Saturday, February 13, 2021

Janet and the Importance of Bubblegum

The Music Snobs were discussing authenticity and the legacy of Control recently. This is somewhat orthogonal to the show but they gave me an opening and I couldn't resist. I have some thoughts on He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive, Janet Jackson and the importance of bubblegum.

He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive plays the same role in Control as Baby be Mine did in Thriller. It is the bridge between what came before and what is new and is to come. To wit:

Baby be Mine could be an outtake or a logical progression from Off the Wall. In the same vein, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive explicitly winks to the perceived bubblegum of Janet's earlier albums.

Sonically He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is the closest to pop on the album even though it has the prototypical synth grooves that characterized Minneapolis. Lisa Keith laces the background vocals and Spencer Barnard does the heavy lifting with the writing and production.

You can imagine Terry Lewis hearing this and saying, okay now let's add some funk to the rest of the album. Jimmy Jam would say now let's take it uptown. Cue When I Think Of You, Nasty and all the basslines that endure, the things that we celebrate from Control.

Lyrically, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is a trifle. And yet, it is completely disarming. You can't take it too seriously because of the subject matter. It captures the uncertainty of teenage love - the giggles of the unrequited longing. The letters column in Right On magazine.

He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is needed in the architecture of the album because of the vulnerability it exposes. If we think of Control as Janet's bildungsroman, it is a bildungsroman precisely because of the glimpse of the naivete, the innocence about to be lost.

The sequencing of Control has been much praised. You can do without He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive, we don't talk much about the song, but you'd lose something. The patter that starts What Have You Done For Me Lately echoes her homegirls steping in with advice in the chorus: "Talk to him".

I don't think she ever performed He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive live, it is strictly an album track. Still most people would kill for this kind of filler.

Compare it with almost contemporaneous Crush on You by The Jets that covered the same subject matter and is similarly upbeat and bright dancefloor fodder. Ready For The World's Love You Down captures the sense of yearning but is more akin to Lets Wait Awhile.

I'd like to think that Joe Jackson was expecting more of the same when he entrusted her to Jam and Lewis and was pleasantly surprised. Lightning struck twice, they were good for business.

By the end of Control, Joe Jackson can be under no delusion that his baby girl hasn't moved beyond schoolgirl crushes to needing a supply of birth control pills and condoms in her handbag. The closing moans in Funny how time flies do more work than the later Rolling Stone cover.

Jam and Lewis were great producers because they met their artists as equals and tailored the songs accordingly. Think of the sensitivity towards New Edition, the brotherhood with Alexander O'Neal or the meeting of minds with Cherrelle. Flyte Tyme was a family affair.

Teenage Love, a Playlist

The obligatory crush playlist (spotify version)
Slick Rick is the most wordly of the lot, I'd expect nothing less of hip hop

Others pitched in to confirm that, as speculated, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive was the first song recorded for Control.

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