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.
In January of 1970, the Jackson 5’s debut single “I Want You Back” reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Over the next 31 years, the siblings of the Jackson family sent 26 more singles to #1. It’s hard to imagine a single generation of a single family having that kind of impact on popular music, or on popular culture in general, but that’s what the Jacksons did. The Jacksons’ legacy won’t end, ever, but after a few decades, their magical run finally ended under fucked-up circumstances.
Janet Jackson, the youngest of the family’s 10 siblings, was just three years old when “I Want You Back” hit #1. Many years later, as her big brother Michael descended into isolation and ignominy, Janet kept her superstar status intact. Janet was responsible for 10 of the Jacksons’ #1 hits, and her own run covered a remarkable 15-year span, starting with “When I Think Of You” in 1986. Over the course of that run, Janet Jackson topped the Hot 100 with exuberant dance-pop, rip-snort glam metal, squelching sex-funk balladry, and bittersweet deep house. Her run could’ve been longer. It probably should’ve been longer.
As a new century dawned, Janet Jackson was still thriving. She’d just divorced her second husband René Elizondo Jr., but that divorce hadn’t pushed her toward making heavier or more maudlin music. Instead, with the first single from her seventh album, Janet dug deep into the history of upbeat, joyous, forget-your-troubles dance music. The lyrics to “All For You” probably would’ve been too horny to fly in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but the music could’ve sprung straight from her brother Michael’s classic Off The Wall. In the summer of 2001, Janet’s flirty club-jam kept a kung-fu grip on the top of the Hot 100. At the time, nobody knew that something was ending.
When Janet Jackson came out with her All For You album, it had been nearly four years since her previous record, the deep and exploratory artistic triumph The Velvet Rope. Janet had spent a long time touring in between albums, and she’d also starred in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, scoring another chart-topper with the soundtrack song “Doesn’t Really Matter.” She’d never really stopped being busy, even during her divorce. When Janet got to work on the next album with her regular collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she wanted to leave behind the introspection of The Velvet Rope. She wanted to make something fun.
The song “All For You,” like many of the hits from that era, started with a sample. When Janet Jackson was planning out the All For You album, she got together with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and they all listened to older songs for inspiration. Jimmy Jam pulled out a record that was new to Janet: “The Glow Of Love,” a 1980 single from the Italian disco project Change. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam says, “She didn’t know that song, and I was really shocked. I was DJing at the time that record was out, so that was a huge song in my life and one that I have always wanted to sample and bring back for people to hear.”
Change was essentially a studio project. A group of producers based in Bologna had the idea to put together a rotating cast of musicians. They would write the songs and record the instrumental tracks in Italy, and then they would go to New York and find American singers to record the lead vocals. For “The Glow Of Life,” the title track from Change’s debut album, the lead singer was a not-yet-famous Luther Vandross, who was still singing commercial jingles and doing session backup vocal work at the time. “The Glow Of Love” didn’t chart, but it still marked a breakout moment for Vandross, who released his debut album Never Too Much a year later. (Change’s highest-charting single, 1980’s “A Lover’s Holiday,” peaked at #40. Luther Vandross didn’t sing on that one.)
Janet Jackson hadn’t heard “The Glow Of Love” before Jimmy Jam played it, but she knew Luther Vandross. They’d worked together. In 1992, Janet and Luther recorded the duet “The Best Things In Life Are Free” for the soundtrack of the Damon Wayans movie Mo’ Money. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced it, and Bell Biv DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant sang backup. (“The Best Things In Life Are Free” peaked at #10. It’s a 7. Luther Vandross’ highest-charting single is the 1994 version of “Endless Love” that he recorded with Mariah Carey. That one peaked at #2, and it’s a 5.) Janet also trusted her instincts, and “The Glow Of Love” made her want to dance.
Change might’ve been an Italian disco project, but they didn’t belong to the mechanized, synth-heavy subgenre known as Italo-disco. Instead, Change were shooting for the same funky, limber live-band disco-funk sound as Chic. Their whole style was essentially a high-level Chic ripoff, and that’s not a complaint. Chic were fucking incredible, and Change did a good job ripping their sound off. Janet Jackson co-produced “All For You” with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and they really just embellished on the groove from “The Glow Of Love.” “All For You” has extra synths and harder-hitting drum machines, but Janet kept the playful sonic back-and-forth from “The Glow Of Love” — the scratchy guitars, the strutting bassline, the great little descending piano riff. But Janet didn’t keep the “Glow Of Love” melody or the mystical woo-woo lyrics. She had something else in mind.
