When I think of iconic music videos, several come to mind. Janet Jackson is responsible for several of them. While this series will probably get real loose with the definition of “iconic,” there is no need to qualify it with the video for the title track from Janet’s 1989 game-changing album, Rhythm Nation, officially titled Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.
Several things make this video iconic. For one, this is when Janet Jackson hit peak resonance. This whole album was a socially conscious referendum on America. It came out the gate with “Miss You Much,” but a significant number of the songs on this album were about the state of the world. “Rhythm Nation,” was one of those songs, and for the video, Janet decided she wanted to level it all the way up.
The entire video aesthetic is powerful. From the industrial, warehouse-like setting, to the black and white video, to the all-black military-esque stylings of everybody in the video. Even the dance numbers were military-esque, very rigid, and intended to illicit power.
The music video, which stars a pre-Menace II Society Tyrin Turner, is part of a larger VHS Rhythm Nation 1814 film (that my family absolutely owned and watched ad nauseam) back when Michael and Janet Jackson couldn’t just do videos, they were doing events.
What also makes the video iconic is that if you were old enough to dance in 1989, you were then trying to work out the dance numbers. Everybody was practicing the dance sequences from this video. Some folks can probably still do a perhaps slower, more rickety version of the dance number. Hell, when I count down from 5 to 1, I still do it in the way that Janet does to set off the video. Ain’t nothing more iconic than influencing the way a person counts down from 5 to 1 some thirty-one years after the fact.
Similarly, I remember a deluge of Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation-inspired costumes in Halloween of that year and 1990. Janet, and especially this video and era impacted. Hard.
On a personal note, any time I speak about this song and album in particular, I always remember my concert experience in Germany seeing Janet on the Rhythm Nation Tour as an 11-year-old. I wrote this last year in celebration of the album turning 30 (!!!!).
One of my favorite memories of this album dates back to October 18, 1990 (which I absolutely had to look up). This is the date that the Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990 rolled into Frankfurt, Germany’s Festhalle. My parents (my father, in particular) loved Janet. And they loved concerts, so they took my siblings and me to see her.
I was 11-years-old at the time, and what I remember most of this concert is that when “Miss You Much” was being performed, I was somehow separated from my parents but standing against a rail watching and Janet had on a black bustier number and some older—probably in his late 20s or early 30s—American black dude in the military looked at me like “Look at her, man!” and dapped me up because I guess there were no adults around to dap up in acknowledgment of just how bad Janet was; an undersized 11-year-old black kid would have to do. I can still remember the look of pure joy on his face. And I got it.
I got it then and I get it now, because in 1989, I was a part of the Rhythm Nation and in 2019, 30 years later, I am still a part of the Rhythm Nation.
Still. Janet Jackson is an icon living and the video for “Rhythm Nation” is iconic.