âjanet.â at 20

In hindsight, I had no business listening to her fifth album, janet, given I was nine years old when it was released. I imagine if my mama stumbles across this article, she might tell me to dip my lanky head down just so her hand can go upside it. Still, as Janet said about her own self in the past, she started to think of sexuality at an early age. If nothing else, she helped pique my curiosity. Speaking of, I’ll forever be grateful to Janet for this era in her career because it introduced me to her dancer, Omar Lopez, who gave me one of my earliest hints that my life was meant to operate on the other side of the rainbow.

What I appreciate most about that album and Janet Jackson altogether, though, is that not only did she teach me a little about sex, she provided a blueprint on how to be frank sexually yet remain multi-faceted as an artist. She proved you could be both sexual and substantive. It’s a lesson I wish many of those who have since followed had taken better heed of. 

Now more than ever are you quick to hear an artist discuss their upcoming project as “my personal album to date.” It’s become more of a marketing statement than anything mirroring the truth. What they mean is, “I’m working with the same mesh of top producers as everyone else and singing about the same things in relatively the exact same way. And I really want you to buy it, otherwise I’m going to have to do a reality show to maintain even the first cousin of relevance.”

However, the janet album was genuine growth. Here was a woman who had gone from singing about abstinence on her 1986 single “Let’s Wait Awhile” to cooing about the possibility about sex in public – all while whisper-singing about racism and sexism. It followed in the tradition of the newfound independence she sang about on Control and the social issues she felt warranted addressing on Rhythm Nation.

And even though the album was tied largely around sex, it also included the emotions behind it. Love and longing – and not just for – and not just for shoes with red on the bottom of them, trinkets from whatever jeweler du jour at the moment, and on and on the current clichés of R&B go.

What are the chances now of seeing a Black pop star of Janet’s level singing these kind of lyrics at the peak of her career: “History hidden from me to hide my identity so I'd never feel I am somebody.”

Two years before the release of her fifth album, janet, Janet Jackson became the highest paid artist – scoring a record deal with Virgin Records worth some $40 million. She would be paid more than her brother, Michael Jackson as well as her direct competition, Madonna. She managed to reach that feat without just singing about fluff.

I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere along the way people stopped caring. If you want to sing about the spreading of legs, so be it. Hell, I’ll probably sing-a-long. That said, I do worry that with so much else going on, you would think our Black pop stars would even bother to speak on at least some of it.

What’s most frustrating about the last decade since Janet’s wayward nipple made a spectacle of itself at the Super Bowl is that it seems like many have forgotten just how dominant the littlest Jackson was in pop music and the kind of music that got her there.

As with janet celebrates its 20th anniversary on May 18, I just want to say, thank you so much, Damita Jo. I don’t understand why these not as great you acts can copy your video treatments, but not tell their writer-producer friends, “Maybe we should sing about us becoming food stamp nation. You know, after we twirk on the first seven tracks and smash on the last three?”

Clearly I’m entering the “get off my lawn, you meddling children” stage of music listening, but I just can’t help but grumble at how vapid even some of my current favorites are. It’s a shame given Miss Jackson had long shown them the way. Now do the butterfly in celebration.

Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard-educated writer and blogger. You can read more of his work on his site, The Cynical Ones. Follow him on Twitter: @youngsinick