I swear I didn’t do this on purpose but today am posting an unprecedented third consecutive breakup song. Upon realizing this, I took a quick look at the rest of the list and can say confidently that “Against All Odds,” “Birthday Boy,” and “Again” are the three best breakup songs of all time. I told you the math I was using was sophisticated. The system works.
I think every woman who grew up about the same time I did has a favorite among the pop divas* of the 80s and 90s. I take it a step further and rank them because that’s just who I am. My favorite is Janet Jackson. While neither the best singer nor dancer of the group, she’s like the greatest generalist of her time. Solid dancing, her vocal range falls right in that meaty part of the curve where she’s not showing off, not falling behind. The songwriting and arrangements are probably her strongest suits. Janet Jackson is the consummate pop generalist, which as someone who is a little good at everything but not great at one single thing, I tip my hat to her.
*I really didn’t want to use this loaded and implicitly sexist term but found it impossible to avoid.
That said, Janet is no underdog. The track listings for her three best albums, Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet. boggle the mind. They are in no uncertain terms loaded with hits. They were all released three or more years apart (1986, 1989, and 1993 respectively) which is a LIFETIME between releases in pop-music years. She got away with this because she released so many singles from each album. Take Control, for example. The first single “What Have You Done for Me Lately” was released in January of 1986 and the sixth single from Control, “The Pleasure Principle” was released in May of 1987. The video for the latter was awarded an MTV video music award in September 1988. By this measure, she rode the Control wave for two years, eight months. In the case of Rhythm Nation 1814, she’s distinguished as responsible for the only album in history that had number one hits in three separate calendar years. She didn’t have to rush to put something out every two years because she stayed in the spotlight for three years every time she released an album. I love this.
Another advantage to putting out hit-heavy albums less often is that she got to change musical and style directions each time. During her Control era, she presented herself as a flirty, wholesome, girl next door. For Rhythm Nation she (mostly) presented herself as this militaristic, no-nonsense badass. Towards the end of Rhythm Nation’s reign, something weird happened. For the music video for her seventh (!) single, she completely changed her image, one she carried over into the Janet. era. In fact, I recall the first time I saw the music video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and wondered what the fuck happened. It didn’t help that in the first verse of that one she was doing this weird, husky low-voice thing that I don’t think she ever did before or since. Her appearance was also dramatically different. She was always in great, pop-star physical condition, but I think the shape of her face gave off the impression that she was somehow “chubby?” In “Love Will Never Do,” she was “chubby” no more, exuberantly showing off her wash-board abs. She’d also lightened her hair and the direction of the video was very evocative of a CK One commercial, in which the stark desert setting and the clean minimalist white-cotton-and-denim wardrobe choices was very much of its time.
As mentioned, this clean, simple, and beautiful aesthetic carried over into Janet., starting with the iconic album cover,* a sepia-toned photo of a topless Janet Jackson with disembodied hands covering her nips. This also looks like a Calvin Klein print ad, aided by the half-buttoned button-fly jeans she’s wearing. I think she’s also wearing a wallet chain. I miss the 90s.
*Described here is actually the *alternate* album cover. The other one just had her head, which is clearly not as memorable. I’d completely forgotten about it before looking it up.
By the time Janet. was released, I was already a fan of alternative rock, which makes the fact that she’d gotten my attention during this era all the more impressive. “That’s the Way Love Goes” was the lead single and it’s a nice slow jam, but besides “Again,” “If” is a standout in my personal soundtrack because musically it was certainly a departure. The music video, a super heavyweight example of cultural appropriation is nonetheless beautiful. There’s a lot going on, matching the song’s kinetic pacing. There’s group choreography and what looks like some kind of sex-parlor/voyeur’s paradise situation going on? Janet is wearing a from-fitting, cropped vest, as she does in the video for “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which I can only explain by reminding you again that this was peak-90s.
