FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Eight: Janet Jackson




Female Icons

Part Eight: Janet Jackson


THERE is something pretty timely regarding…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Mary Ellen Matthews

including Janet Jackson in this feature. Not only is she always in the minds of those who truly love music but, next weekend, she is playing Glastonbury. I was one of those people who was shocked she was not asked to headline because, as you could imagine, she’d put on one hell of a set! Some people challenged me on social media – when I argued Jackson would make a great headliner – but claiming she does not have enough material in the locker; lacking in sufficient hits. Considering Stormzy is headlining – and has only released one album – and The Killers’ are not any more hit-loaded than Jackson, the assumption seems faulty.

IN THIS PHOTO: Janet with Michael on the set of Scream (1995)/PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Paul Whitsitt/Getty Images

In any case, she will be appearing…but I think there was an opportunity missed by the organisers. There is no denying Janet Jackson is an icon because, since her debut, she has been inspiring other artists and stunning critics. Consider her brother is Michael Jackson, it was never going to be easy making a name for herself with that association – whether he is being maligned by the press or owning the Pop world. Janet Jackson has always been a different proposition and never tried to copy what Michael did. In fact, as she continues to put out great music, one can see how far she has come from her earliest days; how the music has changed and how awesome she sounds to this day.

I shall bring in an interview Jackson just gave with The Sunday Times (her first newspaper interview in years) where she talks about her career and the legacy of her brother, Michael – I shall also look at Michael Jackson in a feature later today. To get a sense of why Janet Jackson is a Glastonbury-set icon, one must go back to the start. Although it would take a few years for the aspiring Jackson to hit her stride, music was always part of her life. Considering the Jackson legacy and reputation, there was no way she could have avoided a career in music. Born in 1966, she grew up in a devout family (she would refrain from organised religion) and there was that sort of sense that, whilst her brothers (as The Jackson 5) were rising and becoming big, another life might await her. The Jackson family relocated from Indiana Los Angeles and it seemed life would be very different. Jackson wanted to a horse jockey or an entertainment lawyer but, as is common with a lot of children, they were dreams rather than concentrate plans. Once the fame of The Jackson 5 rose and Michael was starting to record solo, it seemed there was no escaping the music bug. Janet Jackson started performing young and featured in a variety show, The Jacksons, in 1976. In 1982, her debut album, Janet Jackson, arrived and it announced her to the world.

The young Jackson did not have the same input into the music as she would but, with songwriters René Moore and Angela Winbush providing guidance, there were a few promising songs on the set. Although the debut album lacked the personality and depth of her later work, it was an assured first step and it proved Janet Jackson was not going to shadow her brothers and had her own path. Few more drastic leaps have occurred in music than Janet Jackson going from 1984’s Dream Street and 1986’s Control. Look at the covers to the first two Janet Jackson albums and you see this sweet-faced artist who very much fitted in with the vibe of 1980s Pop. Apart from rebels like Madonna, there were few artists in 1980s Pop who had that grit and punch. Jackson, by 1986, was transforming into this genuinely aspiring and independent artist. Having that early platform gave her chance to work her sound and learn about the professional side of the industry. Control is the first of Jackson’s truly classic albums – if anyone think she’d struggle for material for Glastonbury, most of Control could work its way onto the setlist! If her first two albums were more conventional and commercial, Control fused Rap, Blues’; some Funk and Disco to create this new world. Sick beats and plenty of funk meant Jackson, alongside producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, was stepping up and leading the way.

In many ways, Jackson invented the New Jack Swing genre and set a course that would see her music truly enter the lexicon of modern music. The themes switched from more traditional, softer tones to something a lot more autobiographical and harder-hitting. She had gone through an annulment and there was turbulence in her life. She hired A&M executive John McClain and severed her ties with her manager Joseph and the Jackson family. Her father, Joseph, was a little cold towards her and seemed to view his children as assets rather than people. In a way, they were a way of raising money but, when it came to affection, that was lacking. This independence meant she was with management who placed her interests first and, as a result, Jackson could open her wings and put more of her own life in the music. The self-actualising anthems inspired a generation of black women who, at that point, did not have a guide like Jackson in music. Jackson was also going toe-to-toe with Madonna and there were these two strong women making music their way. The bolder and less commercial themes opened eyes and liberated Jackson. Showing she could produce as many hits as Michael, Control was this watershed moment for Janet Jackson. Emancipated and evolving, it was a pivotal moment in her career. Spawning singles such as What Have You Done for Me Lately, Nasty and Control, there were few stronger albums in 1986 (maybe Paul Simon’s Graceland?!).

