The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes”


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In January of 1991, “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” the seventh single from Janet Jackson’s 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814, reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. With that, Janet Jackson made the record books. All seven of Jackson’s Rhythm Nation singles had reached the top five, and not even Janet’s big brother Michael had pulled that off before. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” was the fourth Rhythm Nation single to go all the way to #1. Two months later, Jackson left A&M Records, her longtime home, and signed a deal with Virgin Records for a reported $32 million. For at least a few days, this was the biggest contract for any musician in history.

When Janet Jackson signed that deal, Stephen Holden published a New York Times story about record labels spending all their money by inking big deals with superstars. Rather than developing lesser-known artists for less money, these companies were banking on the idea that established hitmakers would keep cranking out hits indefinitely. (While Holden was reporting the story, Michael Jackson signed a deal worth even more than his sister’s.) Holden thought that this was a big gamble, and he thought the Janet Jackson deal was an especially risky move.

In his article, Holden wrote that Janet Jackson was “a producer-dependent artist — i.e., someone who relies on others to make her sound interesting and trendy.” He had other problems with Janet, too: “She also lacks a sharply defined personality, both as an artist and celebrity.” Holden also noted that Janet didn’t have the massive voice of a Whitney Houston or a Mariah Carey and that “in dance-pop, musical style can become dated overnight.” The broad outlines of Holden’s argument are sound: In rushing to spend on big stars, labels risked artistic stagnation and ignored the long history of stars signing big deals and then immediately falling off. But Stephen Holden picked the wrong artist to illustrate his argument. Janet Jackson was not the one.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Janet Jackson had a truly remarkable run — nearly two decades of massive hits, with her sound never in any danger of coming off dated. When Janet Jackson finally did fall off, it had less to do with changing styles and more to do with a powerful TV executive who was endlessly vindictive over Super Bowl shenanigans. By 1991, though, there was already plenty of evidence that Janet Jackson was a smart investment. A year later, she proved it.

Artists like David Bowie and Madonna get a whole lot of credit for being chameleons, shifting sounds and personas to fit a changing landscape. That’s good. They deserve that credit. But for reasons that may or may not have to do with race, Janet Jackson rarely gets that same credit. She deserves that credit, too. When she was at her peak, Janet Jackson didn’t just change her sound to fit the moment. Instead, she changed her sound to fit moments that had not yet arrived. Janet and her close collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis weren’t just pop craftsmen; they were also pop soothsayers. They always knew where things were heading. Flyte Tyme, Jam and Lewis’ Minneapolis studio, was demolished a couple of years ago. I hope someone poked around in the rubble for a time machine.

Janet Jackson first teamed up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on 1986’s Control, an album that anticipated the arrival of new jack swing. Three years later, when new jack swing was dominating the charts, they came out with Rhythm Nation, which anticipated many of the sleeker and harder sounds that would dominate the pop charts in the early ’90s. And while everyone else was playing catchup to that, Janet Jackson slowed things down, getting freakier and funkier and more sensual. The sound of ’90s R&B was already coming into focus by the time Janet released janet., but Jackson’s album understood all the directions that sound might go. You can hear all of it in “That’s The Way Love Goes,” the first single from janet. and the longest-reigning chart-topper that anyone in the Jackson family ever released.

Janet Jackson albums generally don’t stick with any one particular sound. Her records cover as much ground as possible, but they also have a vague, nebulous vibe. The first singles from those records have big jobs. They have to work as individual pop songs, and they also have to give some idea of what that vibe will be. “That’s The Way Love Goes” does that work. With that song, and with its attendant video, Janet Jackson presented a radically different vision from the stark, propulsive, militaristic feel of the early Rhythm Nation singles and videos. Crucially, “That’s The Way Love Goes” is not a dance-pop song. It’s something else.

Five months before Janet Jackson released janet., Dr. Dre came out with The Chronic, a vast, expansive blockbuster street-rap album that had an impact way beyond rap. Dre melted samples together with live instrumentation, creating a huge and layered sound that was thicker and heavier than anything happening in pop music at the moment. The cinematic scope of The Chronic contrasted jarringly with the ribald, violent, bordering-on-nihilistic lyrics, and both of those things proved hugely influential. In “That’s The Way Love Goes,” I hear some echo of what Dre did with his Chronic production — samples blurred together seamlessly into a smooth, heady tower of sound. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were veteran funkateers who’d been making music since the ’70s, and it’s crazy impressive that they were able to channel that rich and detailed new sound as effortlessly as they did on “That’s The Way Love Goes.”

The Chronic probably didn’t influence the production of “That’s The Way Love Goes”; Jam and Lewis were working on that beat before Dre’s album came out. It’s more likely, I think, that Jam and Lewis were chasing that spacious, luxurious sound at the same time as Dre and a lot of other producers were coming up with their own versions of it. It took time for that kind of slow-motion strut-music to truly colonize the pop charts, but Janet Jackson got there before almost anyone else.

There was never any question over who would produce janet. Janet Jackson had made two straight albums with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Both records were hugely successful, both artistically and commercially. Janet was already co-writing songs with Jam and Lewis on Control, and she also became a co-producer on the Rhythm Nation hit “Black Cat.” On janet., Jackson co-wrote and co-produced every song, and the end result is one of those deals where you can hear that the people involved all trust each other enormously. You can also hear that this is a different version of Janet Jackson.

In pretty much every sense, janet. is an intimate album. Where Rhythm Nation had been about projecting hard, stark, larger-than-life sounds and ideas, janet. is quieter and more dialed-in, even in its energetic dance tracks. It’s also all about sex. Janet had used sexuality on previous records; sex is part of the toughness of both Control and Rhythm Nation. But the aesthetic on janet., and especially on “That’s The Way Love Goes” is tender and aqueous. Its sounds dissolve into each other with a squishy, tender sort of excitement.

When Janet made janet., she was a newlywed. Jackson had been dating the dancer René Elizondo Jr. for a few years. Elizondo had started out as a backup dancer for Janet’s sister La Toya, and he’d starred in the video for the Rhythm Nation ballad “Come Back To Me.” (“Come Back To Me” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) Janet and Elizondo had secretly married in 1991, just after Janet signed that big deal. On janet., she sounds like she’s enjoying life.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Jimmy Jam says that Janet’s mood, as well as those of the producers, affected the feel of the record: “We were all in very happy relationships, and we were in love, not only with the people we were in relationships with but with life in general. We’d been very successful professionally, and I think we were all feeling very satisfied with our personal lives, and that came out on the album… janet. was about a confident, sexy woman in touch with her feminine side. That was what she was feeling at that time, so our job was to enhance that.”

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis put together the beat for “That’s The Way Love Goes,” and they flipped some of the same samples that a lot of other producers were using at the time. “That’s The Way Love Goes” uses a classic breakbeat — the drum intro from the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President,” a 1973 protest-funk obscurity that went on to become one of the most-sampled tracks of all time. Those drums had already powered ’80s rap classics like MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President,” and Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge Is Over,” and future Janet Jackson boyfriend Jermaine Dupri had used them on Kris Kross’ chart-topper “Jump.” (Honey Drippers leader Roy C didn’t learn about all those “Impeach The President” samples until those drums showed up on a different Janet Jackson track a few years later.)

Like so many other early-’90s hits, “That’s The Way Love Goes” also used the groove of one of the funk classics that James Brown released in the early ’70s. In this case, it was “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” a long and woozy track from 1974. (“Papa Don’t Take No Mess” peaked at #31. James Brown’s highest-charting single, 1965’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) Jam and Lewis actually cleared that sample with James Brown himself. In the Bronson book, Jam says that Brown demanded to see the song’s lyrics first “because a bunch of rappers were taking his songs and putting all these foul lyrics on them.”

By the time James Brown saw the lyrics for “That’s The Way Love Goes,” those lyrics had been through some changes. Jam and Lewis gave Janet Jackson a tape with the “That’s The Way Love Goes” beat before she left for a Christmas vacation. She loved it. Janet listened to the tape nonstop during her vacation, and then she came back and said that she wanted to use it for a song called “That’s The Way Love Goes.” At first, this was going to be a breakup song. Then Jackson had a late-night epiphany and decided that it should be a seduction song instead. That’s what it became.

