Music Sermon: Janet Jackson's Early Chapters
In honor of Janet Jackson's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, VIBE revisited the early chapters and shows how the baby sister of one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music…became one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music, herself.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.
The third time’s a charm. After twice being nominated and snubbed, Janet Jackson has finally been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This year has been Jackson’s year of redemption – scratch that, vindication. A year that felt like a moratorium on her career was finally fully lifted. The obsessive extent of recently-ousted Viacom head Les Moonves’ vendetta against Jackson following the infamous 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” has come to light, and Janet has triumphantly returned to the public eye in a way she hasn’t been since that ill-fated halftime performance. She resumed the tour she postponed due to pregnancy, and returned to the charts with her 20th No. 1 single, “Made for Now.”
But this isn’t a story about Janet the Icon. Those stories abound. She’s a symbol of sexual liberation, of feminism and empowerment, of LGBT+ allyship, of live performance mastery, of dance legend–we know those things. This is a story about how she got there, and how remarkable it is that the baby sister of one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music…is also one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music, herself. Janet is the only Jackson sibling to fly even remotely close to the sun that is Michael’s level of success, and she did it by deliberately separating herself from the family — and her brother. Janet’s success story is tied to her journey of finding her own identity, not unlike the journey Solange had to take decades later to separate herself from her superstar sibling. When Jackson is discussed now, what’s kind of left out of her narrative is how she struggled for years to find her place, her role, and her footing pre-Control. The big origin story is her break away from Jackson family patriarch and career mastermind Joe, but we don’t really talk about what that looked like for her the way we’ve examined with her siblings. Nor do we really talk about how exceptional her ascent was, forging her way under the shadow of not only a megastar sibling, but an increasingly scandalized family, to be taken seriously in her own right and on her own terms.
From early on, the baby Jackson had an outsized personality and talent for her age. Possibly even bigger than her brother’s when he was a young old soul thrust into the spotlight. Janet has said she wasn’t even considering entertainment aspirations, thinking instead of maybe one day becoming a professional jockey until Joe Jackson put her in the family’s Las Vegas show at age seven. From that point until her young adulthood, Janet’s career was by her father’s design, not her own.
Sassy young Janet was a massive hit as part of the family’s revue, paired with Randy to cover songs by popular male/female duos including Sonny and Cher and Mickey and Sylvia. They specialized in that specific brand of cuteness derived from kids acting “grown.” She hit her marks, lines and cues like a pro three times her age. Janet seemed aware even at a tender age what was expected of her, because “….in the Jackson 5 family, everybody works.”
Grown-up sass — hints of the Janet we’d encounter with Control — in an adorable little afro-puffed, chubby-cheeked package was her thing. She was gifted with a knack for completely age-inappropriate impressions, including her signature, Mae West (this would be such a problem in 2018).
The littlest Jackson arguably stole the show, continuously, with a stage presence, energy, and professionalism that not only matched, but in some cases rivaled that of her siblings. Joe allegedly considered packaging Janet with older sisters Rebbie and LaToya as The Jackson Sisters, but differences between the older two kept that from gaining traction.
Norman Lear spotted Janet in her family’s act, and after the short-lived The Jacksons variety TV show went off the air, he had her audition for Good Times. Janet was added to the post-James Evans (Damn, damn, DAMN) cast as the scrappy, abused Penny Gordon: a lovable, adorable girl who follows J.J. home, and whom Wilona eventually adopts. This was many Gen Xers first introduction to Janet, even if through syndication.
While big brothers were out conquering the music world — Michael with Off the Wall and Thriller, then the brothers as a reunited group for the Victory album and tour — Janet cultivated an acting career. In the early ‘80s Janet was really actress first, singer second, with roles on Diff’rent Strokes and then Fame. Roles that still allowed her to sing, though. After all, she was still a Jackson.
Janet has said that she wanted to continue down the acting road, but Joe wanted her to record. So that’s what she did. She debuted with an eponymous teen soul joint, bolstering production from R&B staples such as Angela Winbush, Foster Sylvers (of the I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-the-Jacksons, Sylvers family) and The Time member Jesse Johnson.
Then, when that album failed to make significant noise, she released the bubblegum pop confection, Dream Street. Both albums were decent outings; not bad, but pretty unremarkable. They didn’t make room for Janet’s actual talent at all. The sense that she was placed where she needed to be and told what she needed to do came across in the music and her performances. Not that she wasn’t a consummate performer, but she was only at about a level two compared to the Janet we would see just a couple of years later.
