Control: Or, How I Learned My Feminism From 80s & 90s Women in R&B

As promised.

Well before I was even remotely cool enough to listen to music that wasn’t on the radio, I was surrounded by a fierce pro-woman message. If, as I wrote before, the message in Dirty Dancing sank in well before I had any idea what was happening to Penny, then it’s obvious that I also took a message away from the girl groups that were everywhere when I was growing up. (A lot of the songs referenced here are on this old blog post at my very defunct now WordPress blog.)

Salt ‘n’ Pepa talked about talking about sex in all its particulars and then kept doing it; “Shoop” was the earliest song about female desire that I knew all the words to, and I remember singing it along with girlfriends in grade school as we talked about our crushes. And then they reminded us that we didn’t have to talk about sex if we didn’t want to, either:

“How many rules am I to break before you understand
That your double-standards don’t mean shit to me?”

En Vogue! “Never Gonna Get It” echoed in my head; it wasn’t just saying “No,” it was glorying in the ability to choose. And “Free Your Mind,” like “Let’s Talk About Sex” was pretty clearly political.

And we can’t for a minute forget TLC, right? I went on a binge of all this music earlier this summer, and it occurred to me that Left Eye was actually the precursor to Nicki Minaj, her flow and her voice, her blend of attitude and cartoonish girl-voice, daring you to not take her seriously. But it wasn’t just Lisa Lopes, who died on my birthday back in 2002; it was all of them, it was their songs, their utter domination of the charts, their reiteration over and over that we didn’t need the boys who made us feel so damn unpretty, that they didn’t want no scrubs–but more importantly, that they had each others’ backs.

We went from these groups to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera; from coalitions of women together to solo whitegirl pop stars, and I’m not trying to say anyone’s wrong for liking their music, but think about the message that we had when three women of color sat together atop the Billboard charts, and what that message was traded for when we got Britney in her schoolgirl skirt instead.

But hell, before any of these groups made it to my consciousness, there was Janet.

I really rediscovered Janet Jackson this year thanks to Rachel and Megan, first Rachel’s suggestion of plugging Janet into Pandora (or in my case Last.fm) and enjoying the results, and then burning Rhythm Nation 1814 onto my iPod at Megan’s over some delicious peach daiquiris.

And how the heck had I let her lapse so long? It’s not like she went away, oh no. From the time I saw her play, my second concert ever, age 10, with my babysitter (my mother was more of a Neil Diamond fan), I had posters of Janet on my walls; from the time I heard “Control”, probably with another babysitter, I’d been a fan. And she’s been making music as long as I’ve been alive.

Control is a classic, a record made by a young woman asserting herself and her beliefs. “What Have You Done For Me Lately” is as great a pop song about a lousy boyfriend as has been written, and “Nasty” was my theme song when I was far too young to know what it meant–I remember doing a dance performance to it in summer camp. And she spoke up for “The Pleasure Principle” early on even when also insisting on her right to say “Let’s Wait Awhile.”

Rhythm Nation was Janet’s step toward politics, but even that record is full of pure-bliss dance tracks like “Miss You Much,” “Alright,” and “Escapade.” Just try not to shake it to any of those songs. I dare you. And “Black Cat” prefigured my love for hard rock. Hell, Janet’s aesthetic from that tour probably shaped the way I’ve dressed for the rest of my life: skinny black pants, military jackets, big boots.

But, Feministe-ers, none of those songs were the ones that were really revolutionary for me.

No, that was “If.”

I remember when it dropped, when MTV had a huge “WORLD PREMIERE” tag and it was 1993 and I was beginning to suspect that radio pop wasn’t the only thing out there for an angry teenage girl.

But. “If.” She sang if I was your girl the things I’d do to you, and then she went on to name them. The song was dirty–or maybe dirty is the wrong word for it. It was sexy. It was about sex. It was about fucking. It was about pleasure in her body and pleasure in someone else’s body, and it was coupled with this huge video where she danced and rolled her hips and stroked the taut muscles of some unnamed male dancer.

It was a song about female desire and sexuality and pleasure that even Madonna hadn’t written or performed quite like that. Madonna’s sexuality seemed always to be full of hard edges and the tease; Janet’s was the pleasure principle in action. She was beautiful and she knew it and she wanted to share all that with a boy that she found beautiful but she wasn’t going to sit around hurting herself over him if he wasn’t going to come along. She was going to show him exactly what he was missing.

