like the exact opposite of hot." It's really not her fault, and there's nothing she can do about it, but it cannot be denied. Janet in her prime was, shall we say, an extremely attractive woman, and yet ... there's something in the back of my brain that doesn't allow me to enjoy this quality of hers to the fullest. It is what it is. This might help explain why Janet sounds so convincingly enthusiastic on a song like "Escapade." I mean, we could all use a vacation now and then (although I suspect few of us will be taking one any time soon), but let's just say that, with a family like hers, Janet could have really used one more than most.