Through her recent A&E docuseries, Janet Jackson took us behind her velvet rope and it was a real principle of pleasure.
The youngest of the Jackson family took us through the treacherous journey that ultimately led her to become not only a pop icon in her own right but also a free black woman who kept on keeping on.
Whether it was through her own personal struggles, her tumultuous relationships, innuendo about her and her family, or the infamous and way blown out of proportion incident at the 2004 Super Bowl, Janet survived and persevered.
What kept her going was her unquenched desire to prove that she belonged and that she was a true force to be reckoned with and was doing so on her terms against the backdrop of a world that constantly tried to pit her against her family and especially her late brother Michael.
It was that desire that made her the template for what would later become #BlackGirlMagic.
All of which got started in Minneapolis when she hooked up with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who were the creative forces behind Prince.
They would help her find her voice and of which came her first of many mega hit albums Control which showcased a young black woman that was doing things her way.
Followed by the socially conscious Rhythm Nation: 1814, the sizzling, sensual and rhythmically seductive janet, the deeply personal and vulnerable The Velvet Rope, and the upbeat and radiant All for You, Janet was a superstar of epic proportions that found a place in the black feminist tradition.
Throughout the years Janet has also found a home in the world of hip hop.
Her entire body of work plus the fact that she was born in 1966 has given her hip hop sensibilities.
Her most notable moment came in her iconic performance in the 1993 classic Poetic Justice which she started opposite Tupac and was directed by the late great John Singleton.
She also forged collaborations with the likes of Chuck D, Q‑Tip, and Jermaine Dupri, whom she was in a very high profile relationship with in the late 2000s.
Janet has also not been the least bit shy of speaking truth to power when it came to tackling issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia through her lyrics and her actions.
If anything, this docuseries showcased her humanity in ways that haven’t been seen before and it is a must see and thanks to streaming tv, you can watch it at any time.
In order to get a broader sense of the legacy of Ms. Jackson if you nasty, I talked to Phill Branch, Professor of PracticeGoucher College in Communication and Media Studies, focusing on race and ethnicity in journalism and the arts and host of the podcast Isolations Be Like who’s currently teaching a course entitled “On Janet Jackson: Race, Gender and Being in Control”.
What do you think we will get out of this docuseries?
I think we get to see the flip side of fame and being a cultural icon. We will also get context. It used to be extremely difficult to reach the level of fame that artists like Janet Jackson did in the 80s and 90s. You actually had to be so good at what you did, that people would get up, get dressed, travel, take out real money and buy your work. It wasn’t clicks. You had to do real numbers to maintain. Putting Janet’s career in perspective will reinforce how important she was for the music industry and popular culture.
What is Janet’s place in the culture?
Janet is royalty. If you look at award shows where she just shows up to present and you look at an audience filled with people who are stars in their own right, losing their minds over her, it shows you her place in the culture. We’re talking about an artist who’s been on three iconic television shows, who has dropped culture changing music and visuals and who created the format we see to this day in pop star tours. Then, there are the films — “Poetic Justice” is a classic. She got an Oscar nomination from that film with “Again.” And, if we go to her variety show appearances from when she was a kid and who she’s shared the stage with — Cher, Betty White, etc., none of her peers come close. Period.
What is it about Janet that makes us drawn to her?
Because the Jackson family always seemed so much larger than life, Janet’s girl next door appeal made her everybody’s sister. The smile, the quiet voice, all worked. By the time we get to “Control” we’ve seen her grow up and the shift is exciting. We were here for it and just locked in. I remember watching the “Pleasure Principle” with my dad one day when I was kid and he was all excited like he knew her. He was proud.
Where do you think Janet sits in the black feminist tradition?
Her public declaration of independence through her art, image and her work with social causes, in an industry that literally wants you to just shut up and perform is something worth exploring. “Control” did the kind of numbers that usually pushes labels to make artists safer. Janet’s concerts were filled with all kinds of people. Everyone loved her. Did she give us a “Control 2?” No. She came out talking about, “Bigotry, no.” on “The Knowledge.’ She made a whole message album, as a Black woman, at a time when the gatekeepers could totally shut you down. She, then, follows that up singing an anthem for Black people and Black women, in particular. At the peak of her career, with fans across the racial spectrum, she’s singing about how institutions hide history from Black folks and that she stands tall with pride as a Black woman. We don’t talk about this enough, her consciousness.
Describe her relationship with the LGBTQ+ community?
One of the complicated about being a Black, gay boy and young man, was bopping around to music, or watching comedy, or looking at movies filled with people whose work I enjoyed, but who I could tell hated parts of who I was. With Janet, I never had that worry and I can’t really tell you why. Over time, she openly expressed loved for the LGBTQ+ community, and with the Rhythm Nation album she makes it clear that she’s not with putting folks down. So when you look at the audiences at her shows, that’s what you see, people who loved the music and who felt respected and appreciated. Then, we got “Together Again” which became an anthem for so many in the community. None of it felt like PRIDE month pandering, where a star shows up dressed in a costume and blowing rainbow bubbles. It always felt real.
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