Such was the success and popularity of Control that, only a year later, there was a remix version of the album; remixing the singles from that record and taking her music to new audiences and realms. Many artists might have rushed another album and produced something quick to please the label. Instead, with her life changing evermore, Janet Jackson was not to be rushed. It is just as well because, as 1989 came into view, the landscape was changing once more. Hip-Hop was taking a bigger slice of the critical pie and it was a time of great confidence and quality. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, if it came out at the start of the 1990s, might have had less of an impact than it did when it arrived in 1989. With Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis collaborating, Jackson was not going to return to her roots and settle for anything soft. Control has established her as a fearless artist without barriers who was much more interested in soul and truth as opposed quick fame, easy options and following the herd. Her next masterpiece, therefore, dug even deeper than Control when it came to provocative subjects. Inspired, in part, by tragedies and injustices in the news, racism, substance abuse and poverty were all ripe for musical investigation and representation. Jackson, again, struck gold in the sales department and gained big kudos from critics.

This blossoming role model was a champion for social justice and equal rights; someone who provided inspiration for the youth of America, and the rest of the world. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 contained sample loops and a variety of musical styles. Not only could Janet Jackson provide something hard and evocative but she was equally masterful when it came to balladry and romantic longing. Here was a strong and tough woman who could also put her heart out there and speak from the soul. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 was a monster album and is seen as one of the finest achievements of the 1990s. Not only did Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 inspire a generation of female artists emerging but it impacted Michael – you can hear shades of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 on his 1991 album, Dangerous. One can draw a line between Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 to artists such as Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean and Alicia Keys – the album continues to compel to this very day. In a year when Hip-Hop artists were talking about civil rights and brutality, there was a fear that Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 would not sell well. 1989 was a year when people wanted to see change and action and, for that reason, many link Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971).

I want to crib heavily from a review in Pitchfork - that perfectly describes the effect and brilliance of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814.

“Rhythm Nation 1814 became the rare album to combine multi-platinum-selling pop music and explicit social messages without crossing the line into preachiness. The ironclad songwriting of the still-going power trio of Jackson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis had a lot to do with that—at this point, they were infusing their synth funk with looser, layered rhythms and exploring the distance between funk and metal. Her vocals were often considered breathy and lilting, but on this album, Jackson established her lion’s roar, even at her uppermost pitch. The title track incorporated the muscled riff from “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” connecting Sly Stone’s own sociopolitical message to hers. But its syncopated kicks and Jackson’s self-assured mission were resolutely contemporary, the result of a time when tape splicing and sampling were considered the zenith of pop experimentation.

In that sense, Rhythm not only dovetailed with a political era in hip-hop, a genre with a heavy stylistic influence on the album—Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Salt-n-Pepa’s Blacks’ Magic bookended Rhythm Nation’s release, as did Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—but it set a precedent for conceptual pop albums far beyond it. For one, the absurdly derided “militancy” of Beyoncé’s powerful Black Panther-alluding Superbowl performance, as well as Lemonade as both a visual epic and political statement, have clear and undeniable precedents in 1814’s militaristic, optimistic critique. (MTV aired Rhythm Nation 1814 FILM, the visual album Jackson termed a “telemusical,” in an hour-long special, a trendsetting antecedent to Lemonade and a postscript to her brother Michael’s Thriller epic. Young viewers rushed to wear metal-plated ballcaps and dangle their house keys from a single ear.)

With it, Jackson demanded multiplicity in both image and genre, in a time when black women pop singers of her oeuvre weren’t often given it. Then, as now, she knew she would not be afforded that multidimensionality on good faith—she had to make it for herself”.

After the success of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson took a new direction with her 1993 album, Janet. The fact that she was a Jackson meant that, inevitably, she would have the press belittling her individual merits; thinking her success was down to the family name and reputation. Janet was an album where Jackson took charge of the lyrics and moved away from the social and political aspects of her previous two works. In the lead-up to Janet, there was this bidding war where labels were desperate to have Jackson on their books. Figures vary but many millions were being thrown around in the hope of attracting Jackson. She dropped her surname and was more and more determined to stand alone and detach from the family – not in a bad way but it was hard to get respect on her own terms. Gone was the more industrial sound of her former self to be replaced by Jazz, House and Pop. Themes on Janet revolved around a woman’s perspective on sexuality and, whilst there was less social justice and political themes, Jackson was still writing in a very bold and personal way. Maybe the reception was not as emphatic for Janet as it was for Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 - but that did not indicate a deterioration of material and potential.

