Janet Jackson's The Rhythm Nation Compilation lands pretty firmly on the ''Art Schmart, Let's Dance'' side of the dispute. It does offer some commentary, beginning with gushy tributes from Jackson's collaborators and concluding with still gushier tributes from her consumers. At its heart, however, Rhythm Nation is little more than state-of-the-art MTV-generation fodder, which means we've seen it all before, particularly in bad movies and commercials.
For example, ''Come Back to Me,'' in which Jackson drifts through a misty Parisian landscape, looks like a wine ad while ''Black Cat,'' which mixes performance footage with shots of a leashed panther, apes the 1982 movie Cat People. Adding insult to aesthetic injury, when Jackson does try for something vaguely artistic, the results are weirdly muddled or just inane (as when the title clip's dancers, in quasi-fascist military costumes, send a visual message that is at odds with the song's paeans to unity and liberation).
To be fair, not everything here is hopeless there is plenty of irresistible, if pro forma, dance music. Other than that, though, Rhythm Nation is pure and shameless star-tripping.
In the end, this tape hasn't much to offer anyone other than die-hard fans of the artist. With occasional exceptions, this is par for the music-video course. These days, pop videos seem to have devolved into unrepentant visual clichés and product-pushing. Perhaps that art vs. escapism battle has been decided after all. C