it’s time janet jackson got her dues

She was one of the most seminal artists of the 80s and 90s, yet her influence feels largely ignored. As Janet Jackson returns to music, i-D takes time out to reflect on the past, present and future of one of R&B/ pop’s most important figures…

by Nick Levine
19 May 2015, 7:17pm

Janet Jackson celebrated her 49th birthday over the weekend with an announcement. "I promised you'd hear it from my lips and now you will," she teased in a video shared on her social media accounts. "This year: new music, new world tour, a new movement. I've been listening. Let's keep the conversation going." She posted the video with the hashtag #‎ConversationsInACafe, fueling speculation that this could be the title of her new album, which will be her first in over seven years.

In that time, it's become tempting to throw one of her song titles back at her - Janet, what have you done for us lately? After all, her last few albums - 2004's Damita Jo, 2006's 20 Y.O. and 2008's Discipline - have been patchy at best, and she hasn't released a really massive single since 2001's All for You. But even though Miss Jackson (If You're Nasty) has been enjoying some well-deserved downtime, her influence remains everywhere. And it's  gravely underestimated.

Any pop star who puts on an arena show with super-slick choreography and a frisson of naughtiness owes a debt to Janet's pioneering 90s performances. Britney Spears channels Janet when she picks a volunteer from her Vegas audience to be teased on stage with whips and chains; Jennifer Lopez channels Janet when she slips a dance break into her latest video. And any teen star who takes charge of her career Miley-style is following in the footsteps of Janet, who transformed herself from kid sitcom actress to pop icon with 1986's Control album. Most remarkably of all, she did this with the shadow of a mega-famous older brother looming over her.

Although it's now 25 years old, Janet's Rhythm Nation video, with its breathless dance routines and stylish post-apocalyptic visuals, remains the benchmark for any performer with aspirations of becoming a singer-dancer-superstar. Cheryl Cole was certainly paying close attention when she performed Fight for This Love on The X Factor in 2009.

Let's not forget that Janet's sound has also been supremely influential. Any artist who makes modern chart R&B music that you can dance to is riding a wave that Janet helped to create with her incredible run of late 80s/early 90s singles produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. With their sleek hooks and sinewy beats, early Janet bangers like Nasty, Escapade, Love Will Never Do (Without You), Alright and Miss You Much still hit hard today. It was in their wake that we got Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing, which would later give birth to Mary J, Diddy, Missy, Timbaland and Pharrell.

Interestingly, Janet is now being feted by alternative artists too. Blood Orange and How to Dress Well have covered Janet tracks; rising bedroom R&B star Shura says she's a massive fan; and Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano reckons the breathy way she sings ballads comes "Probably as a result of listening to Janet Jackson." Even noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells have hailed Janet as an influence, with front-woman Alexis Krauss gushing that Rhythm Nation is "such a fierce song" and praising Janet's styling for striking "Just a perfect balance - tough but feminine."

"Tough but feminine" is a fitting description of how Janet has always presented herself. With 1993's janet. album, released as she turned 27, she started to explore her sexuality unapologetically, posing with her then husband's hands on her breasts for an iconic Rolling Stone cover and hinting at cunnilingus by guiding a male dancer's head towards her crotch in the If video. The track itself was pretty daring too. "You on the rise as you're touchin' my thighs," Janet coos, "If you like, I'll go down..."

But although her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl has become, frustratingly, one of her defining moments (and, yet again, preceded #FreeTheNipple by a decade), Janet has never been about titillation for the sake of it. Her songs, most notably on 1997's stunning The Velvet Rope album, have delved into the darker recesses of sex and relationships - from S&M to threesomes, sexual violence to homophobia. On the album's most extraordinary deep cut, a sublime electronic ballad called Empty, Janet even pre-empted the modern online relationship dilemma. "Is this a new way to love? Never face to face, is it enough? Does it really count or am I a fool?" she wonders, way before Tinder or Twitter had even been invented.

Too often, Janet is treated as a laughing stock; her yoyo-ing weight, secret relationships, strange family, marrying Jermaine Dupri, spending millions on (admittedly incredible) videos. Mention her name and people forget the hugely important part she has played in shaping popular culture. Much as Janet's impact can be intellectualized, let's not forget why we'd even bother - as a performer, she's totally electric. Take her 1987 video for The Pleasure Principle, which is basically just Janet singing and dancing and absolutely loving it. That move where she hops on the chair? Incredible.

It's going to be amazing to have her back. JJ, we missed you so much.


Text Nick Levine
Image from cover of Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson

Think Pieces
Janet Jackson