I had a small realization the other day. I didn’t know a single Janet Jackson song. She’s one of the bestselling musicians in history, she has ten number one hits, and I can’t name a single one. I checked with my friends, neither could they. Despite everything 80s being blasted ad nauseam for the last decade, Janet has been almost totally forgotten. How did this happen?
Well, we all know how. In 2004 Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake invented the concept of nipples live on stage at the Super Bowl. The sheer shock from millions of Americans discovering that nipples exist made her a social pariah and resulted in a very literal blacklisting in the industry that lasts through today. I would be far from the first to point out the double standard that allowed Timberlake to walk out of the Superbowl controversy virtually unscathed. I’m also not the first person to point out that Janet’s legacy has suffered. I might be more original in suggesting that the stigma surrounding Michael Jackson as of late has done more damage to her career than his, even though she’s more or less kept her mouth shut about him since the 90s. But I’m not really here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Janet, because as someone born in 2001, I had no clue what type of artist she was. Who was she before the backlash? What would the history books have to say about Janet had CBS not ordered her name be struck clean from the record books? Well, here’s my brief attempt at explaining this well-documented, yet forgotten, career arc for the Zoomers out there, because Janet Jackson is worth revisiting.
Janet began her career making cheap knock-offs of her family’s music at the behest of her controlling father Joe Jackson. She had very little say in the matter, and saw very little success, until in 1984 she struck out on her own, making the album “Control,” a tribute to, yet declaration of independence from, her family that spawned seven radio hits. From there, her label was prepared to coast off the innovative style she formed for herself, but Janet decided that she wanted to make a concept album addressing political and social issues, creating “Rhythm Nation 1814,” which still holds the record for most number one hits off a single album, and established her reputation as a role model for young women everywhere.
In the 90s, Janet released a self-titled album that incorporated the new hip-hop oriented styles of R&B, putting her miles ahead of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston at the time, before going through a breakdown in the mid-90s. From this mental health crisis, she created the introspective and moody “Velvet Rope,” a concept album focused on depression and healing from trauma, while also addressing her relationships to BDSM, her increasingly gay fanbase and her own bisexuality.
The through-line to Janet’s career is control. Whenever she was in control, her music was amazing. When control was taken away, either by her family or the media, her career suffered. This is the exact kind of pop star we love to mythologize. Bowie, Madonna, any star whose career comes with a built-in “taking control” narrative is a prime candidate for icon status. Her halftime show may have been a colossal miscalculation, but it was a mistake she made on her own terms. Every step she’s taken has been her own, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.