The Number Ones

October 27, 1990

The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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I’m not entirely sure who first started yelling the word “guitar” right before a guitar solo, and I’m not entirely sure how that custom ended, either. It’s one of those great old rock gestures that simply wouldn’t work today. These days, barely anyone plays guitar solos anymore, and to yell “guitar” before one of those solos would be to indulge in irony, to throw quotation marks around the entire enterprise of rockin’. In 1989, though, you could still yell “guitar” before a solo, and a whole lot of singers did it. I’m not sure anyone ever did it better than Janet Jackson. Right before the solo on “Black Cat,” Janet Jackson puts her entire soul into yelling that word: “Git-ahhh!” You could tell that she’d been waiting for a chance to try that move for a long time.

In the context of Janet Jackson’s blockbuster album Rhythm Nation 1814, “Black Cat” stands out for obvious reasons. Rhythm Nation is a hard, percussive dance-pop album with a few ballads, and “Black Cat” is a straight-up no-joke rock song — a hair-metal song, even. In the ’80s, Janet’s big brother Michael Jackson played around with hard-rock riffage on two chart-topping singles, “Beat It” in 1983 and “Dirty Diana” in 1988. Still, it felt slightly radical when a pop singer as ebullient as Janet Jackson tried out her own version of a greasy, decadent rocker. Janet Jackson had a thing, and crunchy guitar riffage simply wasn’t a part of that thing.

Janet Jackson’s thing was the sleek, sharp, clattering dance music that she made with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and by the time she came out with Rhythm Nation, Jackson completely owned that lane. The rest of the pop-music landscape was huffing and puffing, trying to catch up to what Janet Jackson was doing. Maybe that’s why nobody ever accused Janet Jackson of trying to cop her brother’s dance-rock moves. By 1990, Janet and Michael Jackson were entirely separate entities, and Janet was arguably the bigger star of the two. And anyway, “Black Cat” didn’t have the freaked-out, paranoid edge of “Beat It” or “Dirty Diana.” On “Black Cat,” Janet sings about being fed-up and angry, but in her anger, she sounds overjoyed.

“Black Cat” was the first song where Janet Jackson got sole songwriting credit. She had the idea for the song while recording Rhythm Nation with Jam and Lewis, and “Black Cat” was the last song that they finished for the LP. Jackson loved hard rock, and she wanted to do her own version of that sound. Jam and Lewis didn’t produce “Black Cat”; it’s the only song on Rhythm Nation that doesn’t feature their production. Instead, the duo suggested that Jackson record the song with their former bandmate and regular session-musician collaborator Jellybean Johnson, who they described as “a closet rock ‘n’ roller.”

Janet Jackson and Jellybean Johnson co-produced “Black Cat” together, which makes Johnson the second guy named Jellybean to get a production credit on a #1 single. (Five years earlier, Jellybean Benitez had produced Madonna’s “Crazy For You.” We need more pop producers named Jellybean.) Johnson had played with Jam and Lewis in Flyte Tyme, the Minneapolis funk band that Prince shaped into the Time. After the Time’s 1985 breakup, Johnson also played in the Family, the short-lived Prince-protege group who recorded the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

In the mid-’80s, Jellybean Johnson, who played just about every instrument, started doing session work with Jam and Lewis. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam mentions that Johnson loved sitting in with local Minneapolis bands and that he was the best choice to work on “Black Cat” because he knew so many musicians who were into the kind of sound that Jackson wanted. Years later, Johnson told Modern Drummer, “I thought it would be cool if I could make Janet sound like a heavy metal queen. I knew the rest of them thought I was out of my mind.”

Janet Jackson, everyone involved quickly learned, was very ready to sound like a heavy metal queen. On “Black Cat,” there’s a raspy snarl in her voice that simply isn’t there on her other tracks. Jackson still sounds like herself; you can still hear sweetness and rhythmic savvy in her “Black Cat” vocal. But she sings the song with real bite, savoring all of it. Jackson sings “Black Cat” to a guy who’s always out causing trouble, and the whole song is her telling this dude to get his shit together and be better. But Jackson doesn’t sound like she wants him to be better. She sounds like she wants to be out there herself, living such a dangerous life.

