Miss Jackson, If you’re Nasty: The Erasure of Janet Jackson as a Cultural Force

Janet Damita Jo Jackson is a supernova who undoubtedly changed the American musical landscape in the 1980s. A reflection of her time, she was the prototype of American female pop stars. Everyone, from Britney Spears to Aaliyah to Ciara. Often overshadowed by her brother’s talent, Janet is a force in her own right.  She has a career of over 30 years which credits her acting, dancing, and singing abilities. However, after her last appearance in 2004 alongside with Justin Timberlake, she has been cast aside for a wardrobe malfunction. Janet’s a complicated figure often retreating to privacy and seen in high profile scandals. In this essay, I talk about her influence affecting aesthetics/crossover appeal now, though she is no longer prominent in the public eye.

She recently was in the headlines for giving birth to a son, and even more recently for divorcing her billionaire husband. Other than that, Janet is elusive but her influence is undeniable. It should be noted that within this is the examination of people who push the envelope. Janet, though she never verbally claimed the identity, fits the mold. I will be talking about Black music’s forgotten legend.

When you think of Janet Jackson, you probably think many things. Ms. Jackson is a powerhouse. That is neither an understatement or a lazy compliment. Many over the years have tried to duplicate the cultural impact of Ms. Jackson but have countlessly failed. We know that in an industry as fickle as the music business, Black excellence is always penalized to uplift white mediocrity. Unfortunately, Janet fell prey to this defamation during her Superbowl appearance with Justin Timberlake. This battered part of her staying power. I am writing this essay to examine the totality of Ms. Jackson’s discography, however, I will spare my feelings on any scandals pinned against her. This essay will look at Jackson in 3 ways examining her independence, sexuality, and legacy.

My earliest memory of Janet Jackson was the Neo-Asiatic video for “If,” the red hued video backed by thundering drums and hypnotic choreography. My clearest memory was of Janet in her Velvet Rope era in the late 1990s. I remember the dark R&B track played throughout my home. I remember my mom and aunt watching the velvet rope tour on HBO. I found Janet to be cool, funky, and stylish. I remember her wide grin in the “Go Deep” video where she crashed a house party of a teenager or even the sultry I get so lonely video with Blackstreet. As far as I remember, Janet was always a trendsetter. As I have gotten older, as both a pop media critic and music consumer, I have grown to really appreciate her independence. Both in her personal life and creative content. Janet has laid the groundwork for many female solo artists including Ciara, Britney, & Aaliyah. Her breakout album, Control, released February 1986 at the tender age of 19 solidified her voice in the music industry where she lived in her famous family’s shadow. Her album blended, pop, new jack swing, and dance over 9 songs. 7 of 9 tracks became singles, gathering many awards for its artistic statement. She talked about asserting herself as an artist, making decisions about love, and not living in her older brother’s shadow. This set the tone for similar themes in her next few albums; as Janet grew as an artist we also saw her grow into her confidence. She has always been sexy, sultry, playful, and even coy at times. Her style has evolved from each era going from the teased hair and all black ensemble to today’s black sleek look with tousled hair. Her image is timeless, often seen in the ranks of Tumblr with box braids making a fervent comeback to some of the carefree black girl aesthetics seen in the Velvet Rope era. Janet’s discography expands 11 albums, she’s toured internationally, & garnered multiple awards. Her artistic craft over the years has had success over multiple platforms appearing in movies like Poetic Justice, The Nutty Professor, & Why Did I get married? Stylistically, Janet is a chameleon not afraid to push the envelope.

One thing about Janet that I love unpacking is her sexuality.

While Janet’s sexuality has always been a part of the discography, it was once prominent but has most recently been subdued in her newer works. There are 3 albums that stand out to me. The first is 1986’s Control. Janet is clapping back about sexism and is also talking about healthy relationships. Prior to this, there were no mentions of sexual or romantic relationships with her bubble gum image. In tracks like “Nasty” where she talks about how she wants to be addressed. In “Let’s Wait Awhile” she is telling her suitor that she wants to wait before they get intimate. The last track, “Funny How Time Flies,” is a sultry song where Janet tells her audience how easy it is to lose track of time when getting intimate.

 

The next album that displayed a phase in Janet’s career path is her follow up to Rhythm Nation 1814, is her self-titled album. The cover was provocative and many of the tracks dealt with her understanding her sexuality as a grown woman. Janet faced a lot of pushback initially but still scored hits with tracks like “Again”, “Anytime, Any Place”, and “If”. The album was 28 tracks and had a total of 9 singles all dealing with the more sexually mature subject matter. The three aforementioned singles had videos that displayed Janet’s new found comfort with her sexuality. “If” was a futuristic, Asian-inspired dance track about voyeurism. “Anytime, Anyplace” was a track dedicated being any exhibitionist in sexual matters. “Again” was being unsure about an old flame and deciding whether to rekindle that flame again.

 

The 3rd album I’ll be examining is 1997’s The Velvet Rope. The record is considered Janet’s darkest and most reflective album. She talks about BDSM, masturbation, and sexual expression. The videography matched the deeply romantic mood, with videos like “I Get Lonely,” longing for a love lost in the Afrocentric “Got Till it’s Gone,” “Go Deep,” a song about guaranteed satisfaction accompanied by a video out of a house party that goes haywire. Janet has more albums/singles that reflect her sexuality but I felt these were the most notable.

Janet and her legacy still continue, after many admirable achievements. This fall she’ll be touring the US and overseas, continuing her Unbreakable tour, which is the eighth tour she has embarked on.

 

Unfortunately, this makes her one of the last living black legends after countless headliners fell victim to multiple ailments. Ms. Jackson has achieved worldwide record sales of more than 100 million, over a span of more than 30 years, making her one of the best-selling music artists of all time. She has attained 10 Hot 100 number-one singles, 14 Hot R&B number-one singles, and 16 Hot Dance/Club Play number one singles She also has a career high of 27 top 10 hits on the Hot 100, 27 top 10 hits on the Hot R&B chart, and 29 top 10 hits on the Hot Dance/Club Play chart.[2] She is the first and only artist in history to produce seven top five hits from one album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. She has a total of eleven albums, several world tours, two of which have been broadcasted on HBO. She has been in prominent television and film roles, solidifying her as a noteworthy actress. Though an elusive figure, she has influenced  contemporary hit makers Britney, Ciara, and Aaliyah. Yet none seem to ever shift and shape like Janet. Janet has been able to carry several personas: everything from naive, Afro-futuristic femme, dominatrix, and playful woman. Her personal choices have always flattered, whether she’s donned braids, extensions, or a close crop. Down to choreography, to style choices, and musical selection. Everyone from Korean pop star BoA to Christina Aguilera has cited Janet’s impact. Her work has constantly been referenced by other artists, For example, Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” samples “Any Time, Any Place” and even references one of Janet’s most popular films by name. On YouTube, there are several makeup/beauty gurus that try to reproduce some of Janet’s most iconic looks. Though she is similar in some ways to her older brother, Michael, to say that she isn’t her own artist is criminal. Ms. Jackson’s legacy is one of resilience and vitality. The reason Janet, though culturally known, is not as highly regarded as she should be is because of white mediocrity. Without going into any long winded conspiracies, Black women who are innovative are seen as a threat. Janet is the blueprint and shouldn’t be forgotten. Ms. Jackson is a powerhouse. That is neither an understatement nor a lazy compliment.


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Author: N.Atari

N.Atari is a writer from the south. She is a Black Bishoujo trying to be a magical girl in a world that says she can’t. She was raised a nerd, hip-hop aficionado, and social justice advocate.