Janet Jackson was dating for the first time in nearly a decade. She’d been famous before she met René Elizondo Jr., but that was nothing new. Janet had been famous since she was a little kid. As a newly single woman in her mid-thirties, though, Janet was a whole lot more famous than she’d been the last time around. She’d noticed that men were shy about approaching her. You can only imagine, right? How do you hit on a global superstar? What’s your opening line? Janet wrote most of the lyrics for “All For You,” and the whole point of the song is that you, the person being addressed, need to stop overthinking things and shoot your shot. Janet wants to have fun, and if you don’t say anything to her, you’ll miss out on that fun.
The line from “All For You” that everyone remembers is the raunchiest one: “Got a nice package, all right/ Guess I’m gonna have to ride tonight.” You don’t really need me to explain this one, do you? Janet Jackson is horny. She wants to fuck. She’s out here evaluating dudes’ crotches and then proceeding accordingly. I like how casual that line is; it’s almost a shrug. At the time, it was pleasantly shocking to hear a pop star just straight-up singing about a man’s dick size on a #1 hit, not cloaking it in any kind of innuendo. But why should it be? This column has covered plenty of songs that involve men lovingly describing women’s asses. Janet Jackson should get to do her version of that, too.
The “nice package” line definitely stands out on “All For You.” In mixing and arranging the track, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis put that line right up front, a cappella, working under the assumption that a new Janet Jackson song should really announce itself when it comes on the radio. But the “nice package” line isn’t really the point of “All For You.” Instead, “All For You” is a lighthearted, flirty song — more about the exhilaration of being out in the world, looking for connection, than about the physical sensation that comes with that connection. On the first verse, Janet is almost teasing the guy: “I see you staring out the corner of my eye/ You seem uneasy, want to approach me, throw me a line/ But then something inside you grabs you, says, ‘Who am I?’/ I know exactly ’cause it happens with all the guys.” Your whole bashful act is nothing new to Janet Jackson. She’s seen it all before.
I tend to think of “All For You” as a fairly slight, minor track, at least compared to Janet Jackson’s other #1 hits, but its charms are real. I love the way that Janet sings the song. On the chorus, she’s a whole streamlined crowd of voices. There’s a hint of Auto-Tune mechanization on her voice, and she’s smoothed out almost the point of abstraction. On the verses, though, Janet takes all the processing off, and she gives a pretty raw and soulful vocal that still locks right into the groove. On those verses, Janet Jackson is a disco singer, just like Michael had once been. There’s some Motown in that vocal, and some of echo of the records that Diana Ross was making with Chic back when Michael was making Off The Wall. It makes me wonder if Janet Jackson had been waiting 20 years to ride a groove like that one.
Janet Jackson laughs a lot on “All For You.” She might have the all-time greatest on-record laugh, a weightless and joyous sound about halfway between giggle and cackle. When she’s not laughing, she’s still smiling. “All For You” is a sort of fantasy wonderland of a song. The track doesn’t admit to any possibility of darkness. Instead, it’s Janet inviting you into a magical experience: “Tell me I’m the only one/ Soon, we’ll be having fun.” She’s just waiting for you to let her know that you’re into her.
“All For You” is a dance song, and the video is really just structured as an excuse for Janet Jackson to dance. Director Dave Meyers, still rising in the ranks of music-video mastery, throws in a vague outline of a storyline. The clip opens on a cartoon subway train, and Janet makes eyes at a good-looking guy across the aisle. (It has to be a cartoon; it would be too weird to see Janet Jackson riding an actual subway train.) Later on, when she’s at the club, she sees him again. That’s it. In between, there’s a whole lot of dancing, mostly in stylized versions of famous locations.
I like the bit where all these women get off of different train cars and then lock into the same synchronized dance routine. I wish that kind of thing happened in real life. (The flashmob trend of the ’00s was people’s attempt at turning that kind of thing into a reality, but reality is never as good as the music-video version.) The “All For You” video also has a fun dance-break moment that’s not on the actual single, and that break has a bunch of samples of older songs. The break isn’t on the album version. The song works equally well with and without that break, which probably says something about the song’s overall solidity.
