It’s not particularly fair, but no less true: pop music is not kind to the aging artist. This is especially so if you’re a woman. That harsh reality is even more callous towards women who happen to be Black. For much of my life, Janet Jackson and Madonna were the premiere female entertainers. Their contributions to the pop landscape are literally endless. Neither have found worthy heirs. Both still have plenty to say with their art.
And yet, Janet and Madonna have each seen their lights dim with age. What goes up must come down, though it’s quite apparent there’s a certain push downward that happened around the fourth decades of both their lives. However, it’s interesting to see that though both have released new albums this year, those projects have been met with two very different reactions.
For Madonna and her most recent album, Rebel Heart, failure has been the descriptor to describe its performance. There’s been plenty of speculation as to why that is. Producer Diplo, who helmed much of Rebel Heart, spoke of ageism. Ageism played a role, but not as much as he thinks. The thing about being a pop star is that in order to maintain dominance, once has to be on the pulse of what’s happening and what is about to happen. Now that she’s in her late 50s, that hasn’t been the case for Madonna for some time. She still has her fan base, ever strong and making sure she’ll continue to sell out her world tour for the rest of her life.
The album as a format is increasingly proving itself to be a relic; thus, if you’ve already made your mark in music, why not relish in that? Janet Jackson seems to understand this more so than Madonna, and since we’re on the subject of aging pop deities, Janet seems to understand this more than Mariah Carey too. I believe that has a lot to do with why Janet’s latest album, Unbreakable, has been met with less scrutiny.
Janet notched her seventh number one album, with 109,000 in pure sales and 116,000 in equivalent album sales (i.e., streaming). It makes her only the third act and first Black artist to have a number one album in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Madonna debuted at number two, only she actually sold more with 121,000 units. The difference is though, Janet Jackson has literally done nothing to promote her album.
Unlike Madonna, Janet hasn’t done any major interviews or performances on television. Unlike Madonna, Janet didn’t turn to contemporary producers to create music that would court pop radio. Instead, Janet released her album independently, via a partnership with BMG records, and worked with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Speaking of that partnership, Jon Cohen, the executive vice president of Recorded Music at BMG, explained to Forbes that regardless of Unbreakable’s first week sales, Janet and her team are all “extremely self-aware” about what sales figures look like nowadays. As a result, Janet seemingly decided not to court the new and very much fickle pop landscape and appeal to her fan base instead.
No, the album’s first single “No Sleeep” hasn’t been a hugely successful single on pop radio, but it has become Janet’s longest-running number one hit on the urban adult contemporary chart. “Urban adult contemporary” is fancy talk for that radio station your mama, daddy, uncles, aunties, and hell, you, all now listen to. You know, the grown folks.
There’s some experimentation on the new album, but for the most part, it is classic Janet for fans of classic Janet Jackson. As far as her Unbreakable tour goes, it is selling out arenas and continues to add additional dates across the globe. It isn’t the wild success of Rhythm Nation 1814 or even All For You, but it is success all the same.
There is a lesson here: once you reach a certain point in your career, there may be no point in trying to prove yourself by chasing trends and competing with people you’ve literally birthed. When you listen to Tinashe or FKA Twigs, you can easily hear Janet’s influence. What point is there for Janet to compete with them? The same goes for Beyoncé and Rihanna, who each owe a lot to the legacy of Janet Jackson too.
Speaking of Bey and Ri, when their reign starts to subside and those who follow begin to step in, I hope they follow Janet’s lead. As much as I love Madonna, she made a serious misstep in trying to keep up with the Joneses. After a while, your shock antics become stale and tiptoe right around pathetic.
Thankfully, we now see an alternative. One that is simple to follow. You just do you as you’ve always done, and after so many years spent courting the public, you finally sit back and let them come to you.