The album got tons of radio and video airplay and spent 108 weeks on the Billboard charts. Seven of the songs on the album cracked the Top 10 (four of which, “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat,” and “Love Will Never Do Without You,” garnered No. 1 status) , while “Rhythm Nation” and “Come Back to Me” both hit No. 2, and “Alright” topped out at No. 4. It was the best-selling album of 1990!
Even I, a metal head to my core, got swept up in the undeniable new jack swing of the Rhythm Nation. I enjoyed singing along to “Love Will Never Do” and I appreciated Janet’s attempt at rocking out with “Black Cat.” I even thought the dystopian style of the “Rhythm Nation” video, with the group of militant-looking factory workers (really, what is going on here?) doing synchronized dance moves in artful black and white was pretty badass.
But did you ever stop and wonder what the album title meant? What is a rhythm nation, exactly, and what happened in 1814?
Remember, 1989 signaled the end of the Reagan era and the taking down of the Berlin Wall. We had the Iran-Contra trials on TV on a daily basis, there were youths rioting in Tiananmen Square, Satanic Verses was released (and condemned by the Ayatollah), and there was a terrible elementary school shooting in Stockton, CA (which lead to a semi-automatic assault rifle ban in California).
The story goes that after the massive success of her Control album, Janet was working again with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on Rhythm Nation, and she wanted it to be more of a concept album, to deal with the current political and social issues she was seeing on national news stations. Jackson wanted her songs to speak to the current events at that time, but also to help unite people, and communicate a positive message. She joked that she felt like she was writing the “National Anthem” for the 1990s. On a lark, they decided to look up when the “Star-Spangled Banner” was written; and they discovered that Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics (written at the time as merely a poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry”) in 1814.
For all of you numerologists out there: it’s been noted that the “R” in Rhythm and “N” in Nation happen to correspond to their numbered placement in the alphabet as 18 and 14. Do what you will with that information!
Looking back, the album failed to follow through as a concept album about social injustice and political prejudices, when you consider such lighthearted romps as “Escapade” and “Love Will Never Do Without You” help to round out the record. Regardless, it’s undeniable that the majority of these songs still stand the test of time.
Unsurprisingly, the video won an MTV Award for “Best Choreography.”
I’ll leave you now with the statement that’s spoken at the top of the song “Rhythm Nation.”
“We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color-lines.”