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In the mid-1980s, Janet Jackson broke away from her world-famous, hit-making family and, with her Control album, rebooted both her career and pop style in the New Jack Swing era. The challenge was following it up—and Jackson and her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, didn’t make it easy on themselves.
In 1989, they produced an ambitious album with a portentous title: Janet Jackson’sRhythm Nation 1814. But what could have been Control Part 2 instead was a visionary LP that reinvented the socially conscious album, from the era of Marvin Gaye, for the ’90s, and envisioned what pop would eventually sound like in the 21st century. Rhythm Nation was a smash, generating more hits—and bigger hits—than any album in history. In fact, if Jackson and her label hadn’t pulled their punches with one final radio single, she could have set an all-time Billboard chart record that would have overshadowed any of the Jackson family’s historic achievements.
Chris Molanphy, a pop-chart analyst and author of Slate’s “Why Is This Song No. 1?” series, tells tales from a half-century of chart history. Through storytelling, trivia, and song snippets, Chris dissects how that song you love—or hate—dominated the airwaves, made its way to the top of the charts, and shaped your memories forever.