When Janet Jackson released her All For You album, MTV aired a special called Icon. The biggest stars of the moment — *NSYNC, Usher, Outkast, Destiny’s Child — paid tribute to Janet. She repaid the favor by blocking all of their songs from the #1 spot for a huge chunk of the summer. Janet had officially attained legend status, but she wasn’t transitioning into her elder-statesman phase yet. She was still making hits. As fate would have it, though, Janet’s hitmaking run was almost over. Janet followed “All For You” with “Someone To Call My Lover,” a slinky and propulsive jam with a whole lot of acoustic guitar, and that song peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.) To date, “Someone To Call My Lover” is Janet’s last top-10 hit.
The All For You album went double platinum, and a couple of later singles didn’t get past the middle parts of the Hot 100. Janet Jackson headed out on tour, and she did another HBO special that drew big ratings, but her tour plans got messed up after 9/11. In 2002, Janet sang the hook on the Neptunes-produced “Feel It Boy,” a #28 hit for the dancehall star Beenie Man. (Beenie Man’s highest-charting single, the 2004 Ms. Thing/Shawnna collab “Dude,” peaked at #26.)
You already know what happened next. In 2004, Janet Jackson performed at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, taking the gig that her older brother had made famous 11 years earlier. MTV produced a whole all-star extravaganza, and Janet opened it up by singing “All For You.” The other performers followed: P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock. Janet then returned to the stage and sang her classic “Rhythm Nation.” A beatboxing Justin Timberlake closed things out, sliding up in a stage elevator and going into “Rock Your Body” as he and Janet did some choreographed grinding. (“Rock Your Body” peaked at #5. It’s an 8. Justin Timberlake will eventually appear in this column.) As Justin reached the part where he promised to have you naked by the end of this song, he reached over, grabbed Janet’s shirt, and ripped. Suddenly, her gigantic nipple piercing was clearly visible to a television audience of 150 million people. Some pyro went off, and the show was over.
I was half-watching that halftime show from a TV across the room, and I didn’t even notice the exposed boob in real time, but plenty of people did. The FCC levied a fine that an appeals court later overturned, and the world freaked out. Internet searches went through the roof, and YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim later claimed that he had the idea for his website when he couldn’t find any good videos of Janet’s boob online. Justin Timberlake apologized and said that the boob exposure was accidental, and the terms “wardrobe malfunction” and “Nipplegate” entered our shared conversational lexicon. Famously, Justin avoided all of the ensuing blowback, and Janet Jackson did not.
Years later, the Huffington Post published a report on the aftermath of Nipplegate that sheds light on what happened next. CBS had aired the Super Bowl, and Les Moonves, the network’s CEO and chairman, was apparently furious about the whole thing, to the point of distraction. He put all the blame on Janet Jackson, which doesn’t make any sense. If you saw a guy ripping a woman’s shirt off on a sidewalk somewhere, you would blame the guy, not the woman.
There are all sorts of weird undercurrents to the nipplegate story. Janet and Justin were rumored to be dating at the time. Justin, who was only just starting his solo career, was attempting to pitch himself as one of Michael Jackson’s heirs and disciples; Michael had actually turned down “Rock Your Body” before Justin got it. The whole ripped-bra thing always looked like a publicity stunt to me, whether or not Janet ended up showing more boob than expected. But even if the whole thing had been planned out intricately, it clearly wasn’t Janet Jackson’s fault. The idea of “fault” itself seems absurd; why does it matter if America’s children saw an exposed boob for a half-second? If the whole incident actually damaged anyone, it was because Justin’s bra-rip move could’ve normalized a certain kind of sexual assault.
That wasn’t how Les Moonves saw it. Moonves, for reasons that make no sense to me, set out to destroy Janet Jackson’s career, and he largely succeeded. A week after the Super Bowl, CBS aired the Grammys. Janet Jackson was scheduled to give a tribute to Luther Vandross, who had just died. Les Moonves made sure that didn’t happen. Justin Timberlake did, however, get to perform at the Grammys. CBS was owned by Viacom, and Moonves declared that all Viacom-owned properties would boycott Janet Jackson. That meant no airplay on MTV, VH1, and a great many radio stations. Less than two months after the Super Bowl, Janet released her album Damita Jo. That album still went platinum, but Janet’s radio support was gone. Lead single “Just A Little While,” a great song, peaked at #45.
