#79: Janet Jackson – Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989)

Throughout the next however many months I’ll be counting down my 100 favorite albums, because why not. I’m up to number seventy-nine.

escapade (ĕs’kə-pād) n. An adventure, tinged with a hint of danger.

In 2006, I booked a two week vacation to a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time – Australia, the land that gave us Mel Gibson, Crocodile Dundee and Savage Garden. My desire to go there probably started when I learned that my childhood/teenhood/early adulthood crush, Olivia Newton-John, lived there from age five.

I was traveling alone, as I usually do. I like the freedom of being able to do what I want and go where I wish to go on my schedule. Plus, I don’t have any friends. Well, I have some friends, but they are either married, broke, or not friends in a “I want to spend time with you” way. And while I like deciding where to go, what to do, and when to do it without needing to compromise, negotiate, or argue with anyone, I often wish I had someone with whom I can share my experiences. Someone to take pictures of me in front of landmarks, someone with whom I can dance during excursions to each foreign city’s clubs, someone with whom I can share meals, and by share I mean sit at the table with me and order their own appetizer and main course and dessert for I order what I order because I plan on eating it and if you wish to know what it tastes like order your own. Because of my shyness I have difficulty meeting such people.

On the flight from LA, I had the misfortune of sitting behind a woman who became furious when I placed my carry-on bag under her seat. “Move your bag. That is my space.”

“Actually, no. The flight attendant just announced that we are to stow our carry-on items beneath the seat in front of us.”

“Listen, asshole, I paid for this seat. You don’t get to encroach on my space. I own my home in Hancock Park. You think you’re allowed to set up a tent on my front lawn? Uh uh, mister. That’s not how it works.”

I nonchalantly pulled out a book and proceeded to start reading, hoping my not engaging further with her would magically smooth things over. Oddly, my disengagement failed to work its calming wonders. She figured if I’m going to violate her space, then she’s going to violate mine, and for the duration of the flight, she expressed her displeasure by throwing her trash at me.

You might think that I would have said something to her, or at least to the flight attendant. But why make waves? Why rock the boat, or plane, as it were? She and I are going to be together for the next 17 hours, and it’s not as though I sustained injuries from the crumpled up napkins, empty soda cans, peanut wrappers, or half-eaten tuna sandwich. I felt bad for her. She was, to use the clinical vernacular, cuckoo bananas. Somewhere her life took a wrong turn. Maybe she was bullied at school. Maybe she was kidnapped and held captive in a tool shed for 18 months. I don’t know her backstory. What did she do for a living?, I wondered. Probably customer service for Anthem Blue Cross. Don’t get me started.

I decided to be compassionate and understanding. After all, I’m not perfect either. I have my own flaws and quirks. As you can see, I’m too nice. For another thing, when I’m in a situation that frightens me, my imagination spirals into admittedly far-fetched paranoid reveries. Also, I ought to clip my toenails more frequently. I share that in case you’re considering the role of my travel companion.

When I finally arrived in Sydney, I couldn’t wait to explore the city and see what it had to offer. But as I walked around, I felt a sense of déjà vu. The streets were lined with the same chain stores that I saw back home: Starbucks, McDonald’s, The Gap, etc. Where was the Australian culture? Where was the uniqueness? This was like LA with better accents. Even their currency is called dollars. There were some non-chain restaurants that served kangaroo and ostrich, but fuck if I’m going to eat either of those animals. I feel very strongly that one should avoid contributing to the suffering and killing of animals that are raised and slaughtered for meat, and I oppose the use of antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals in animal farming. And yes, I am a carnivore who eats meat from cows and chickens and pigs and turkeys, but I have the good taste to feel guilty about doing so when I think about it. And I seldom think about it. ‘Cause it makes me feel guilty.

On my first full day in Australia I visited the Sydney Zoo, where I was awed by the diversity of animals on display, from the towering giraffes to the tiny platypus. However, I couldn’t help but feel sad that these magnificent creatures were confined for our entertainment. The animals looked so listless and depressed in their cages. They belonged in the wild, doing their animal thing, roaming free and having fun and living life like they were meant to.

Some of the people who came to see them were jerks, throwing things at the animals, making loud noises and raising a ruckus like they’re at a Texas school board meeting. One guy shouted at a lion “Hey – are you a big cat or a little pussy?” I wanted to see the lion pounce on that guy and destroy him like a marionette in a hurricane, and then ask “Any more questions from you asshats?”. That’d be worth the price of admission. In fact, I’d pay extra to see that. But what if the animals can’t differentiate one human from another? Or what if they think I carpooled to the zoo with those asshats? Then they’d slay me, and I don’t want that. I want to return to L.A. at some point. I bought a round trip air ticket. I’d hate to have wasted that money.

By that point in my life I harbored a fear of all animals, except cats and kangaroos. Cats, thanks to our two family pets during my teenage years. The worst you could say about the white cat, Dr. Jekyll, was that he was a dimwit who spent hours perched on a kitchen chair looking out a window completely obscured by a shrub and who never got the hang of using the litter box properly, as having only his front paws in didn’t achieve the desired goal. His brother, a grey cat named Mr. Hyde, was brighter, but that’s like saying food tastes better than a nerf football. Kangaroos were fine by me because when I was very young there was a TV show called Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo, a live action series about a kangaroo named Zelda Markowitz. Just kidding. The roo’s name was Skippy, and she did things like bring in the mail, operate the radio and play the drums in a pop group called The Executives. Any animal that can play drums gets a pass in my book. (By the way, I‘d be all in for a show about a kangaroo named Zelda Markowitz.)

All those years I had the impression that kangaroos were cute and sweet and would make great pets, but the check-in clerk at the hotel I was staying in disabused me of that idea.

“Welcome to Sydney, mate! I hope you enjoy your stay. But I have to warn you about very dangerous creatures – the kangaroos. They’re unpredictable, vicious and deadly. They have sharp claws and teeth that can rip through flesh and bone. And they have a temper that can rival a bull.”

“Good to know. I’ll –“

“They’re responsible for hundreds of injuries and deaths yearly. They attack people, pets, cars, bikes – anything. If you get too close, you are asking for trouble.”

“Thank you! I had no idea! I – “

“Do not approach a kangaroo. Keep your distance. No feeding. No petting. No selfies. No eye contact. No sudden movements. No loud noises. If you see a kangaroo coming towards you, run for your life. They are the scourge of Australia. They are the spawn of Satan. They are the devil’s hopscotchers. You’re in room 312. Here’s your key. The elevators are down the hall to your left. Enjoy Sydney!”

My fear of animals began at age 12, when Gustav, the German Shepherd belonging to The Epsteins next door, jumped the eight-foot high fence separating our properties, knocked me to the ground, and used my leg as a chew toy. My parents were on our driveway and didn’t respond to my screams until I hobbled over to them and they saw the tear in my jeans and blood on my leg. Then they sprang into action immediately, my dad dragging me to The Epsteins’ front door and berating Mr. Epstein, after which my dad and mom took me to the hospital. My fear of that dog spread to all dogs, no matter their size, and very soon to all other animals, except the aforementioned cats and kangaroos.

Scary animals abound in Los Angeles. It’s not uncommon to see coyotes, foxes and skunks stroll the streets like self-important Tik Tok stars. My friend Anthony is a hair stylist in West Hollywood. A squirrel would watch Anthony and his fellow stylists through the shop window, perhaps contemplating a new ‘do, as she’s had the same one since birth. While squirrels pretty much eat whatever they can find, Anthony and his crew treated this squirrel to imported Brazilian nuts from Sprouts. One day as I was getting my hair did, there it was. The squirrel. And it was the biggest squirrel I had ever seen in my life. It was the Lizzo of squirrels. Unlike Lizzo the performer, who brings joy to me and millions of others who don’t work for her, I felt abject terror when confronted with this squirrel. Turns out I’m 100% that wuss.

Leaving the salon, Lizzo stalked me, making a weird chittering noise that sounded like a cross between a laugh and a scream. Clearly she was threatening me. She wanted to eat my nuts, not knowing that not all humans who come and go from Anthony’s salon walk around with snacks from Sprouts.

Panic surged. My car was parked around the corner. I sped up, Lizzo hot on my trail. “I have no food! I swear! I beg of you!” I arrived at my car and hurried in, shaken but squirrel-bite free. As I drove away, I saw Lizzo jump into an Uber and follow me.

What I said in that last sentence didn’t happen. My overactive paranoid imagination strikes again.

My memorable encounter with Lizzo reminded me of the next stop on my Australia itinerary – a city named Cairns. Unlike the bustling streets of Sydney, Cairns offered a different experience. With its quieter demeanor, it lacked the extensive shopping and nightlife scenes of that other city. However, what Cairns did have was an intriguing indoor attraction, beckoning visitors with promises that included:

  • A unique opportunity to experience the rainforest without having to leave the city
  • A chance to see a variety of tropical plants and animals
  • A fun and relaxing day out

Did I experience a rainforest? Yes. Did I see tropical plants and animals? Yes. Was it a fun and relaxing day? I’ll narrate my self-guided walk and you decide.