“That’s The Way Love Goes” opens with Janet murmuring in a voice that’s half slam-poetry, half phone-sex hotline commercial: “Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire, my love is blind; can’t you see my desire?” We hear a deep voice saying repeating the song’s title. (It’s really Janet, pitch-shifted way down.) When those “Impeach The President” drums kick in, they sound slow and loose and hypnotic, augmented with a strolling bassline and elegant little guitar stabs, then the squelchy groove from “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” Eventually, there’s an eerie little synth-whine that reminds me of what Dr. Dre was doing at the time. The song is a full minute in before Janet Jackson really starts singing the first verse. Even then, she stays patient, cooing in a soft half-whisper and getting heavy with the double-entendres: “You’ll be so happy that you came.”

I don’t think it’s a sample, but the groove and the melody on “That’s The Way Love Goes” both owe something to “Georgy Porgy,” a single that former Number Ones artists Toto released in 1979. On “Georgy Porgy,” Toto, longtime collaborators of Janet’s big brother Michael, gave a sort of studio-rock take on Philly soul, and the song did better on the R&B chart (#18) than on the Hot 100 (#48). I like the idea of Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis cut-and-pasting James Brown and Toto and “Impeach The President” in the course of assembling this gooey and mesmerizing sex song.

“That’s The Way Love Goes” is a bold choice for a first single. For one thing, it’s pretty brazen in its sexuality. There aren’t too many ways to read it when Janet Jackson is singing about “go deeper, baby, deeper, you feel so good I’m gonna cry.” But also, the song doesn’t really jump out of the speakers. Instead, it gently wafts. In a lot of ways, “That’s The Way Love Goes” works less as a song and more as an extended groove. But it’s a gorgeous, multifaceted groove, and it keeps shifting and undulating. Singing on it, switching between her own multi-tracked hook and her airy leads, Janet sounds breezy and effortless. She dials in. “That’s The Way Love Goes” doesn’t grip me the way that some other Janet Jackson songs do, but once you get on its wavelength, it’s beautiful.

When Janet Jackson was getting ready to release janet., plenty of people were nervous about putting out “That’s The Way Love Goes” as the first single. According to some reports, Janet Jackson was one of those people. “That’s The Way Love Goes” is a low-key song, and a whole lot of money was riding on the record. “If,” with its Supremes sample and its crunching guitars and its juiced-up dance groove, seemed like the obvious pick, especially as a bridge from the Rhythm Nation era. But Jam and Lewis were adamant that “That’s The Way Love Goes” was the way to introduce the album, and you can’t argue with the results. (A couple of months later, “If” became the album’s second single, and it peaked at #4. It’s a 9.)

The video for “That’s The Way Love Goes” went a long way toward selling the song. Janet’s husband René Elizondo Jr. directed the clip, and it’s a stark departure from the black-and-white calisthenics of those first Rhythm Nation clips. Filmed in soft light, Janet and an assortment of extremely attractive people hang out in a vast loft apartment, gently clowning each other and then, when the song plays, casually melting into the groove. If you’ve watched the video lately, then you already know that one of those extremely attractive people is the young Jennifer Lopez, who had just ended her run as one of the Fly Girls on In Living Color. J.Lo was originally supposed to tour with Janet as a backup dancer, but she opted out. A year later, Lopez landed her first screen acting role on the Fox sitcom South Central. Things worked out for her. Jennifer Lopez will eventually appear in this column.

Things worked out for Janet Jackson, too. The “That’s The Way Love Goes” single came out in April of 1993. It was #1 in May and platinum in June. The janet. album came out the same week that “That’s The Way Love Goes” reached #1, and the LP debuted at #1. Less than a year later, janet. had equalled the sales of Rhythm Nation 1814, going platinum six times over. We’ll see Janet Jackson in this column again soon.

GRADE: 8/10 - The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” (

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