Janet Jackson’s upcoming appearance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival has already made headlines. When the singer tweeted the poster for the internationally-renowned British weekender in March, fans spotted that she’d doctored the original image to promote herself from fifth on the bill to first, leapfrogging headline acts The Killers, The Cure and Stormzy, plus Kylie Minogue, who’s playing the Sunday afternoon ‘legends’ slot.
It was a brazen and amusing bit of self-aggrandizement from the US star, who is back in the limelight this summer, with her new Las Vegas residency being hailed as a return to “top form” when it began last month. But many fans felt it was more than justified. For, despite a glittering career that includes 10 US number one hits, estimated global record sales totalling 100 million, and a recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Janet remains a strangely underrated pop icon.
More like this
- How pop culture embraced sexuality without labels
- The films that defined Generation X
- Did manga shape how the world sees Japan?
Janet’s iconic career is especially impressive because it’s involved having to emerge from the shadow of a wildly successful older sibling. When she dropped her eponymous debut album in September 1982, Michael Jackson was just months away from unleashing Thriller, the pop culture phenomenon that became the best-selling album of all time.
Performing as the Jackson Five, Janet’s brothers had been a popular act since the early '70s, and being a Jackson surely gave Janet a head start in the highly competitive music industry. But it didn’t guarantee her a hit: neither 1982’s forgettable Janet Jackson album nor 1984’s slightly stronger follow-up Dream Street,which includes an almost-quaint duet with British pop legend Cliff Richard, sold very well. Their largely characterless blend of contemporary pop sounds offered few clues that by the mid-90s, Janet would be the highest-paid recording artist in history.
Janet’s creative and commercial breakthrough came in 1986, when she teamed up with Minneapolis-based producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to make Control, a game-changing dance-pop-R&B album that paved the way for the new jack swing sound of the late-'80s. When Janet declared “this time, I’m gonna do it my way,” on the title track, she meant it: Jam and Lewis’s sleek, teak-tough beats gave her a state-of-the-art platform to establish her own powerful pop persona – that of a strong, self-assured young woman who had no time for “nasty boys”. Then, with 1989’s formidableJanet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album, she became more overtly political. "Join voices in protest to social injustice," she sang on the title track. "A generation full of courage, come forth with me."
Long before Beyoncé, Janet was exploring how navigating the world as a black woman is never not political – Dr Kirsty Fairclough
"Long before Beyoncé was flashing the word 'feminist' in the background while performing on stage, Janet was exploring how navigating the world as a black woman is never not political," says Dr Kirsty Fairclough from the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford. "Her music and image melded to explicitly address racism and sexism with songs about trying to flourish as a person in an environment ruled by both. In a 1987 interview following the release of Control, Jackson responded to a question about being a feminist by saying, 'If it’s someone, a woman, who’s taking control of her life as well as her career, then I say that I am a feminist.'"
These two albums contain some of Janet’s most enduring songs, including What Have You Done for Me Lately?, Escapade and Nasty, on which she delivers an iconic rebuke to disrespectful males: “No, my first name ain’t baby – it’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” They also established her as one of the most dynamic music video creators of all time. When I Think of You is a joyous homage to old-school Hollywood musicals directed by Absolute Beginners’ Julien Temple; The Pleasure Principle contains a dazzling dance performance from Janet that peaks with a famous chair sequence that Britney Spears referenced in her 2000 video for Stronger.
A sexually-liberated trailblazer
Subsequent albums such as 1993’s janet and 1997’s The Velvet Rope found her fully embracing her sexuality in a way that still feels groundbreaking today. Her 1993 single If is a heady sexual fantasy whose video has been praised for portraying interracial lust. “There are songs on The Velvet Rope that would make Beyoncé in [sexually-charged] Partition mode blush,” BBC Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo tells BBC Culture. “Her unashamed sexual liberation, especially for black women, is something that's still so taboo.”
At the same time, musically, she began to shift into seductive, slow-burn R&B – see brilliant '90s singles such as the Grammy-winning That’s the Way Love Goes and Joni Mitchell-sampling Got ‘til It’s Gone. But even then, she never abandoned the dancefloor. Two of her biggest mid-career hits were 1997’s Together Again, a poignant house-pop track inspired by a friend she lost to Aids, which cemented her status as an LGBT icon, and 2001’s All for You, an irresistible neo-disco song that spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Janet collaborated almost exclusively with Jam and Lewis until 2004’s Damita Jo album, which also included contributions from several other producers including Kanye West. Amfo notes that “her consistency in working with the same producers allowed her to hone a sound that is so distinctively her”. Damita Jo became Janet’s first commercial disappointment since 1984, failing to top the Billboard 200 chart or to yield a sizeable hit single.
Super Bowl sexism
The album arrived just two months after one of the most notorious moments of her career: the so-called ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during her performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, which saw her breast briefly visible on live TV. Both artists said afterwards that the idea was simply for Timberlake to rip away Janet’s leather bustier to reveal a red lace bra underneath, but that the ‘malfunction’ caused her entire breast to be exposed.
Though her nipple was only exposed for about half a second, the incident brought back into popular consciousness a long-held negative trope surrounding black female sexuality – Dr Kirsty Fairclough
The incident caused a global furore: Michael Powell, chairman of US media regulator the Federal Communications Commission, told a Senate panel that it was "a new low for prime time television". Though ‘Janet Jackson’ became the most searched-for person on the internet that year, her reputation was instantly tarnished. Walt Disney World even decided to remove a life-size statue of Mickey Mouse dressed in her signature Rhythm Nation outfit.
Last year a report alleged that after the incident, Les Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS, which screened the Super Bowl, became “fixated” with derailing her career and effectively blacklisted her from Viacom channels including MTV. Moonves, who stepped down from the network in September 2018 following accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, is said to have been incensed because he believed the incident was a deliberate attempt to whip up controversy that Janet had not shown enough remorse for.
Whatever the truth behind this allegation, there’s no doubting that it affected her career in a way that Timberlake, who was equally involved in the incident, largely managed to escape. “Though her nipple was only exposed for about half a second, what the incident triggered was to bring back into popular consciousness a long-held negative trope surrounding black female sexuality,” Fairclough says. “This is essentially the idea that black women are ‘dangerous’ and ‘irrational’ sexual beings that must be controlled. Her career in the mainstream has never fully recovered since this moment.”
The Janet revival
But in recent years, Janet’s reputation has definitely enjoyed a revival. Her 2015 album Unbreakable debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and her recent tours have won appreciative reviews. “When [acclaimed French singer-songwriter] Christine and the Queens did a segment on my radio show called Your Song [in which guests select a song that is special to them], she chose Janet’s The Pleasure Principle and she was just so elated when she was speaking about it,” says Clara Amfo. “Janet has and continues to be a template for so many artists: Christine, Ciara, fellow Glastonbury performer Janelle Monáe, MNEK, Beyoncé, the list goes on.”
Her talent gets overshadowed because she’s the ‘baby Jackson’, but it is her own, outside of her family – MNEK
Indeed, British artist-producer MNEK tells BBC Culture enthusiastically: “Janet’s songwriting and performing has always been so sophisticated. I’ve always admired her showmanship and how she was able to wrap lyrics with her voice in such a smooth way. [Some] people say her voice is too soft or that she can’t sing, but this obviously isn’t true. Janet has actually got a beautiful voice.”
MNEK also praises Janet for “really drilling in the importance of albums to the public – that gets overshadowed because she’s the ‘baby Jackson’, but her talent is her own, outside of being a Jackson”. Amfo goes a step further, saying that a key part of Janet’s legacy lies in inspiring others by “gaining independence from a family with an overbearing history”. Sadly, it’s arguable that this family history continues to cast a shadow on Janet’s individual achievements. Dr Kirsty Fairclough says that historical sexual abuse allegations levelled at Michael Jackson in this year’s documentary Leaving Neverland “inevitably influences mainstream coverage of Janet and her family”.
Janet’s new Las Vegas show, Janet Jackson: Metamorphosis, begins with a performance of Empty, an excellent trip-hop-inflected track from The Velvet Rope. Released 22 years ago, its lyrics seem to have anticipated society’s growing reliance on online relationships. “Is this a new way to love? Never face to face, is it enough?” Janet ponders. Her revival of this very prescient song in 2019 reflects how, knockbacks notwithstanding, Janet remains supremely capable of stewarding her own legacy, and doing so smartly. This weekend’s Glastonbury set gives her a welcome opportunity to remind us that she’s one of her generation’s most thrilling and visionary performers.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.