Les Moonves kept his vendetta against Janet Jackson going for many years; he was reportedly furious when she signed a book deal with the Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster seven years later. Three days after the Huffington Post published its report on Moonves and Janet, Moonves stepped down from CBS amidst a storm of sexual assault and harassment allegations. He should’ve blacklisted his own fucking self instead.
Without Les Moonves, would Janet Jackson’s career have fallen off a cliff? It’s an open question. Damita Jo came out when Janet Jackson was 37 years old. Control, her breakout, was 18 years earlier. The All For You album sold well, but it didn’t move crazy numbers the way some of Janet’s earlier records had done. Janet Jackson’s hitmaking run was astonishingly long and varied, but nobody stays on top forever. Maybe “All For You” would’ve been Janet’s last #1 anyway. But maybe not. Maybe she just would’ve kept smashing the charts for years. We’ll never know. We can, however, see a direct correlation between Moonves’ tantrum and Janet’s sudden and steep chart falloff. This is a case where the vagaries of popular taste don’t really come into play. Instead, Janet Jackson stopped making hits because one old freak got mad and because that old freak was in a position of power.
Janet Jackson kept working, and she made some more minor hits. In 2006, Janet got to #25 with the Nelly collab “Call On Me,” the first single from her album 20 Y.O. A year later, she made it to #19 with the pulsating club jam “Feedback.” 20 Y.O. went platinum. Janet kept touring arenas. She did some more acting, starring in a couple of Tyler Perry movies. It’s not like Janet suddenly became destitute. But her career was never the same.
In recent years, people seem to be reconsidering what happened with Janet Jackson. She’s still a presence on the charts; her last single, the 2018 Daddy Yankee collab “Made For Now,” peaked at #88. (Daddy Yankee will eventually appear in this column.) Janet joined the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2019. Earlier this year, there was a two-part TV documentary about Janet’s career that got people talking about the Super Bowl thing again. I’ve noticed a lot of Justin Timberlake’s goodwill evaporating in the past few years, largely because of the way he skated past that whole wreck without consequence and because of the racial and gender imbalances that the whole clusterfuck illuminates.
By this point, people hopefully understand Janet Jackson’s entire context a little better. Janet is, quite simply, one of the greatest pop stars of all time. She navigated a period of tremendous music-business change with absolute grace, pushing things forward without making too big of a show out of it. She put on thrilling performances, and she made bangers. Her catalog can hang with that of anyone else, including her older brother. Also, Janet Jackson is still around, still working. I don’t expect her to crash her way back into the upper reaches of the pop charts anytime soon, but if she does, I will be delighted to see it happen. Nobody deserves pop-chart success. It’s not a meritocracy, and it never has been. But if any former pop star deserves to come back to mass adulation, it’s Janet Jackson.
BONUS BEATS: There are a couple dozen “All For You” remixes out there in the world, and some of them come from legit rap legends. Here, for example, is DJ Premier’s Top Heavy Mix:
And here’s the DJ Quik remix:
(As one half of Gang Starr, DJ Premier’s highest-charting single is 1994’s “Mass Appeal,” which peaked at #67. I’m pretty sure the highest-charting single with Premier production is Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” which peaked at #6 in 2006. It’s a 7. As lead artist, DJ Quik’s highest-charting single is 1991’s “Tonite,” which peaked at #49. Quik also guested on Tony! Toni! Toné!’s 1996 single “Let’s Get Down, which peaked at #30. The highest-charting Quik-produced single is Truth Hurts’ 2002 Rakim collab “Addictive,” which peaked at #9. That’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s French house producer Mr. Oizo’s 2006 track “Half An Edit,” which is built around a sample of Janet Jackson saying the word “edit” on “All For You”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Saint Pepsi’s murky, slowed-down 2013 vaporwave chop of “All For You”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Producer Pete Rock probably used an “All For You” sample on Westside Gunn’s 2018 Elzhi collab “The Steiners.” Here’s that song:
(Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s highest-charting single, the 1992 classic “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” peaked at #58.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.