In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Right around 1997, a whole lot of American record-label people and journalists were very into the idea that electronica would become the next grunge — a whole new wave that was about to sweep in and leave the music landscape in a completely different shape. Electronica — a dumber-than-fuck made-up catchall term for house and techno and trip-hop and other genres of music often made by pale British guys with sequencers — was supposed to be the new thing that would recharge people’s sense of exploration after alt-rock had played itself out. There was beauty in the promise of rave culture and the idea of a whole new world where the action wasn’t in the musicians onstage. In the abstract ideal, this would be faceless music, music that allowed you to turn your attention to the friends and strangers around you, to move the focus from godlike performer to heaving masses. It didn’t quite work out that way.
The big electronica hypes of the late ’90s didn’t generally get much play on the charts in the ’90s. The Prodigy’s much-touted album The Fat Of The Land did debut at #1 in the US, but their breakout single “Firestarter” peaked at #30. (This past weekend, I heard “Firestarter” between bands at a hardcore show, and it still goes.) The Chemical Brothers made an out-and-out masterpiece with Dig Your Own Hole, but their only single that made the Hot 100, the epic Noel Gallagher collab “Setting Sun,” couldn’t get past #80. Daft Punk eventually got huge, but their 1997 hit “Around The World” stopped at #61 over here. Aphex Twin and Tricky and Orbital and the Crystal Method and Underworld and Goldie and all the other stars of the rave-centric MTV video show Amp were basically non-factors on the American charts.
Early in 1998, though, straight-up house music returned to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; it just took a form that nobody expected. House music had always been American music — specifically Black American music — and the genre had a brief run of chart dominance in the early ’90s before people started thinking of it as British counterculture music. When electronica was supposed to be launching its big takeover, an American superstar who was going through a tough personal time turned towards the house music that she heard in clubs, and she made a glimmering banger that paid tribute to friends that she’d lost. That banger became the first house track to top the Hot 100 since, what, Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”? With “Together Again,” Janet Jackson made a version of house music that fully understood the emotional power of the genre, and she added another peak to an already-legendary career.
Janet Jackson was going through it when she made The Velvet Rope, the 1997 album that might be her masterpiece. It wasn’t that she wasn’t accomplishing anything. 1993’s Janet., her previous album, had gone sextuple platinum and launched six singles into the top 10, including two that went all the way to #1. Janet’s 1995 best-of collection Design Of A Decade had sold another four million copies, and the sleek and propulsive “Runaway,” its one new single, had gone to #3. (It’s an 8.) Janet had also renegotiated her deal with Virgin, earning herself $80 million and becoming, once again, the highest-paid musician in history.
But Janet Jackson was depressed. She’d come from a massively successful, massively dysfunctional show-business family, and her parents apparently did a number on her and on all of her siblings. Janet had issues with eating disorders and self-harm. She felt like the world was treating her as if she was something other than human, and given the way the world looked at celebrities in the ’90s, she was entirely correct about that. Before making The Velvet Rope, Janet tried different methods to make herself feel better — therapy, a spiritual guru, coffee enemas. While she was making the album, Janet sometimes wouldn’t show up at the studio with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for days at a time. She’d always been a consummate professional. This was new.
In The Velvet Rope, you can hear someone working on herself, pushing and exploring and trying to make sense of the world. Janet had already taken her style and her persona in different directions, leaning hard into funky and sexual R&B on Janet. On The Velvet Rope, Janet sang about struggling with her self-image, and she also leaned into different forms of sexual expression. Some songs get heavily into S&M, and there’s also a cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s The Night” about an encounter with a woman. The album was both deeply personal and sonically experimental, but it still worked as a Janet Jackson album. It still sounded like pop music.
The first single from The Velvet Rope was supposed to be the dizzily beautiful “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” That one was built from a sample of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and it had an excellently murky J Dilla-inspired beat and a smoothly offhand Q-Tip verse. (“Big Yellow Taxi” peaked at #67 in 1970. When I saw Joni Mitchell open for Bob Dylan a year later, she did a bit of Q-Tip’s verse at the end of “Big Yellow Taxi,” and it was adorable. ) I think “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” is a perfect song, but when the people at Virgin pushed the track at radio, pop stations didn’t really go for it, so “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” never came out as a single in the US. That means it never charted on the Hot 100. (On Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” peaked at #36.) Fortunately, Janet Jackson had another perfect song ready to go.
Janet Jackson co-wrote “Together Again” with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and her then-husband René Elizondo, Jr., and she co-produced the song with Jam and Lewis. By all accounts, the basic idea for “Together Again” came directly from Janet. She had the concept, the title, and the opening line: “There are times when I look above and beyond/ There are times when I feel your love around me, baby.” Janet had lost at least one good friend to AIDS, and she was thinking about loss in general.
Janet also loved house music. She’d fallen in love with “Runaway,” a song that house legends Little Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez recorded with their Nuyorican Soul project in 1997. (It had nothing to do with her own single “Runaway.”) That song reminded Janet of the disco that she’d heard when she was a little kid at Studio 54. The fact that Janet Jackson had been a little kid at Studio 54 might’ve had something to do with the depression that she experienced, but she heard uplift in that music, and she brought that uplift to “Together Again.”
