There's a recurring theme throughout the history of popular music: the quickly conceived, last-minute track that goes on to be a smash hit. Such was the case for Janet Jackson's breakout 1986 single, "What Have You Done for Me Lately."
Jackson was already a star, with scene-stealing turns on TV shows Good Times, Diff'rent Strokes and Fame. Her music career, however, had stalled. Her first two solo albums--Janet Jackson and Dream Street--had failed to capture the young artist's creative spark. Frustrated, she fired her manager-father, Joe Jackson, to employ one John McClain, the then-senior VP of A&R at A&M Records. One of his first orders of business would prove to be quite fateful and fruitful: connecting Jackson with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who'd recently been dismissed from Prince spin-off band, The Time, by Prince himself. They, like Janet Jackson, had a lot to prove.
Jackson flew out to Minneapolis to record her next album, Control, with the pair, returning home to Los Angeles after they finished. When McClain wanted one more uptempo track, she went back to Minnesota to work on one more track Jam and Lewis had been working on. Upon her arrival, they cranked it up over the studio speakers.
"She was sitting outside in the lounge and said, 'Man, that's a funky track. Who's that for?' And we said, 'It's for you,' and she said, 'Oh, cool,'" Jam recalled to Songfacts. "I think she was very pleased when she heard the track."
The song was lyrically rewritten to reflect Jackson's then-recent annulment from James Debarge, as well as a case of harassment the singer endured from a group of men while recording in Minneapolis.
"They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down," she told Rolling Stone in 1993. "That's how songs like 'Nasty' and 'What Have You Done for Me Lately' were born, out of a sense of self-defense."
Released on January 13, 1986, "What Have You Done for Me Lately" would debut at #95, quickly climbing the Hot 100 until it peaked at #4 over the week of May 17, 1986. The song would effectively relaunch Jackson's music career, helping propel the Control album to #1, and making the singer one of the biggest and most influential acts in pop. The song's iconic music video was choreographed by Paula Abdul, who appears in the clip.