The air in the simulation rainforest is hot and humid, and filled with the screeches and blares of various birds. Parrots squawk at each other as if they are arguing over the best way to make a human feel uncomfortable. A large white bird is piercing me with its beady-eyed stare, snapping its beak at me. Fuck.

I see a slumbering koala family in a tree. So cute and cuddly and – WAIT! Look at those claws. They’re longer than my toenails! Those claws could easily engrave my torso with a personalized signature. The awakening koala just shot me a look as if to say “You’re my bitch now.” Fuck.

As I continued, the white bird advanced from entrance to perch, maintaining a focused gaze. The relentless pursuit was clearly personal. Fuck.

There’s a bat hanging upside down in a tree, asleep. Thankfully my proximity to such a creature is rare. I should capture this moment. I swap the lens on my camera. I adjust the settings. I frame the shot. Just as I press the shutter, the bat spreads his wings and unleashes a demonic scream almost as chilling as my friend Jesse’s karaoke rendition of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” and that’s saying something. It was the most terrifying, spine-tingling, hair-raising thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life, until I encountered this bat. Fuck.

Oh, look. A python. This is scarier than A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Exorcist or the movie version of Cats. That starred James Corden. Fuck.

The white bird remains my shadow. Despite my physical stature in comparison to his, my heart is racing, for this is his territory. I’m a native New Yorker who has walked across Manhattan at 4 AM and felt perfectly safe, talking my way out of several attempted muggings. There, my survival instincts kick in. Here, however, I’m out of my element, outmatched by the bird’s rainforest prowess, and he has plans that seem to extend beyond swiping my Australian dollars.

Now would be a great time to have a friend as a travel companion, to save me from the bird or to stand as a witness to my avian-related downfall. I imagine my friend picking the bird out of a police lineup. A courtroom farce unfolds in my mind. The judge, who in the movie version of my life will be played by Cate Blanchett, sentences the bird to spend the rest of its days in confinement at the Sydney Zoo.

Dripping with sweat and overwhelmed by my surreal musings about the Australian criminal justice system, I conclude my rainforest escapade. I expect the bird to follow me out the exit, yet he remains, devoted to tormenting other unsuspecting tourists, because he’s a true connoisseur of sadistic entertainment. He probably enjoyed the movie version of Cats.





The following day I took an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. Famed as one of the most beautiful places on earth, full of stunning scenery and home to an array of marine life, I was excited to see it.

I splurged on an underwater camera back in LA in preparation for this very day. I strapped on my snorkel mask and jumped into the water, eager to explore the reef and take pictures of all the cool stuff.

And then I saw them. They were coming towards me, and they looked determined.

Who are “they?” Imagine a scene reminiscent of the movie Jaws, but instead of a solitary shark, envision a multitude of sharks. Now substitute sharks with minnows and you’ll see what I was facing, though I want you to mostly focus on the staggering quantity of fish, not their individual size, for there is strength in numbers. Some could hold my legs, others my arms, while some would pummel me and some would nibble my nipples. Per the orders of their leader, Bernardo, they would take me and put me in an enclosed area for other fish to visit and gawk at me. What kind of life is that? I need my freedom! What should I do? Could I scare the fish? It’s not like I had hidden in my wetsuit a lemon caper butter sauce. “Back off, bishes, or you’ll be sautéing in this!” Like I have any idea how to sauté anything! I could try sweet-talking the fish. “Ooh, your fins are so iridescent and beautiful! Ooh, you’re such great swimmers! Ooh, you look like Brad Pitt. All of you!” But I had a snorkel in my mouth, so my compliments would sound like “Oor ar ar arar ar ar ar brr oor,” which only sounds flattering when said with an Australian accent. As I share this with you, I know full well I seem cuckoo bananas, yet in the moment my fear felt very real.

Prior to the piscine invasion, I got some good pics of coral and stationary objects. Alas, I didn’t get to photograph the fish gang’s dramatic advance on camera, a shot that would validate my reaction. But I had bigger fish to fry (sorry), namely my survival.

 (When I was in Switzerland I heard a loud rumble and looked up to see an avalanche heading right towards me. That I photographed before running for shelter. Another story for another time.)

See that blue fish? Imagine scores of fish just like it coming toward you. Pretty frightening, isn’t it?