The albums weren’t working, and she wasn’t feeling it, either. At one point, she was disillusioned with both acting and singing, and considered going to college. She’d made friends with kids from South Central during a moment of adolescent normalcy in junior high school (the Jackson siblings were mostly tutored), and some of them were now at Pepperdine University.
Instead, she followed a Jackson rite-of-passage: rebelling against Joe’s constraints in a declaration of independence. Jermaine did it by marrying Berry Gordy’s daughter Hazel and staying behind on Motown when his brothers left. Big sister LaToya’s moment was posing for Playboy. Janet rebelled by eloping at 18 with someone who understood her better than most probably could. James DeBarge was a member of an entertainment family patterned after her own, and had become a confidant for her in the absence of brother Michael. The marriage was fraught with problems and annulled after about a year, but James brought her back to music and provided her with some much-needed life experience to channel into her work. She told music journalist David Ritz (who, for a while, was one of the only journalists to secure in-depth interviews with Janet during every album cycle), “My marriage was rough, but it deepened my emotions, it made me think about life, and it pushed me towards independence.”
The Control album is when the world first met Janet Damita Jo Jackson, forreal forreal. It was the first time we heard her stories, her thoughts, her feelings, her experiences, instead of those thrust upon her by others. And it was uncomfortable as hell for her, at first. Family friend and A&M Records Head of Urban Music John McClain connected her with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her third album, forging one of the most important producer/artist relationships in music. The story from there is music lore: Jam and Lewis bring her to Minneapolis, take her to the club, encourage her to explore the city and have experiences to inform the album. What isn’t usually mentioned in that narrative is A&M’s reluctance to record another Janet album at all. “The company didn’t know how dynamic she is,” McClain told Rolling Stone. “…I knew that Michael and Jermaine and Tito and Jackie are real quiet, but when the red light is on in on the studio or when the spotlight hits, they turn into different people. Basically, I had an idea of what Janet had in her.”
Learning to trust herself and explore her creative talents was something Janet had not been allowed to do in the past, and it was like building a new muscle. As the project went along, she became more confident and open. The process of creating Control also made 19-year-old Janet — who was already aware she’d been sheltered — realize just how limited her experiences were. Jam and Lewis’ language and humor (Janet wasn’t used to frequent cursing) almost made her want to retreat back to Encino and Mama Katherine’s arms, but she started to realize she was trippin’ a little. “They were being real. The problem was with my perception, not with (them),” she said years later. “I was this little prude, I was uptight. I knew I wanted control…but I soon saw that I’d have to give in order to get: give myself over to a creative environment that was different and even a little dangerous from anything I’d ever known.”
The now infamous intro, “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,” wasn’t just an album theme. It was a declaration about the rest of Janet’s career, although we didn’t realize it at the time. Just in case there was anyone who didn’t realize the song was completely autobiographical, she drove the point home in the video (with a genius nod to her Good Times days).
Control is a coming-of-age story set to music, covering everything from the excitement of young, new love…
...to the frustration of ain’t sh*t partners and folks who try to test you.
Oh, and choreography that had kids everywhere bustin’ up their mama’s kitchen chairs…and their behinds.
The album was bold, anthemic, and all Janet (with the assist from Jam and Lewis). Once she finally had perspective, she never let anyone take over her direction or decisions again. Over the years, she’s fiercely denied the involvement of any Svengali figures in her life. John McClain acted in some management capacity, but later insisted he never formally held the title, and many assumed ex-husband Rene Elizondo had taken on the role starting with Rhythm Nation, which Jackson repeatedly said was false. She was essentially managing herself with the help of trusted advisors, involved in every single aspect of recording, creative, visuals and performance. She once broke it down very succinctly, “Nothing happens without my approval.” (It all sounds very similar to another R&B-turned-Pop star after she severed professional ties with her father.)
Control introduced the world to the real Janet. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 was when she came for domination. Although Control broke sales records, spawned hit singles and was certified multi-platinum, the industry wasn’t sure whether Janet could do it again. She not only replicated the success, but topped it.
