In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
After Control, the world changed. Before Control, Janet Jackson had made two albums, but she was a whole lot more famous for her last name and for her time on Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes than for her music. Janet’s father Joe Jackson managed her early career, and he packaged her as a sweet, unthreatening pop singer. That whole aesthetic did her no favors. Jackson’s first two albums sold jack shit. When she made 1986’s Control, Janet fired her father and went to work with ascendant producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Prince had just kicked Jam and Lewis out of the Time, the funk band that they’d been in since the time before the Time was a Prince side project, and they put all their sharpest, hardest ideas into Control. Together, the three-person team of Jackson, Jam, and Lewis crafted a sleek and percussive record of futuristic dance-pop.
Control made Janet Jackson a star, a legitimate competitor to her brother Michael. The album went quintuple platinum, and it sent five singles into the top 10. One of those singles, “When I Think Of You,” went all the way to #1. Control became one of 1986’s highest-selling albums, and it turned Jam and Lewis into in-demand producers; they quickly went on to make #1 singles with the Human League and George Michael. But Control also had a pop-chart impact that went far beyond the expanding Jam and Lewis discography. Soon after Control, a whole lot of electronic clangs and thumps made their way onto the pop charts.
Control anticipated the rise of electronic club-pop genres like house and Latin freestyle. Its bright hardness might’ve also helped clear some pop-chart inroads for rap, which was just starting to become a chart presence at the time. More importantly, Control was hugely influential on new jack swing. By 1989, when Janet came out with her long-awaited Control follow-up, Bobby Brown had ridden the new jack swing wave to become the year’s biggest seller. Meanwhile, Paula Abdul, the choreographer who had worked with Janet on her Control videos, had essentially jacked Janet’s entire Control style, right down to the haircut, and made herself a massive pop star in the process. When Janet Jackson returned in 1989, she faced a pop world that she had helped will into being. Three years after Control, Janet had to compete with all these artists who probably couldn’t have succeeded without her influence. She had to show that she could hang with all of them. She did pretty well for herself.
Janet Jackson’s 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814 was an absolute blockbuster, a category-crusher. When the rest of the pop world was still catching up to Control, Jackson made a record that was colder and meaner and harder than anything her contemporaries were doing. In the pummeling clang-thwack sound of Rhythm Nation, you can hear echoes of sounds that were far from the pop charts in 1989 — stuff like the chaotic siren-screaming boom of Public Enemy or even the pounding industrial death-march of Ministry. But Rhythm Nation is still full of shimmering melodies and Prince-style strut. It also moves fluidly between pop genres easily enough to get airplay on a whole lot of radio formats. Rhythm Nation adventurous pop music, but it’s still pop music. “Miss You Much,” the first of many blockbuster singles from Rhythm Nation 1814, was a thrown gauntlet, a message that the game had just changed again. For all its bravado, though, “Miss You Much” didn’t alienate the people who loved Control. The song is an expert work of needle-threading.
Janet Jackson did not spend three years in the studio working on her Control follow-up. She didn’t spend that time touring behind Control, either. (In fact, she didn’t mount her first full-scale tour until 1990.) Instead, it took three years to follow up Control because Jam and Lewis, now enormously hot, needed to get paid. Jam and Lewis still wanted to keep working with Jackson, and she still wanted to work with them. Once all the business was taken care of, Jackson went to Minneapolis, and the trio got to work in the fall of 1988. When Jackson walked into Jam and Lewis’ Flyte Tyme studios for the first Rhythm Nation session, Jam and Lewis were already working on “Miss You Much.”
Jackson doesn’t have a songwriting credit on “Miss You Much,” though Jam has said that she came up with the track’s string part. Jam’s girlfriend had written him a letter that ended with the phrase “miss you much,” and Jam thought that sounded like a good song title. Lyrically, “Miss You Much” is a simple song about the stage of a new relationship where you’re dizzily infatuated, where you can’t stand to be away from that person at all: “Not to say that I’m in love with you, but who’s to say that I’m not?/ I just know that it feels wrong when I’m away too long.”
