From time to time I like to discuss songs that are immensely culturally significant, and today I would like to tackle what is perhaps my favorite Janet Jackson song, her 1980’s classic ballad “Let’s Wait Awhile.” From time to time I write about Janet Jackson here in a few contexts, including her grossly undeserving snub from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and even an album review . Today, though, I would like to examine the song “Let’s Wait Awhile” and put it in context. I will be writing here both as a moralist (perhaps an unusual perspective to look at the music of Janet Jackson) as well as a textual critic who believes in taking the words of people seriously and trying to understand their meaning as charitably but also as honestly as possible. Both of these perspectives, I think, are useful in understanding this song and its place within the body of work that Janet Jackson has made over the past thirty to forty years.
“Let’s Wait Awhile” was the fifth single off of Janet Jackson’s Control album, and the song ended up reaching #2 on the charts and landing at #50 at that year’s Year-End Hot 100. In terms of its content, for which it has been remembered and for which it was used for larger political purposes at the time, the song is definitely a message song. Overall, it is a somber ballad that shows a breathy and somewhat fragile-voiced Janet Jackson urging the lover in the song to hold off and not be so pushy. Thematically, the song points to an interesting aspect of the album’s theme as a whole, in that part of the control that Janet Jackson (and one of her co-writers on the song, whose relationship is the personal context for the song) seeks is control over her sexuality. Given the larger importance of sexuality in the career and music of Janet Jackson, this is an important point that we will discuss at much greater length anon. Overall, the lyrics of the song express a strong sense of caution when it comes to sexuality and the singer expresses her desire not to push things too far too fast.
It is perhaps inevitable given the timing of the song’s release that it quickly became more than a personal message song and became caught up in the larger social debate over abstinence. Indeed, the song was taken as a theme for abstinence and an encouragement of people to avoid promiscuous sexuality given the fear of AIDS during the mid 1980’s as that disease was coming to the public consciousness. This political importance likely was a mixed blessing for Janet Jackson. On the one hand, it made the song a lot more socially relevant and certainly gave Janet Jackson a great deal of cultural importance as a spokesperson giving her perspective on a woman refraining from sex with a partner who is pressuring her into it. That said, as is often the case, the singer’s own views towards sexuality were far more complicated than the way the song was straightforwardly interpreted as an ode to abstinence. The singer wasn’t saying “let’s wait forever” and expressing a desire to become a nun, or even “let’s wait until marriage,” but rather “let’s wait awhile.” In terms of its meaning, the song is rather close to Monica’s similarly successful #1 hit “The First Night,” where Monica opines that she wants to get down–i.e. enjoy sexuality–but not on the first night.
This dilemma is a profound one, especially for women. Let us make no mistake about it, because Janet Jackson has not been shy about discussing the subject in her music, that Janet Jackson was and is a sexual woman. On “Miss You Much,” she sings that she is not the kind of girl who likes to be alone. On “Twenty Foreplay,” she sings about how long she likes lovemaking to last–namely as long as possible, and on “Any Time, Any Place,” she is quite forthright about her desire to express her sexuality with a partner wherever and whenever she can. Yet with all of Janet Jackson’s forthrightness about her desire for sexual intimacy, a desire that appears to be extremely common among both men and women, there is a note of caution here. Quite understandably, Janet wants her enjoyment of sexuality to be within certain boundaries and under her control, as it were. She wants to enjoy that sexuality often with a loyal and loving partner who is enraptured by her and not simply using her for his own satisfaction or spreading his attention and affections elsewhere. Janet Jackson in her career is trying to find that middle ground between the virgin and the whore, someone whose sexuality is the source of intimacy and personal enjoyment but not someone who is viewed as a piece of meat.
It is somewhat baffling to me how difficult this has to be. Admittedly, I speak as someone who is similarly stuck in my own dilemmas in terms of simultaneously seeking and fearing intimacy, and that sort of double bind gives me a great deal of empathy for others who struggle with the matter as well. For there is no doubt, if one looks at the career of Janet Jackson, that she has struggled with the dilemma of wanting to express and enjoy her sexuality but also keep it within certain boundaries and under her control. And Janet Jackson has seen both sides of the cultural conversation about sexuality and been an object lesson about both abstinence and sexuality run amok. “Let’s Wait Awhile” shows her engaged in a conversation where she is trying to overcome the pressure to have sex too soon with someone who is not committed and loyal. In her notorious Super Bowl performance, we see her as a woman struggling with the double standard that let Justin Timberlake off without any consequences for having ripped her top off (and presumably he was supposed to only rip off the first layer of the top and leave her with some sort of bra for her performance) while more or less ending her career on pop radio so far. In neither case, though, was she seen as a woman with complicated and nuanced thoughts and feelings about sexuality, but in both cases her words and actions were viewed as a symbol and as a message that she was not trying to send. And that leaves me with a frequently melancholy thought, only brightened by the fact that Janet has continued to make music and continued to demonstrate that she wishes to define who she is for herself and not let herself simply be used by others, whether it is for their sexual longings or their desires to push her into a dishonest cultural narrative that fails to recognize who she is as a woman.
 See, for example: