Last month, after a seven-year break, Janet Jackson announced a new album and an upcoming world tour. I lost my shit. Fan of her music or not, you need to know that this woman is a big deal. In the teaser announcement for her new album, twenty-five years after Rhythm Nation, Janet tells us she still wants to be part of 'the conversation'. Ok, she's unlikely to inform constitutional change, but at a time when pop stars are inauthentic and apolitical, it's refreshing. Janet is as culturally relevant as ever.
Inspired by protest songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Janet has explored themes of domestic violence, gender inequality, sex, homophobia, racism... and on occasion she is still patronisingly referred to as Michael's sister. (But, y'know, Jermaine just gets called Jermaine.) After her breakthrough album Control, her mantra 'Miss Jackson, if you're nasty...' became the incarnation of Aretha's R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Growing up in the shadow of her famous brothers, the obstacles of her gender were apparent from the start, and she has been overcoming them ever since.
Janet is often compared with her female peers, mostly Madonna or Beyoncé, as though we only need one awesome female pop star or something. While Madge and Bey have earned kudos for their respective passages in The Feminist Agenda, Janet's part remains relatively understated. Where Beyoncé's message is confused (on the same album Bey samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and includes the lyric "eat the cake Anna Mae") and Madge's message is fairly limited to sex, Janet ticks all the boxes. Her go-to themes of sexuality and social commentary are well documented. She went from 'Let's Wait A While' to 'Anytime, Anyplace' seamlessly, demonstrating that when it comes to sex, it's cool for women to say yes or no - but the underlying message is always about control. When she explores lesbian fantasies or plays around with traditional gender roles in her lyrics, it's a far cry from Madonna or Katy Perry fetishizing lesbians for male titillation. Janet's sexuality isn't for men, it's for herself. She actively champions gay pride, and her challenging the heteronormative is all part of that celebration.
As the youngest Jackson, the plan was to create her brand as wholesome, inoffensive, bland. Janet grew up acting in saccharine sit-coms that, like The Cosby Show that followed, broke ground by placing African-American characters centre-stage. However, there were hidden caveats to apparent public acceptance for African-American culture in the 80's. Bill Cosby, a man of considerable influence back in the day, admonished his Cosby Show co-star Lisa Bonet for filming a sex scene, and was an outspoken opponent of certain elements of black culture. The rules for 'respectable' black culture were set - don't be provocative, don't talk about racial inequality, don't show your sexuality and don't get involved with hip hop. Janet did all of these things. She began making music with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and fired her father as her manager at a time when she was taking a huge risk with her career. Janet worked with some of the most highly respected artists in hip hop, such as Heavy D, Tupac, Chuck Fucking D, and Q-Tip. She's also worked with two of the most successful and respected female rappers, her pals Missy Elliot and MC Lyte.
Rather than play down whom she felt she was, Janet refused to identify primarily as 'all-American', or even as a Jackson. Janet identifies first and foremost as a black woman. She has never apologised for her race or gender or what they mean for her. Her skin is not lightened, she has not developed a thigh-gap (digitally or otherwise) and she openly struggles with her own fluctuating weight, whilst criticizing the body-scrutiny and pressure that women are under to conform. Janet supports other female performers and when interviewers try and throw shade at Mariah, Gaga or Rihanna, she takes them to task.
The 'Wardrobe Malfunction' was a lesson in public expectations of men versus those of women. Janet was blacklisted, sued, censored and lambasted by the media. It went to the Supreme Court. It damaged her album sales. A year into the Iraq war, President Bush publicly condemned her. Timberlake, however, won two Grammy's - proving once again that being a white male is pretty sweet. Janet duly made her apology but called out the hysterical hypocrisy of the media, and of the President, whom she claimed used Nipplegate as a distraction from the election. This all actually happened because of a second of tit. Janet maintained that a woman's body is not shameful. Now? Well, now it's obvious she was the first to Free The Nipple.
Janet Jackson is certainly not a new feminist icon, but twenty-five years later we still want to be part of her Rhythm Nation. Bow down, bitches.