But the point of “Miss You Much” isn’t the lyrics. It’s the sound of the thing. “Miss You Much” is heated and urgent. The mechanized drums come swarming from every direction, but they’ve still got a syncopated strut — the uptempo lope of new jack swing cranked up even further. There are squelching guitars and eerie high-pitched synths all through “Miss You Much,” and that string part that Jackson apparently wrote gives a bit of a breather on the bridge. But the drums dominate “Miss You Much,” and they never really let up.
There’s a whole lot of Prince in Janet’s “Miss You Much” vocal, just as there had been on Control; it comes through especially loudly on the “I’ll tell ya mama, I’ll tell ya friends” bit. But Jackson conveys exuberance and sweetness in ways that Prince generally wasn’t interested in performing. Janet Jackson never had a huge vocal range, but her rhythmic instincts are crazy sharp, and she floats over “Miss You Much,” especially on that brief and relatively chilled-out bridge. She sounds like she’s enjoying the song’s titanic beat as much as anyone else. When the track suddenly stops, she yells, “That’s the end?!?” She sounds disappointed, like she was hoping it would keep going forever.
The “Miss You Much” single came out in August of 1989, a month before Rhythm Nation 1814 arrived. It was Jackson’s first single in two years. With the album looming, Jackson and her handlers had the smart idea to shoot a bunch of Rhythm Nation videos before the album came out. Working with director Dominic Sena, who’d already made Richard Marx’s “Satisfied” video and who would later make movies like Kalifornia and Gone In 60 Seconds, Jackson planned out a 30-minute Rhythm Nation short film that aired on MTV just before the album came out.
Jackson wanted Rhythm Nation 1814 to be a political statement. She’d been shocked by the news of a racist school massacre in Stockton, California, and on the first few tracks from Rhythm Nation, she talked about race and poverty. Jackson didn’t exactly make any challenging political stands, and she limited her vague social messages to the album’s first three songs. But this was a time when pop stars weren’t typically addressing anything much. What resonated the most about those message tracks was the bracing, powerful visual sensibility that she brought to the videos. With that short film, Jackson strung together the videos of three tracks. “Miss You Much” isn’t one of the message songs, but its video kicks off the short film, introducing that Rhythm Nation visual aesthetic.
The “Miss You Much” segment works beautifully as its own self-contained video, too. Sena, shooting in stark black-and-white, films a bunch of friends in a hangout spot that looks a whole lot like a dance-musical set. They all clown Janet for being in love, and she clowns them for being in her business. (Way more than her brother Michael, Janet was always pretty good at conveying the impression that she was an actual human being who could comfortably exist in a physical space with other humans.) Finally, Janet starts dancing, and so does everybody else. At first, it’s playful, but pretty soon, everyone is moving together in military lockstep and flipping chairs around, looking cool as hell. “Miss You Much” might be a slight and bubbly song on the surface, but that video helps get across the idea that this is bracing and physical music, that it demands movement.
“Miss You Much” definitely worked as a pop song, and it became Janet Jackson’s biggest hit to that point. But it worked even better as a bridge to a whole new aesthetic. In the months ahead, Rhythm Nation would sell even more than Control, and its singles achieved all kinds of chart feats. We’ll see Janet Jackson in this column again soon.
BONUS BEATS: In 2001, MTV staged a big Janet Jackson tribute, and the network got Pink to recreate the chair-dance bit from the “Miss You Much” video. Here’s that performance:
(Pink will eventually appear in this column, and so will Usher and Mya, the other two artists in that dance-tribute segment.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2019 movie Hustlers where Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart dance to “Miss You Much” together:
(Jennifer Lopez will eventually appear in this column.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Madonna’s breezy, loping love-jam “Cherish” peaked at #2 behind “Miss You Much.” It’s an 8.
The Cure’s dreamy, rapturous reverie “Lovesong” also peaked at #2 behind “Miss You Much.” It’s a 9.