There’s a bit of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle” in Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” chorus: “Heartbeat real strong but not for long/ Better watch your step or you’re gonna die.” As on “Welcome To The Jungle,” the “you’re gonna die” line sounds less like a threat or a warning, more like an invitation. Both songs make self-destruction sound like a blast. (“Welcome To The Jungle” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

“Black Cat” doesn’t really sound like “Welcome To The Jungle,” but it’s funky like “Welcome To The Jungle.” As the whole glam-metal era has become a kind of cultural punchline in the last 30 years, that aspect has gotten a bit lost. The best glam metal songs had serious strut-grooves working for them, and those strut-grooves mostly disappeared in the ’90s alt-rock boom. The musicians on “Black Cat” came from funk, so those strut-grooves made sense to them. They made sense to Janet Jackson, too.

Jellybean Johnson played guitar and percussion on “Black Cat,” and he also programmed the drum machines, really giving that electronic cowbell a workout. Jimmy Jam played synth-bass. Terry Lewis played bass. John McClain, the A&R guy who had paired Janet Jackson up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the first place, played slide guitar. Jam, Lewis, and McClain all sang backup. The lead guitarist was Johnson’s friend Dave Barry — not the dad-joke newspaper-columnist Dave Barry, a different Dave Barry. Johnson recorded Barry playing through Marshall and Rockman amps to give the sound the right punch. Later on, Barry became Jackson’s touring guitarist and musical director.

The mix of “Black Cat” that appears in the song’s video, which honestly doesn’t sound all that different from the one on the album, has rhythm guitar from Nuno Bettencourt, the Portuguese-born guitarist from the Boston funk-metal band Extreme. Jackson repaid the favor by doing a quick vocal cameo on Extreme’s album Pornograffiti. (Extreme will appear in this column pretty soon.) Michael Wagener, the German producer who worked with Extreme and Skid Row and White Lion, did the mixing job on “Black Cat”; it was Wagener’s first time working with a non-hard rock act.

I love the idea of all these seasoned, successful pop-music professionals deciding that they’re going to bang out a metal song and then just doing it. By 1990, glam metal was starting to wane, and the actual poofy-haired rock songs breaking through on the pop charts were mostly wimpy ballads. But Janet Jackson got these guys together and made a bright, hard, nasty banger full of squeedly guitars and chanty choruses and noisy keyboard bleats, and she took that song to #1. I think that rules.

“Black Cat” was the sixth single from Rhythm Nation, and it was the third #1 hit. After “Miss You Much” and “Escapade,” Jackson had already notched up two more top-five hits. In March of 1990, Jackson released the dance workout “Alright” as a single. Heavy D rapped on a remix, and the song’s extended video turned the track into an elaborate Hollywood-musical pastiche, with appearances from Heavy and from some big figures in film and music history: Cab Calloway, Cyd Charisse, the Nicholas Brothers. “Alright” peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) In June, Jackson followed “Alright” with the lush ballad “Come Back To Me,” and Dominic Sena shot its video in Paris. That song made it to #2. (It’s a 6.)

“Black Cat” didn’t have a video as fancy as the ones for “Alright” and “Come Back To Me.” Instead, Jackson recruited regular Mötley Crüe/Bon Jovi video director Wayne Isham to shoot live-performance footage from Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour. But then, Janet Jackson’s whole live show was pretty elaborate. During the early stops on that tour, Jackson would start out “Black Cat” with a stage-magic trick where she would turn into an actual black leopard. She had the leopard out onstage and everything. Eventually, Jackson stopped using the leopard, though she put out a statement assuring everyone that she loved animals and that the leopard had been treated well.

Jackson released “Black Cat” as a single in August. A week later, she sang the song at the VMAs, giving the show’s opening performance. The VMAs performance didn’t have the leopard, but it did have a whole lot of choreography and a climactic moment where Jackson ripped her shirt open — a preview of what would happen with Janet Jackson at another MTV-produced live-TV spectacle more than 13 years later.

When “Black Cat” made it to #1, Rhythm Nation 1814 was already quadruple platinum. The album wasn’t out of singles yet. Before the Rhythm Nation album cycle is done, we’ll see Janet Jackson in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Black Cat” remix that featured guitar shredding from Living Colour wizard Vernon Reid:

(Living Colour’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “Cult Of Personality,” peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Britney Spears sang a “Black Cat” cover during her first real tour in 1999. Here’s some extremely grainy footage of one of those performances:

(Britney Spears will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Christina Aguilera covering “Black Cat” along with contestant Jacquie Lee on a 2013 episode of The Voice:

(Christina Aguilera will eventually appear in this column.)

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