How Janet Jackson taught me the art of vulnerability
The recent Janet Jackson documentary reminded me of how my mother and I have always bonded via her resilience, frankness, and artistry.
09 Feb 2022
As my mum and I would drive around completing weekend errands or taking road trips, the melodies of Janet Jackson would often blare from the radio. My mom would sing along and imitate Jackson’s choreography to entertain me. Some of my earliest memories revolve around me tapping my foot to ‘Free Xone’ and ‘Rhythm Nation’ as a toddler in my car seat, or sitting on my mother’s lap while she educated me with a Janet music video marathon on YouTube.
A recently released four-part docu-series (airing on Lifetime in the US and Sky in the UK), simply titled Janet, unpacks Jackson’s artistry over the last 40 years. It reminded viewers to put some respect on her name. Janet Jackson is the first and only artist in history to produce seven top five hits from one album. She has ten top ten hits on the US Bilboard Hot 100 and placed nine consecutive albums in the top ten on the US Billboard 200.
In the words of Mariah Carey, “Janet Jackson inspired everybody”. With the help of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a songwriting and record producer duo that shaped Janet’s music since 1986’s Control, Janet was able to break out of the shadow of being Michael’s little sister, utilizing her fierce attitude to strive for independence. Before Control, Janet had released two studio albums that she had no creative involvement in – and they were not commercially successful. It was her next two albums, Control and Rhythm Nation 1814, which introduced the world to Janet’s creative innovation and personality. Rhythm Nation created a movement amongst young listeners. Rhythm Nation helped Janet’s young fans to be informed and invested in the urgent issues of the world without the music feeling overwhelming. This movement resulted in the biggest grossing debut tour of all time.
After watching the docu-series, I was amazed by her resilience, despite being wronged or ruled by several men throughout her life, she talks about each as someone who has healed and is capable of empathy. This reflective manner is why her art has had such a lasting impact. The series includes archival footage showing Janet in the studio writing songs and creating melodies, dispelling the long-held myth that she is not an integral part of creating her work. It was fascinating to watch Janet write ‘Scream’ with her brother, Michael Jackson, a song that would become iconic, in real-time. The series not only showed them as both creative geniuses but as siblings, and as equals.
After the release of the 1993 Janet album, she became known for her sensual lyrics, dance routines, and outfits; a contrast to the more wholesome image that she presented during the Control and Rhythm Nation eras. The Janet album showcased a sexier Janet, from her iconic and revealing 1993 Rolling Stone cover to her more explicit lyrics and music videos. The original good girl gone bad who has been cited as a major influence on everyone from Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Selena Quintanilla, Normani, Teyana Taylor, Doja Cat, and many more. Ciara articulates this sentiment explicitly saying, “She’s definitely had an incredible impact on my career. If there was no Janet, there would be no me. She paved the way. Janet has planted the seed that will impact so many.”
As a child, my interest in Janet’s music was sparked because I had never heard new jack swing before, nor early music that helped create alternative R&B. Only later did I begin to understand the lyrical content of Janet’s music. Rhythm Nation’s cool bass line both brings you in to move with her, but never overtakes the important lyrical content or the message of the song as a whole. It is a sincere but fun call to action about social unrest that taught me to care about issues.
When I entered my teenage years I began to experience depression and anxiety, alongside my continuous grief after losing several loved ones. This was the same age that I began to understand the severity and danger surrounding homophobia and queerphobia. Because of these issues, I started a journey of self-examination and, with the help of therapy, raised my inner child. But, I could never find music that fit my specific situation, until I returned to Jackson’s 1997 album The Velvet Rope. It’s intimate. She’s either laughing between tracks or even sexually moaning, bypassing the narrow view of black womanhood. Her song ‘You’, about denying your flaws to appease others and finally confronting the repressed rage stunts your evolution, was one of the factors that helped me tell my mum that I wanted to go to therapy and seek help.
On the album, Janet covered the topics of mental health, self-expression, grief, homophobia, and sexuality – ‘Together Again’ is about a friend who died with AIDS, and ‘Free Xone’’ discussed the acceptance of the LGBTQ community. ‘Together Again’ also helped my mum and I process the death of my dad, and bond in the experience. It is the same song I revisited as I grieved after the death of my mum in 2019. The song’s use of house music makes for an uptempo dance track, giving loss and grief a vibrancy and a sense of energy. It’s an example of how Janet’s music is the only of its kind that triggers a welcome sense of nostalgia, rather than sadness. She is now the artist I happily listen to when I want to feel closer to my mum through the music she loved.
“Her song ‘You’, about denying your flaws to appease others and finally confronting the repressed rage stunts your evolution, was one of the factors that helped me tell my mum that I wanted to go to therapy and seek help.”
Janet has often gone misunderstood and her legacy under-discussed. The context around her has always shifted; she was the little sister, a huge pop star in her own right, and then dismissed because of the infamous 2004 Superbowl incident which limited her radio reach, sparked threats, and got her disinvited from industry events. The incident is addressed in the documentary. Janet discussed the professional pushback that she received because of the SuperBowl incident. It’s also the storyline of a recent New York Times documentary named “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson”. After her reputation and public image were irrevocably changed, her music and impact were not as widely acknowledged as that of her peers. It was easy for her to be left in the early 2000s. But as Tyler Perry said in the documentary: “People it’s a fucking nipple… chill.”
Thankfully the resurgence of Janet is due to the examination of how the media wronged women – especially Black women – in the past. This examination was started by Oscar-winning director Matthew Cherry in 2017. He started #JanetJacksonAppreiationDay to celebrate Janet’s career accomplishments each year during the SuperBowl. The hashtag has since gone viral with thousands of people participating each year and led to a larger conversation around Janet’s contributions to culture. With the help of The Roots’ Questlove, Janet was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2019. She was the original good girl gone bad.
But above all Janet Jackson has been a part of the soundtrack to my childhood, teenage years, the path to self-discovery, and now adulthood. Janet’s music has been there to help me in my journey of self-actualization. While in a therapy session, my therapist and I discussed my issues listening to music that reminds me of my mother because they bring on bouts of sadness. My therapist requested that I make a playlist of songs and we would listen to them in session and see how I felt. Janet’s music was the only artist that didn’t bring on sadness but rather happiness and welcome nostalgia. She is now the artist that I happily listen to when I want to feel closer to my mom through the music she loved.
Her music was there waiting for me as a helping hand when I thought my emotions were uncharted territory, and when I simply needed to dance and let loose. Her vulnerability and bravery have rubbed off on me over a lifetime. All hail Janet Damita Jo Jackson.