“Again” was released as the third single in October 1993, but it appeared in the major motion picture Poetic Justice starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, which was released the previous summer. It for whatever reason wasn’t on the soundtrack album, but is played over the closing credits. I saw Poetic Justice at the weird little Kuhio Theater* with bff Alison and this girl Autumn who we knew from the school we attended before high school. I don’t remember how I felt about it at the time, only that Autumn had a major boner for Tupac. I’ve watched it since then and cannot recommend it. It is a terrible movie and the poetry is terrible.
*I see that the Kuhio Theater was demolished in 1996. It was my favorite theater. I feel like it’s appropriate it was destroyed in 1996, was effectively the end of the 90s. I saw Poetic Justice, Sleepless in Seattle, Dragon, and fucking Congo at this theater, making it the most 90s movie theater of all time. May it rest in peace.
So my introduction to “Again” must have been a slow burn because I don’t remember having heard it for the first time. I suspect this is in part the result of my being a stubborn alternative rock fan at the time. It wasn’t ok to enjoy pop music at the time, so it must have started out as a guilty pleasure before blossoming into a full-blown obsession. I believe it was also the rare pop song that received some Radio Free airplay, but I can’t verify that. I can definitely see it being the kind of thing where it was around for like a year and then I heard it for the first time in a while and I say to myself “wait a minute. I *love* this song!”
There’s a piano riff that comes and goes throughout the song, starting with the intro. It’s infectious. It’s probably the reason that this song is elevated above run-of-the-mill pleasant-pop-ballad to full-blown classic status. Janet will occasionally sing along with it. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about? That part that goes duh-dun-dun-duh-dun-dun-dun? “Again” is not structured like a pop song either. It’s meandering and there’s no real chorus, but she repeats the word “again” several times in a handful of different contexts. It seems really short for some reason, but it’s almost four minutes long. The Wikipedia entry refers to it as an “experiment” and a “departure,” and I guess it is for all the reasons I mention above, but they make it sound like it’s Janet’s first noise record.
I was shocked to see that in its time, critical reception of “Again” was “mixed.” Fuck you guys, this song is beautiful. The criticism is mostly about the lyrical content, which I guess I can see if you’re also dead inside. I mean, it’s a love song. I was touched by it because Janet who was then 27 had a *past* and the concept of having sort of forgotten how strongly you feel about a past relationship struck me as very adult. Also adult? The bit about feeling nostalgic about how good the sex was. Most iconic breakup songs put the focus squarely on the hurt (see: “Against All Odds,” “Since U Been Gone”) or how great the ex-partner was (see: “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Someone Like You”), but looking back with regret about how good things were is kind of unique. And like, mature. I loved it.
The music video is indelible. It’s also very white-cotton, taking place in some breezy, Mediterranean house-like setting, in which she’s alternating between writing what I can only imagine is bad poetry and flashing back to her time with this lost love. It’s so domestic, but in an extremely leisurely and wealthy way. They’re very happy and rich in their oversized wicker chairs. I must mention that the boyfriend in the video is played by one Mr. Gary Dourdan, who played one of the top ten most annoying characters in sitcom history, Shazza Zulu from A Different World. The enduring image from this music video occurs beginning at 1:53 when Shazza unbuttons Janet’s jeans and slowly slides his hand down her pants. THE NATION WAS POSITIVELY SCANDALIZED BY THIS. As it turns out, he was just going for her belly chain. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know what this was and the whole thing was so confusing, really making absolutely no objective sense. It was presented in such a lurid manner, you were sure it must have been some kind of genital chain, if such a thing existed. Which for all any of us knew, did.
Oh man do I fall apart at this song. To this day. The piece at the end, where she’s all “say it just one time, say you love me. God knows I do love you again?” Phew/yikes. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been with Pete for my entire adult life and am EXTREMELY lucky to have enjoyed a very harmonious, low-drama relationship to the point where I’m kind of naive in this area if that makes any sense. But because it’s been so good, the concept of it ending, an issue raised by “Again” in which an end that nobody wants just sort of happens is seriously fucking heartbreaking. Then--for the door to open slightly for an opportunity to relive it? It killed me at age 14 and it kills me now.