Maybe there’s an implied other woman in the song, maybe that’s why he can’t be with her, but Janet never makes it about another girl. It’s between him and her, and it’s mostly about her. Take her or leave her, it ain’t going to stop her pleasure.

Oh, Janet. That whole album–janet–was like that. If on Rhythm Nation she declared that “Someday is Tonight”, on janet she’d clearly spent some time having some realllllly good sex in a way that let her talk about it. The jouissance (forgive me my academic word) was there, was palpable, kept me waiting for the video to come on again.

And when the song turned up eventually on Last.fm this year, it brought back all those feelings. I’ve turned to it so many times since then, blasted it out of my computer speakers and danced by myself, remembering the freedom it still brought me back then.

(I hear hints of that same feeling in Beyonce’s latest, in “Countdown” especially, that joy-in-being-alive, that pleasure in her own body. It’s why I love it.)

By the time I learned anything about politics I was well on to punk rock, but I think like language, the messages culture sends you seep in best when you’re young, and I think Janet and the rest of these women taught me more about how to handle a world full of land mines for a girl than any book or lecture.

So now, today, when I relish Robyn and Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, I remember the music that I had as a kid, the pop that didn’t need to be underground or indie to be badass, woman-positive, and yes, feminist.

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9 Responses to Control: Or, How I Learned My Feminism From 80s & 90s Women in R&B

  1. tree says:

    i would heart this post if it were on tumblr. i had rhythm nation on cassette in high school and i remember i actually quoted one of the songs in an essay i wrote. i think i was 15.

    and the video for if was so controversial because there were male dancers on their knees in front of women in mock-cunnilingus. *gasp!*

    we went from TLC and salt n pepa to, what, sugababes and pussycat dolls?

    (of course i’m also a fan of old school neil diamond. i think that makes me officially old.)

  2. Kathy says:

    By the time I learned anything about politics I was well on to punk rock, but I think like language, the messages culture sends you seep in best when you’re young, and I think Janet and the rest of these women taught me more about how to handle a world full of land mines for a girl than any book or lecture.

    Exactly, but music that carried a “message,” like riot grrrl or the more political forms of punk, never made me feel empowered. If anything, it made me feel more like a victim. Or maybe I should say, it made me feel like I was supposed to be a victim, and there was something wrong with me, or I was incredibly naive, if I didn’t.

  3. laurenanne says:

    AHHH!! I love this post! Thank you so much for this. I was also musically uncool when I was young and got all of my music off the radio (and my parents old records: Beatles, Willie Nelson, War, and god help us all, Hall & Oates.) And while so many people dismiss early 90’s pop, those women ROCKED. I still know all the lyrics to Let’s Talk About Sex and Shoop (which I blame for my bow-legged men fetish.) En Vogue were glamorous and they, and not Tyra, own the word “fierce.” And Janet is obviously amazing. Not only is she talented, but she is her own woman, lives her life her way, and doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. She is a badass. But it is TLC that holds a special place in my heart. I loved the bond between the three women, and how much fun they had together, how silly they acted and didn’t give a damn. I remember maybe the first video I saw of theirs, at a sleepover at a friends house, and I was convinced, CONVINCED, that Left Eye had a plastic fried egg, and not a yellow condom, over her eye. So innocent. By “Red Light Special” I was finally picking up what they were laying down.

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  5. N. says:

    YES!
    Honestly, that just about sums up my reaction to this post. Much as I adored the Riot Grrrls, the uncompromising, take-no-prisoners femaleness of TLC, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, EnVogue, and Janet Jackson rocked my world when I was a teenager. “If” got under my skin like nothing else had, and even when I moved away from the rest of the music as I got older, that song stayed on my playlist. Even though I don’t listen to it that often any more, it’s still there and, as far as I’m concerned, it still hasn’t been matched.

    @laurenanne: It DID look like a fried egg! I knew it was a condom, I’d been told it was a condom, but it still looked like an egg to me.

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  7. WendyB says:

    Oh, how I loved En Vogue!

  8. Zeira says:

    I totally agree with your article, but I must add that since Christin

  9. Zeira says:

    I totally agree with your article, but I must add that since Christina Aguilera stopped being a teenage pop star puppet, and worked the songwriter linda perry, I think she embodies feminism. Listen to tracks as Can’t hold us down, Underappreciated, Still Dirty, let me get mine you get yours…
    and don’t forget about pink,missy E..amy winehouse, alicia keys… well I must forget some…
    I’ve been introduced to feminism by The Spice girls and TLC (I’m from France)

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