Janet Jackson: From Baby Sister to Woman in Control

John Antonucci
10 Min Read

The Jacksons’ Baby Sister

“This is a story about control, my control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. And this time, I’m gonna do it my way.” Those were the piercing first words of the opening lines of Janet Jackson’s 1986 breakthrough album, Control. A then 19-year-old, Jackson had all the walk, talk, and savvy of the 55-year-old she is today. Hungry and determined, she was ready for superstardom. But the question is: was the world ready for her?

Born the ninth and youngest child of the renowned Jackson family, there was never really a time in Janet’s life where cameras and lights weren’t second nature for her. Her brothers became some of the leading faces of Motown music as the Jackson 5, scoring hit after hit with songs like, “I Want You Back, “ABC” and “I’ll Be There,” after landing their first record deal with Motown Records in March 1969. Janet was just two months shy of her third birthday. Over time, each member of the fab-five would shoot their attempts at a solo career. It was Michael’s, though, whose career undoubtedly outdid, outsold, and outmatched those of his brothers. After a few moderately successful and popular solo releases, Michael Jackson’s breakthrough as a solo artist came in 1979, with the release of Off The Wall. Then, in 1982, history was made.

Michael Jackson’s sixth studio album, Thriller (released November 30, 1982) was released by Epic Records, earning a then 24-year-old Jackson a string of hits, a collection of some of the most prized music videos to date, and the record for becoming the best-selling album of all time, with sales of an estimated 66 million copies sold worldwide. The John Landis-directed music video for the album’s title track has become perhaps the most legendary music video to exist. Of its most outstanding impacts resulted in the rise of MTV. After Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” became the first music video by a black artist to be aired on the program, “Thriller” took MTV (and music videos, for that matter) to new heights, breaking down walls and barriers for people of color to receive heavy rotation on the most cherished music network. Artists like Prince, Whitney Houston, and Jackson’s very own baby sister Janet would become fixtures of the station after then.

This is only a smidge of how significant Michael Jackson’s Thriller really was. But all in all, that singular album practically changed the landscape of popular music, helped turn music videos into an art form, and cultivated Michael Jackson into becoming the King of Pop.

While the ’80s saw the introduction of a slew of popular artists, all ranging from Madonna, to Bon Jovi, to Whitney Houston, to George Michael, none of them were able to outshine the dazzle of Michael Jackson. By this point, the Jackson’s weren’t holding the same weight as they once did collectively. All bets were on Michael, and nobody was giving him a run for his money. Nobody wanted to. Nobody dared to, until Janet.

Though every member of the Jackson clan had attempted to become superstars in their own right, none of them reached the same status as Michael and Janet’s, with an almost tiny exception for Jermaine who notched a few solo hits under his belt with songs like “Let’s Get Serious” and “Do What You Do.” But it takes a certain kind of artist to stand out above the rest. And by rest, I mean only one other person, because this one other person was the most riveting popstar on the planet. Janet Jackson’s shine, though, wasn’t an immediate blaze. It took some carving out her own path before she would establish herself as one of the most prolific entertainers in music history. She’s had her highs. She’s had her lows. But throughout it all, she’s been able to prove time and time again that she is a force to be reckoned with, cut from a cloth of musical greatness and ingenuity. She is not just Michael Jackson’s little sister, she’s Janet. Plain and simple. And this is how she became one of the most coveted pop icons of our time.

Early Beginnings

Janet Damita Jo Jackson was born on May 16, 1966, in Gary, Indiana. Her parents, Katherine and Joseph, wed in November 1949, and shortly after, purchased a two-bedroom home on 2300 Jackson Street, where they would house nine children altogether and the future of a musical dynasty.

Growing up in the forefront of Jackson-mania, little Janet was introduced to the spotlight at an early age. In 1976, she began appearing alongside her siblings on the CBS variety show, The Jacksons. In it, Janet would sing, dance, act and play throughout various skits and performances with her famous brothers, and even her two lesser-known older sisters – Rebbie and La Toya. The show was a critical smash, and even featured surprise appearances from celebrities like Sonny Bono and Betty White. But, her sharing of the spotlight was about to change.

In 1977, Janet Jackson was cast as Penny on the CBS sitcom, Good Times. From there, her career as an actress leaped upward and onward, landing the roles as Charlene Duprey on Diff’rent Strokes and Cleo Hewitt on Fame. It was clear that this Jackson wasn’t looking for a microphone, despite her family’s residency with the stage. Though her claim to fame was already a departure from that of her family’s, Janet’s run with showbiz was surprisingly not intended for the youngest member of the Royal Family of Pop. In fact, Janet thought she had a completely different destiny waiting for her in the wings. “When I was a kid, my dream wasn’t to be a singer,” she revealed during her acceptance speech at the 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. “I wanted to go to college, and I wanted to be a lawyer.”

But her father and manager, Joseph – the notorious patriarch labeled domineering and abusive by some of his children, while Janet has gone on the record to say he’s just plain ol’ “old school’ – had different plans. He felt the money was in the music. So, when Janet was 16, Joseph arranged a recording contract for her at A&M Records. Despite the critical and commercial success Jackson’s music would find in later years, her first attempts were not as welcomed.

Her debut album, Janet Jackson (released September 21, 1982) made little-to-no noise. Charting at No. 63 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, her highest-charting singles from the album were “Come Give Your Love To Me,” which made it to No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Young Love,” which became a top 10 hit on the R&B charts. Was the album bad, per se? Not really. But did it really prove anything of Janet’s artistry and creativity? No. So, they tried again.

Two years later, Jackson’s sophomore album Dream Street (released October 23, 1984) hit the shelves… and pretty much stayed there. At an abysmally low peak of No. 147 on the Billboard 200, Dream Street proved to be the complete opposite of what they had hoped it would be. By this point, it looked like Janet and music just weren’t seeing eye to eye.

Instead of throwing in the towel, Janet decided her next step would be that of her own. She dropped her father as her manager, moved out, and set up shop in Minneapolis. Teaming up with production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson’s voice was about to be heard like never before and become a mainstay in pop/R&B music. The first step, was taking control.

Be sure to check back in next week for the next part of our series, Janet Jackson: Then, Now & All the In-Between! Happy #JANETuary!

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John is a writer for the magazine, with a great love and affection for music of the 80's/90's. His favorite artists include Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince. Born and raised in New York, he has a bachelor's degree in Arts Management from SUNY Purchase, as well as further certifications from NYU-Tisch School of the Arts.