Some of Janet’s best songs rival her absolute peak and I have a very soft spot for That’s the Way Love Goes – a steamy, tender song that has its own life and story. You can do your reading regarding That’s the Way Love Goes but I am going to nick a bit from Wikipedia; a section that explains the legacy and impact of the song:

"That's the Way Love Goes" is among Jackson's signature songs, recognized for its vocals, innovation, and "timeless" aura. It was considered an alternative to popular radio trends and essential part of Jackson's artistic growth, signifying a massive shift in her music and image. It has been cited as an inspiration by Britney SpearsAlicia KeysNelly Furtado, and Destiny's Child. The song is ranked among Blender's "500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born," placing at number four in VH1's "Greatest Songs of the '90s" in 2012. Billboard praised its structure and longevity, saying "That indelible refrain: "Like a moth to a flame / burned by the fire / my love is blind / can't you see my desire?" That slinky Jam & Lewis beat. Even at 20 years old, this Janet jam can still ignite any house party, much like the one in its music video." The publication exclaimed it to be "a sexual awakening for both Jackson and American culture"; classified as one of "the most sexually frank to reach the upper reaches of the charts at the time."[61][62]

The L.A. Times considered it "one of the most endearing pieces of romantic pop confection of the '90s," as well as "the most seductive slice of daydream romanticism in years."[19][63]GuidetoGay called it "equally sexy" as her image, "but unlike Madonna’s ‘Erotica’, ‘janet.’ left more to the imagination." "While most expected her to return with an in-your-face dance track, Jackson "eased in the side door" with a more soulful groove. The music video was equally laid back, showing Jackson chilling with her dancers - one of whom was a then unknown Jennifer Lopez."[64] CNN stated the song memorably "set the mood for a sultry summer," while Vulture.com recalled it "slinked its way easily onto summer mix tapes".[65][66]Additionally, it was declared "the epitome of bedroom slow-jams," among the album's "several iconic hits" which helped define the decade.[67] Newsday considered "That's the Way Love Goes" among Jackson's singles which "changed the course of pop," applauding the "all-purpose, feel-good hit," saying "unlike most summer anthems, "That's the Way Love Goes" doesn't have a gimmick. It's just straight-up cool. [...] It got heads bobbin' in countless cars. It filled dance floors with folks finger- pointing along with the chorus. It became an essential part of the soundtrack to barbecues and beach parties. With its laid-back beat and Jackson's sultry- sweet vocals, it doesn't get you excited as much as puts a smile on your face, which may explain why it was never grating despite its omnipresence."[68][69] Gold Stripe Magazine stated "When we think of the 90s, we think of baggy boyfriend jeans, crop tops, big hair, and house parties. Janet Jackson was one woman who defined the decade. On the scene, she was the total package: sexy, talented, and a softspoken sweetheart."[70]


There were a few greatest hits stabs before her next big album but, after shifting gears and being pretty damned busy, it wasn’t until 1997 that we had the majestic The Velvet Rope arrived. Maybe Janet was a bit of a detour from this run of albums that was political and conscientious and, on The Velvet Rope, there was a slight return and compromise. Personal themes and experiences were always part of Jackson’s work but, after experiencing an emotional breakdown, The Velvet Rope has this very direct and emotional core. Documenting themes such as depression, social networking and same-sex relationships, here was another album that was very different to anything out and, as would be seen, inspired legions of artists. Considered to be one of her most mature albums, The Velvet Rope is another classic Janet Jackson album that was unafraid to speak about things important to the songwriter – including gay rights and social justice. The autobiographical nature and nakedness of the album inspired songwriters and everyone from Rihanna and Kelly Rowland has produced their own version of The Velvet Rope. This review from SLANT is particularly glowing and constructive:

In every conceivable way the most “adult” album of Janet’s career, The Velvet Rope is also the most naïve. Its vitality owes almost nothing to its stabs at sexual frankness. Because, truthfully, a lot of the “naughty” material doesn’t exactly seem that much more convincing than the Prozac-fuelled aphorisms of the follow-ups, nor is it more politically intriguing than her advocacy of color-blindness in Rhythm Nation. The bisexuality of her cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” never manages to convince that Miss Jackson has ever been so nasty as to even consider loosening pretty French gowns.

“Rope Burn” isn’t so ribald that Janet doesn’t have to remind listeners that they’re supposed to take off her clothes first, though producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s Chinese water torture beat does approximate sonic bondage. It’s hardly surprising that when Janet uses the word “fuck” in “What About,” she’s not talking about it happening to her. For a sex album that also seems to aim at giving fans an unparalleled glance behind the fetish mask (literally, in the concert tour performance of “You”), Janet’s probably never been more cagey.

