The Unbreakable Janet Jackson, Forgotten Pop Feminist


On the afternoon of January 4, 2008, I sat across from Janet Jackson at Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill in Manhattan. Janet Jackson. JANET Jackson. JANET JACKSON. That’s the closest interpretation of my thought process in that moment.

It wasn’t just that I was seeing her. I was interviewing Janet, a Jackson, for a Billboard cover story, for her album Discipline. The same Janet Jackson whose metamorphosis emboldened generations of women. The Janet who quietly and effortlessly sold sex, made social statements, and delivered a beautiful dark album bathed in depression. Janet, the black and sexy pop star whose eternal specialness was forgotten in a Super Bowl flash. We sipped green tea in that sushi room. She asked for Splenda. I felt the presence of Janet.

At 24, I was stupid, but wise enough to realize that moment was rare. I only had half an hour. I kept a reporter’s composure, as taught, while inwardly wondering how. This was only my second cover story and first time interviewing a legend. As I was leaving, I spotted one of my writing idols, Danyel Smith, then editor-in-chief of Vibe, just outside the restaurant’s private back area. Too nervous to approach, I hurried out but in that second felt supremely connected to those two forces.

The point of this anecdote is that Janet’s womanhood spans and bridges gaps. She’s always been caping for us, as one of pop’s most vocal but forgotten feminists. She’s championed feral sexuality, fucked on her own terms and been sly with her packaging, with a clear agenda. Generations of artists rush to name her as an influence, not realizing that it was never just choreography and sex. Family scandals, secrets, childhood fame, death, depression and loss have followed Janet and led up to this album, Unbreakable, the first line of which is an affirmation: “I lived through my mistakes.”

Generations of women know Janet good and well. They met her as shy Damita Jo in the ’80s, or connected with her on the post-Joe Jackson Control when she escaped her father, stopped being polite and made a declaration that’s echoed into the chambers via Beyoncé, Rihanna and the like: “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say, control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way.” We felt the throbs and hushed orgasms of janet, when she unlocked her power, and there was beauty in seeing a black sexual being take such command of the world around her. She described janet as an album about “a woman who finally feels good enough about her sexuality.” In a 1993 Rolling Stone cover story, she said:

“It’s insulting to be seen as some object; he must call her by name. It’s not a brazen demand – I didn’t want to be obnoxious – but I wanted to be clear. Women want satisfaction. And so do men. But to get it, you must ask for it. Know what you need. Say what you want. Sexual communication is the name of the game. Intimacy.”

Instead of Janet indulging her nasty thoughts, pleasuring herself and others, like on her previous effort, Discipline, Unbreakable is inwardly penetrating. It’s a slow reminisce. There’s not much of a flame or dirty desire, and while that’s always been Janet’s stamp, you oddly don’t miss it. It’s material that, in sound and tone, honors the growth of Janet the artist, whose evolution and vastness is incredible. Last year, Joseph Vogel at The Atlantic wrote about her significance as a counter to Madonna in the ’80s, and the cultural and social impact of Rhythm Nation 1814, which hasn’t been celebrated nearly enough:

Janet Jackson’s ascendance was significant for many reasons, not the least of which was how it coincided with (and spoke to) the rise of black feminism. Until the 1980s, feminism was dominated, by and large, by middle class white women. They defined its terms, its causes, its hierarchies, its representations, and its icons. It wasn’t, of course, that black feminists didn’t exist before the 1980s. From Sojourner Truth to Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks to Maya Angelou—black women made enormous contributions in the struggle for racial, gender, and class equality. But their contributions were often minimized, and their struggles marginalized.

(You could also include the Black Panthers’ forgotten feminists in that group.) Vogel also wrote about the criticism surrounding Janet and her work:

In the 1980s, music reviews were frequently filtered through a rock-centric (read: white, male, and heteronormative) lens. “Pop creations” like Janet and Madonna were viewed with suspicion, if not outright contempt. The fact that they didn’t conform to traditional singer-songwriter expectations proved they lacked talent. The fact that they had talented collaborators and producers proved they lacked credibility. The fact that dance and image were important parts of their artistic presentation proved they lacked authenticity. As The New York Times’ Jon Pareles wrote in a 1990 review of Janet’s Rhythm Nation Tour: “Miss Jackson seems content simply to flesh out an image whose every move and utterance are minutely planned. Spontaneity has been ruled out; spectacle reigns, and the concert is as much a dance workout as a showcase for songs.”

This idea that Janet’s dance expression somehow crippled her sounds insane. Even as she’s been outright recognized as an icon, her artistry was set on a different plane. Unbreakable is Janet relishing in her own timelessness, while aware of the times when Janet was very much breakable. It’s soft in the beginning, whispers and snaps, and then it surges for a moment, with “BURNITUP!” and “Dammn Baby,” pure throb. The bass creeps out and makes my bluetooth speaker quake. This is the power of a Janet song. Janet calls you and wants to take you to a party. You feel close to her, but not really. She’s a Jackson. She’s warm, nonetheless, and giddy. You’re her best girlfriend in the “You Want This” video. You’re feeling the same swells of warmth that she is on “Anytime, Anyplace.” And now she’s here, explaining what she’s learned.

Seasoned pop artists have a thing for making meta albums about how much they’re invincible, untouchable, still here, around, relevant, with material that’s a heavy nod to their past. Rich Juzwiak at Gawker explored this question of how a pop star should age. Well, Janet is cruising shrewdly, neither passive nor overly excited. Her bond with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis again creates anthems, though not the type that’s radio magic. Her voice is a fierce hush. She’s wrapped up in reflection, exhortations and a sometimes silly idealism that her brother Michael peddled. Janet, the Jackson who’s still here, is preaching the type of things that can either heal or go in one ear and out the other: “Believe you’re free to do whatever you want.” And so on.

The waterfall comes to an abrupt, serene stop with “Should’ve Known Better.” It’s gorgeously damaged. It bleeds beautifully into one of my favorites, “After You Fall,” a song about finding solace and resilience. Those two sad keys feel almost invasive and fittingly transition into “Broken Hearts Heal” (“Trying to see you in the next life,” she sings) and the spiritual “Night,” where her voice settles into its lightness, and then “No Sleeep,” the first single that signaled her comeback. The rest of the album coasts on this euphoric breeze in the still of the night. In all, it’s a great comeback for an artist with a far-reaching catalog. I’ve sometimes joked that Janet is living my best life, secluded from the public with her billionaire husband. She’s settled but not dull, and with a hint of mystery. “So well traveled,” as she says. Invisible while still invincible.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Rhythm Nation/BMG

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