Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Janet Jackson - When I Think of You

*** (out of four)

Almost twenty years ago, Janet Jackson got her first number-one hit and MTV got one of the most elaborate videos of its inaugural half-decade with "When I Think of You." This was simple, innocent, pop-star-in-the-making Janet, not the Janet we're now more familiar with - who sings about bondage and discipline and whose wardrobe just might happen to malfunction if you invite her to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show.*

"When I Think of You" is meant to emulate the joyous block party vibe of big Hollywood musicals shot in Technicolor and featuring hundreds and hundreds of extras. And, even though it's patently obvious the "neighborhood" is one oversized soundstage set, the video does work its way through a variety of choreographed outdoor and indoor scenarios in what appears to be one continuous camera shot. (Though, in fact, if you pay attention, you'll notice a couple fairly obvious disguised cuts when Janet slides down her staircase and into the street, when she first walks into the nightclub and when the old-time photographer shoots his flash into the camera.)

We open on the neighborhood set as residents are beginning their day. A sweeping crane shot reveals a store owner sweeping the sidewalk, a housewife shaking out a rug on the balcony, nightstick-wielding cops kicking a sleeping vagrant off the hood of a parked car and a bag lady washing her face in a leaky fire hydrant. In rapid succession, a taxi pulls up, releasing more than a dozen dancing fools, a trio of smoothly dressed trumpet players works their way down a staircase and a cranky old man comes out and tells everyone to shut the hell up.

And there's Janet, in the heart of her big-hair and shapeless business suit days, taking it all in from the balcony. Her man appears over her shoulder, disappears, and she spends the rest of the video exploring the neighborhood in hopes of tracking him down. All the while, the camera roams with and around her, and a seemingly endless cast of characters spills through the shot. There are sailors fighting with street punks, dancing waiters wielding trays, smiling street hookers, the works.

"When I Think of You" holds up rather well after two decades, if you can get past the fact that it's cheesy as all hell. I never change the channel when it comes on, just because there's so much to look at - people, sets and camera movement - that the video is worth studying to try and figure out exactly how the director pulled it off. Plus, the song itself has a spot in my guilty-pleasure canon for life, I fear.

* = Faithful eMpTyV reader and archivist Mike Melanson recently emailed me the following: "Right after the famous Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, I saw from the web access logs that certain pages from your site were receiving an inordinately high number of hits. I investigated a little further and realized that people were doing searches like 'janet jackson nipple video' and ending up on certain eMpTyV pages. So your old site was incredibly popular again, if only for a day or two before the search terms got highjacked by a variety of unscrupulous websites."