The next and final destination on my Australian vacation was the city of Melbourne, where Olivia Newton-John grew up, which wasn’t too different from Sydney, which wasn’t too different from Los Angeles. I wasn’t chased by any wildlife there, though I did see a kangaroo standing at a bus stop, like he was waiting for the 109 to take him downtown so he wouldn’t be late for his drum lesson. I thought about taking a photo, but then he glared at me, his eyes saying “I know I’m a strict herbivore but this is my cheat day.”  I decided to not provoke him. I wanted to make it out of that country intact. And I did.

Despite the scary animals and the unexciting shopping, I had a great time in Australia. The stunning beaches, the iconic Sydney Opera House, the gorgeous botanical gardens, the serene Chinese Garden of Friendship, the celebratory Mardi Gras festival – all spectacular. And the museums were outstanding. I especially enjoyed the Aboriginal Art Museum, the Kylie Minogue costume exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, the museum with the exhibit of a stuffed animal monkey laying on a psychiatrist couch, and the museum that displayed a skeleton on a Peloton (or whatever brand of exercise bike was in vogue then) and another human skeleton atop a dinosaur skeleton, riding it like a bucking bronco, but not like in a crazy Creationist museum way but rather in a manner that says “we’re really baked right now.” All in all, a worthwhile vacation, notwithstanding my escapades at the Great Barrier Reef and indoor rainforest simulation.


When Janet Jackson sings of taking you on an escapade, it doesn’t involve murderous fish or terrorist birds or homicidal kangaroos. Hers is more cheery.

“Escapade” was the third of a record-breaking seven US top-five pop singles taken from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album. The song is fun and playful, the singer inviting us to join her on a fantasy adventure in a place with no menacing birds, where we can forget our troubles and that intimidating fish exist and have a good time without worrying about dangerous kangaroos. But while “Escapade” is a light-hearted tune, other songs on the album deal with weightier themes.

In 1989, when the album was released, the United States was facing a lot of problems: racism, poverty, violence, ignorance, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz, Milli Vanilli. It was a dark and turbulent time.

The song “Rhythm Nation” is an anthem calling for unity and solidarity among people from all walks of life, though I’m sure Janet would back me up on excluding from this solidarity asshats who taunt animals at the zoo. To the singer, it was a national anthem for the 1990s, supplanting the slightly less funky existing national anthem of the U.S., written by Francis Scott Key in…1814.

The cut “State of the World” discusses poverty, homelessness, crime and drug use. In “Livin’ in the World (They Didn’t Make),” Jackson laments children being taught to hate. In “The Knowledge,” Janet urges us to educate ourselves and take charge of our lives, reminding us that education is the key to overcoming ignorance and building a brighter future. When that song ends, Janet says “Get the point? Good. Let’s dance.” (As if I need encouragement! Serious topics does not mean not danceable. Sorry, Miss Jackson.)

What follows are more of the album’s hits: the aforementioned “Escapade,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” “Black Cat,” “Alright,” and the slow dance ”Come Back To Me.” These songs showcase Jackson’s versatility as an artist, as well as her talent as a producer, and songwriter, having co-written and co-produced every song on the album.

Rhythm Nation 1814 was a critical and commercial success, scoring nine Grammy nominations (nine more than my friend Jesse will ever get!), including Jackson’s historic nomination for Producer of the Year, the first for a woman. It sold over 12 million copies worldwide and spawned a world tour that broke attendance records.

Jackson, a pop star, used her platform to inspire and challenge us with catchy yet meaningful songs that got us dancing. In pop music, songs addressing real-world issues aren’t commonplace, but Jackson showed that it’s possible to create music that’s both fun and purposeful, a draw that could only be stronger if on drums she had a kangaroo.

The first single released from Rhythm Nation 1814 was “Miss You Much,” in which Janet sings “I’m not the kinda girl who likes to be alone.” Nor am I, but that’s the hand I’ve been dealt, so on my own, I face this scary world, with its violence and hatred and poverty and fish gangs and unhinged plane passengers and squirrels the size of Lizzo. The alternative would be staying home, allowing loneliness and my fears to keep me from going out and exploring all this world has to offer. There’s a lot of life out there, and I intend to experience it. Unlike the caged animals I saw at the zoo, I’m free to roam about and have fun and that’s what I intended to do as long as I was living. There is nothing so scary that it could keep me interacting with all forms of life.

And then the pandemic hit. Another story for another time.

There’s more Janet Jackson to come on this list.

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