Control was an R&B album, on purpose. Jam has said they were “going for the black album of all time.” Just as intentionally, Rhythm Nation was broader, incorporating pop, rock and hip-hop (Jam and Lewis were bricklayers of the sonic foundations for new jack swing). The tone was set via a manifesto at the beginning of the album. A “pledge” for members of this new nation Janet was leading into the ‘90s:
We are a nation with no geographic boundaries
Bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals
Sharing a common vision
Pushing toward a world rid of color lines
The concept album was Janet’s foray into social consciousness (Ritz called it her What’s Going On, the politically-charged opus by Marvin Gaye). It also highlighted her incredible versatility, garnering award nominations and wins across genres, including a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nod for “Black Cat.” She may have come in the door through R&B, but she wasn’t going to be confined to a lane, and she continued to prove it. Janet is the only artist to have Grammy nominations in the Pop, Rock, Dance, R&B and Rap categories and to have No. 1 hits on every format — except Country.
While Janet did work to separate herself professionally from her brother, he was still not only her most trusted advisor through much of her career, but her benchmark for success. The two were the closest of the Jackson siblings, and a healthy career rivalry went along with that. “I’d love to break any of (Michael’s) records,” Janet exclaimed at the beginning of the Rhythm Nation cycle. “That would be great for me.” And she did. Rhythm Nation was the first album ever to generate No. 1 singles across three separate years (89, 90 and 91), and all seven singles cracked the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, breaking big brother’s record of seven Top 10 Hot 100 singles with Thriller.
Through Control and Rhythm Nation, Janet had proven her talent and star power. However, she was still mysterious and private in the way we’d all come to expect from the Jackson family. She also still had an air of appropriateness — the wholesome good girl. And then…janet. Control was where Janet found herself, Rhythm Nation was where she became a star and a cultural leader, janet. was where she became a grown-ass woman; the actualization of the Janet we know now.
By 1993, the Jackson family drama was increasingly in the public eye. Michael was still a couple of years away from child abuse allegations, trial, and “Wacko Jacko,” but his eccentricity had long been fodder for public conversation. The Jacksons: An American Dream miniseries had aired with high ratings the year prior. LaToya’s ’91 tell-all, although full of unsupported allegations, had given insight to Joe’s dysfunctional dynamics with his children. Janet mostly stayed out of the fray and made a declarative break from her family with this album by putting an actual period at the end of her first name in the title.
More shocking, though, was her physical declaration. We’d never seen more than a sliver of belly from the body-conscious Janet prior to the final video of the Rhythm Nation cycle, Herb Ritts’ stunning “Love Will Never Do” video, which was basically “New Janet, who ‘dis?” in visual form.
But that video ain’t have nothin’ on Janet’s Rolling Stone cover. Forget breaking the internet, it broke real life.
Sexuality is such a part of Janet’s identity as an artist now, it’s hard to remember how jaw-dropping this was back then.
Hits about voyeurism…
Jams about insatiability and sex in public…
Dance breaks while telling dude, “You know you want it, come and get it…”
...all from little Penny? Cue the pearl clutch! But all around, she was more open, accessible and real to us than she’d ever seemed. She did more press, she revealed her personality, she was chillin’ with her girls (her dancers, who she lovingly called “the kids”). She seemed fun.
The janet. era is the culmination of Janet’s cycle of growth, and it reveals the most marked difference between Jackson and her brother in their artistry, as well as the key to her self-possessed stardom. Michael obsessed over being the biggest star possible. He set out to do things that had never been done before. He wanted to amaze and astound. He wanted to f**k everybody’s head up. Janet, on the other hand, was focused on being an increasingly more genuine artist. In one of her many interviews with David Ritz over her career, she shared that she wasn’t focused on becoming a bigger star, “but a better artist, deeper, truer to the things I find exciting. If right now, I find sex exciting…I put that in my art. If next year, I’m depressed or confused or angry, I hope to have the courage to express those feelings. I hope to be an honest artist — no more, no less.” For all of Michael’s perfection, one didn’t always (or maybe even often) get the feel that he was being an “honest artist.” He was preoccupied with the reception of his work in a way Janet doesn’t seem to be. Over the years, her moves have always felt more genuine to her artistry, more about speaking to her fans, than measured against what’s currently poppin’. Her public quiet reserve has felt more like confidence than timidity. As though after the long journey to finding her artistic voice, her priority has been to stay true to that, at whatever cost. For example, in the wake of the Super Bowl scandal, Janet apologized, but she didn’t grovel or embark on a full apology tour just to get back in anyone’s good graces, though it hurt her — massively — in the prime of her career. Yet she’s not faltered or changed; she knows it wasn’t a measure of her talent. It’s easy to imagine that even now, had the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubbed her again, she would have been like “I’m good, luv. Enjoy.”