But behind the sex is something even more compelling, because it gradually dawns on you that Janet’s use of sexuality is an evasive tactic. That it’s easier for her to sing about cybersex (on the galvanizing drum n’ bass “Empty,” one of Jam and Lewis’s very finest moments, maybe even their last excepting Jordan Knight’s “Give It to You”) and to fret about her coochie falling apart than it is to admit that it’s her psyche and soul that are in greater danger of fracturing. Soul sister to Madonna’s Erotica (which, in turn, was her most daring performance), The Velvet Rope is a richly dark masterwork that illustrates that, amid the whips and chains, there is nothing sexier than emotional nakedness”.

I am not going to skip through Janet Jackson’s remaining albums but, as a pioneer and influential artist, it is clear the impact she has had. Not only have albums busted taboos and changed Pop but so many modern artists owe a debt to her.

Her work post-The Velvet Rope has been incredible and, whilst the reception has not always been warm, Jackson continues to put brilliance into the world. 2015’s Unbreakable fared well critically and commercial and it proved that, since the 1980s, there has been nobody like her. Jackson continues to compel and guide music and she will do so for many years. She takes to the Glastonbury stage in a matter of days and it will be interesting to see which songs she plays. I will quote more from The Sunday Times interview when writing about Michael Jackson but, in a rare exposition, Jackson talked about her music and background. I want to quote a few segments from the interview – that covers everything from her emotional issues in her thirties to motherhood – but, if you have time, check out the whole interview:

 “There will be those in the audience on Saturday who are old enough to remember CDs and mix tapes. For them, it will be a choreographed walk down memory lane. All those hit songs that you had forgotten were Janet’s: What Have You Done for Me Lately, Miss You Much, Escapade. But for the younger generation, the 1980s and 1990s are coming around again, refreshed and cool. As in, “Dad, have you heard of an album called Like a Virgin?” Clever Glastonbury for keeping up with the pop culture carousel.

It is immediately apparent that motherhood has given Jackson a new sense of fulfilment. “My friends call me Superwoman,” she says. “God knows I’m not. But I think what they are seeing is the energy and that extra drive I’m getting from the inspiration of Eissa.”

However, she insists that her work/life balance has changed since he came along. “I’ve slowed down a great deal. I don’t rehearse as many hours as I used to because of being with my baby. My days have been cut in half so I can spend that time with him.”

“The struggle was intense,” wrote Janet last year of her battle with depression in her thirties. “Low self-esteem might be rooted in childhood feelings of inferiority. It could relate to failing to meet impossibly high standards.” Today, one year after her father’s death, she puts it all into perspective. “When parents see something in their children, I guess they guide them in that direction,” she says. “Especially when you’re talking about children who grew up in that urban area. Music was a way to keep us off the streets. My father saw a way out for his children. A better life. And thank God for that.”

What would have happened if she had wanted to do something other than show business? She laughs drily. “That did happen and my father told me ‘no’.”

I wonder how she feels about the state of the world now, 30 years on from Rhythm Nation, and more turbulent than ever. On Brexit and divisions in Europe, she offers three words: “Oh my gosh.” On forces resisting social reform in her own country, she says: “Change is inevitable. They can’t stop it. I mean, come on.” The last time she was in London, she encountered a children’s climate strike in Trafalgar Square. “I filmed some of it, I thought it was so amazing,” she says. “It gave me chills to see how powerful they were. They have a say in all of this. They are the ones who are going to have to take care of this world, so they have the right”.

Janet Jackson will take to the Pyramid Stage on Saturday and it will be a rare moment for fans at a large festival as they get to hear this career-spanning set. Although Jackson was not asked to headline, she will go down a storm and is a true icon. One can imagine a biopic being made at some point because Jackson has experienced such highs and lows; these huge albums and brilliant moments. She is a true pioneer and innovator and, let’s hope, there are decades more left in her. It is a shame I cannot get to Glastonbury but there will be thousands there to give Jackson support. There have been one or two albums that have not struck a huge high but, when you look at the classics she has created, few artists can claim to have anything as impactful as The Velvet Rope, Control and Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 in their back pocket! Given the state of the world right now, who knows what will come next from Janet Jackson. Glastonbury is next and one feels, when the dust settles, a new album cannot be too far away. I grew up listening to Jackson’s music and, for me and so many others, she has been part of my upbringing. One can argue which Jackson album/single is best but one thing we can all agree on is, when she steps onto the Pyramid Stage in six days and starts her set, everyone in the crowd will be enthralled…

AND united.  

UNCREDITED PHOTOS: Getty Images/Janet Jackson