“Together Again” came out after a long string of #1 hits dealing with death, but it doesn’t sound or feel anything like those songs. “Together Again” is not a melodramatic work of mourning. Instead, it’s a song of optimization and celebration. Janet sings of death as a form of liberation from earthly stresses: “No worries will you ever see now, baby/ I’m so happy for my baby.” Everywhere she goes, every smile she sees, she can see this person’s smile shining back at her. It’s a song about being excited to see this person again on the other side, and from where I’m sitting, that’s a whole hell of a lot more moving than another mopey ballad. In that sentiment, you can hear a lineage at work — gospel to soul to disco to house. You can hear the yearning for transcendence that’s behind so much great music.
“Together Again” also just slaps hard. The original idea for “Together Again” was that it would start out slow and then launch into a joyous fast beat after a long wait, a bit like Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” (“Last Dance,” from 1978, peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) In the final version, though, “Together Again” gets through its intro quickly, and it dives into dancefloor euphoria after less than 40 seconds of harps and misty keyboards. And when that beat hits, it really hits.
In retrospect, it’s wild that Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Janet Jackson, three producers who didn’t have any background in house music, were able to nail that lush thump that so many other producers have failed to evoke. “Together Again” has a nasty bassline, and it’s full of clavinet burps and flute-whistles — all the gorgeous little ornamental touches that surround that booming central beat. Janet sings that song with a tiny ache in her voice, but you can still hear her smiling. Her voice communicates great joy even while describing deep loss. I’m sure millions heard and enjoyed “Together Again” without even realizing that it’s a song about death. That’s the kind of miracle that pop music, at its best, can pull off. It can turn a funeral into a party. I am not a religious person, but I can get behind that kind of transmogrification.
“Together Again” doesn’t announce itself as a grand experiment, the way some pop songs do. The song’s version of house is so connected to R&B that it doesn’t read as much of a departure for Janet, and Janet had already been conveying happiness on records for years. But “Together Again” just kills me. I can’t be unhappy when it’s playing. It sounds giddy and unmoored, and it does things to my brain chemistry. It might not be the most important Janet Jackson song, but it might be the best. It’s definitely my favorite of her chart-toppers, and that’s saying something.
For the “Together Again” video, Janet went to Africa. The French photographer Seb Janiak filmed the clip in Tanzania, on the Serengeti, and it presents a sort of pre-Wakanda African utopia. Janet looks cool as hell, with a big nose ring and with bright red hair shooting in every direction. The clip is full of animals — elephants, monkeys, panthers, a falcon or something. Janet looks out on the desert with sun shining through clouds, and when she dances, she seems like she’s lighter than air. Her smile is tremendous. Janiak shoots the whole thing like a Nike commercial, and the clip offers no real indication that “Together Again” is a song about loss. Maybe he didn’t even know.
There was another “Together Again” video, too. Jimmy Jam’s “Deeper” remix basically built an entire song out of the slow “Together Again” intro. Janet recorded new vocals, and the track plays as luxurious downtempo neo-soul. René Elizondo, Jr. directed that video, and it’s just Janet alone in an apartment, looking like she’s trying to seduce a ghost. A butterfly flits around her, and I guess the butterfly is supposed to represent the soul of the person who she lost, though I wouldn’t have picked up on that on my own.
That remix was one of many. It’s not too surprising, given that it’s a club track, but a whole lot of producers did a whole lot of different things with “Together Again.” All those remixes probably helped drive sales of the single. In the US, “Together Again” went gold. Around the world, it sold a few million copies. Janet followed “Together Again” with the R&B jam “I Get Lonely.” It’s a solo track on the album, but the single version was a team-up with former Number Ones artists Blackstreet. Blackstreet leader Teddy Riley co-produced the remix with Timbaland, a guy who will eventually appear in this column. Thanks in large part to that remix, “I Get Lonely” peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.)
The Velvet Rope went triple platinum. Janet’s tour behind the album made a bunch of money, and her live 1998 concert special did huge ratings on HBO. Twelve years after Control, Janet Jackson was nowhere near done making hits. She’ll appear in this column again. Ultimately, electronic dance music would conquer the Billboard charts. When that happened, though, nobody was calling it electronica anymore. We’ll eventually see a lot of that stuff in this column.
BONUS BEATS: Of all the different “Together Again” remixes, my favorite is DJ Premier’s “100 In A 50” mix. Premier, one of the all-time great rap producers, gave “Together Again” a full-on neck-snap beat, and it somehow worked perfectly with the song. Here’s that remix:
Janet performed that Premier remix at the American Music Awards in 1998. Here’s her performance:
(DJ Premier was one half of Gang Starr, whose highest-charting single, the 1994 classic “Mass Appeal,” peaked at #67. Unless I’m forgetting something, the highest-charting Premier production is Christina Aguilera’s 2006 track “Ain” t No Other Man,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 7.)
THE 10S: Busta Rhymes’ hypnotically bugged-out “Dangerous” peaked at #9 behind “Together Again.” This is serious: It could make you delirious. It’s a 10.