CROSSING CROSSROADS

By Christopher Torrenueva

Music Video Review: Rhythm Nation (1989) by Janet Jackson


Janet Jackson’s black-and-white, military-inspired music video, titled “Rhythm Nation,” was released in 1989 as part of the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film. Fast-paced and bold, viewers become hooked to the catchy tunes and soulful sounds of the groundbreaking dance video. It is of the new jack swing musical genre, which incorporates the styles of hip-hop with the urban contemporary sound of rhythm and blues. Songs of this genre typically utilize keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines. Jackson’s voice can be described as passionate and powerful, and is accompanied by harmonizing vocals in certain parts of the song, particularly the chorus. Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis composed the music, which features a sample from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 song “Thank You.”
Famous for its dynamic choreography in an abandoned factory, “Rhythm Nation” sheds light on the problem of apathy, which is common among young people today. The dancers in the music video are representative of social activists and the empty surroundings stand for the indifferent attitudes in society. By featuring entertainers that appear to be making a change, viewers are encouraged to be more involved with their community. In addition, with lyrics like “People of the world unite / Strength in numbers we can get it right / One time / We are a part of the rhythm nation,” they become aware that by being ambitious, idealistic, and politically active, fighting the good fight will never be impossible.
Most of the men and women in the music video are dressed in black, cadet-style costumes that cover the entire body except the face. They can be seen wearing black leather gloves and military hats. Jackson and some of the other female dancers are wearing an earring on each ear with a key attached to each one. About the same number of men and women are featured as professional dancers, promoting gender equality in society. With the exception of the segment near the end of the music video that includes freestyle dancing, most of the video consists of Jackson with background dancers performing a synchronized dance routine. Judging by the serious facial expressions and vigorous body movements of Jackson and her dancers, the men and women in “Rhythm Nation” are confident, courageous, and display unmatched conviction.
Jackson composed the empowering lyrics for “Rhythm Nation” in an effort to promote racial unity and harmony among nations by stating, “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 colour lines.” Evidently, Jackson was conscious of the issues that the world was facing, and wanted her music to not only entertain, but to educate others about social injustice.
Because the music video preaches justice and equality, having a fair representation of different races would make sense. Evidently, the video features dancers of African-American, Caucasian, and Asian ancestry. Occasionally, a fairly young black male would observe Jackson and her dancers after going through a time of mental anguish. Janet Jackson, the lead vocalist and dancer, is an African-American who is known for breaking existing racial stereotypes specifically toward African-American women. Due to the stereotyping of black women in the media, it is sometimes believed by several ignorant individuals that all women of African-American ancestry are submissive maids, sex kittens, or obnoxious complainers. Jackson, on the other hand, proves that she is a socially responsible citizen with dignity and grace.
Although there are no sexually explicit lyrics or messages in “Rhythm Nation” that would be obvious to audiences, there is a short scene two minutes and thirty eight seconds into the music video that is somewhat sexual. During that scene, Jackson and her male and female dancers, placed their hands behind their head, and then pushed the front part of their body forward twice. It is debatable whether the scene was meant to be sexual or not, but it definitely caught the attention of music critics and viewers alike. Other than that, the music video is very different compared to many mainstream videos today. Instead of using sexual elements to attract audiences, it portrays the strong bond between entertainers and social activists with a common goal.
Even if one of the main purposes of the media is to promote the goods and services of various companies, Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” does not seem to endorse any particular product or brand name in the lyrics and visual aspect of the music video. However, Jackson once said that she drew her inspiration for the video’s choreography and technology from brother Michael Jackson’s Captain EO with his permission. Contrary to popular belief, the video states that wealth is not defined by the amount of money one owns or what social class one belongs to. Instead, it is defined by our ideologies and instincts because as Jackson said, “In complete darkness, we are all the same. It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us.”
If the “Rhythm Nation” music video were given a different title, “The World Today” would be an appropriate title. Although world issues such as poverty, illiteracy, disease, violence, and global warming continue to exist in this generation, no other generation in the history of humankind has globalized culture, commerce, and technology. More than ever before, the increased familiarity with mainstream media, communications, and technologies has made it possible to change the face of the planet for the better. All it takes is one hopeful individual and the will of the people.
Personally, Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” is one of my most favourite music videos ever made. It speaks particularly to young people and encourages them to be the leaders of tomorrow. Jackson passes on the message of social activist Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think is the meaning behind the title “Rhythm Nation?”
2. Do you think the music video does a good job in getting the message of the song across?
3. Has viewing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” had a positive impact on you as a person, student, and citizen?
4. Jackson is not the only cultural figure who preaches racial equality. Many other musicians, movie stars, and humanitarians talk about the injustices in the world. Do you think their goal to end discrimination will come true?
5. Jackson once said, “In complete darkness, we are all the same. It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?

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February 13, 2010 - Posted by | Entertainment | , , , , , , ,

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