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Janet Jackson: Pop Music’s Leading Lady

John Antonucci | January 17, 2022

After taking control of her life, her music and her career, Janet Jackson was about to transform herself yet again. This time, as the new decade’s new face of pop music.

90’s Vixen

After closing out the decade on the highest of highs, Jackson entered the 90’s as a solidified icon. Though Rhythm Nation provided Jackson with years of adulatory success, the next wave of her career would prove to be redefining and record breaking.

By this point, Jackson was on every record label’s “Most Wanted” list. However, after an attempt by A&M to renew her contract, she left them for Virgin Records for an estimated $40 million. Janet Jackson was now the world’s highest-paid recording artist. This would then change only two days later, when her brother Michael Jackson signed a deal with Sony Music Entertainment for $60 million. Siblings, am I right?

This much anticipated chapter of the Janet Jackson storybook was steering in a different lane, though. Jackson was entering her mid-twenties, and in doing so, both her image and her sound underwent some tweaking. She was still Janet, the singer and dancer extraordinaire. But she wasn’t celebrating control or fighting for injustices this time. She was talking about one thing – sex.

Her fifth studio album janet. (released May 18, 1993) – two days after the star’s twenty-seventh birthday – was compiled of more R&B sensualities than her 80’s LP’s, but was still decorated with glimmers of funk, dance and the new jack swing that had become synonymous to her sound. After receiving criticism that her success and popularity had nothing more than to do with the fact that she was a child of the Jackson empire, Janet went on to write every single song on the album, as well as co-produce each track alongside Jam and Lewis. The title, janet., is to be read as “Janet, period.” – separating herself from her familiar ties and acknowledging her own place as an artist in the business.

The album granted Jackson with two more number-one hits, “That’s The Way Love Goes” and “Again.” While the former became one of the longest-running hits of the year, “Again” served as the theme song for the 1993 John Singleton film, Poetic Justice. Starring alongside rapper Tupac Shakur, Jackson made her motion picture debut as the film’s protagonist – Justice, a deeply wounded woman who’s been both hurt and healed by love. The song also provided Jackson with a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

The album’s other hits – “If” and “Any Time, Any Place” – plus many of its deep cuts, further showcased the newly unchaste Janet, but without pushing the envelope too far past the point of interest. The public was able to embrace this new side to Janet Jackson because this new side represented the natural growth of a woman in her twenties – stronger, confident and freer. To further entice and promote her tale of sexual liberation, Janet Jackson appeared topless on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in September 1993. The photo represents Jackson wearing nothing but denim and curls, with the hands of her then-husband René Elizondo, Jr. covering her breasts. Fans were quick to notice that the cover photo was actually the same photo Jackson used for the cover of janet. – only the album cover depicted Jackson from the neck up, while the back pictured solely her waist. The photo is often regarded as one of the most iconic magazine covers of all time and has been parodied and mimicked by countless other celebrities, artists and nobodies over the years. At this point, “superstar” was just a secondary title for Janet Jackson. She was now a sex symbol.

In November 1993, Jackson embarked on the Janet World Tour, earning praise for the show’s complex choreography and theatrical stage setup. Jackson’s career had become the golden standard for performers by now. As her diva peers, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and perhaps her biggest competitor Madonna, were all topping the charts and selling out arenas, Jackson still found a way to lead instead of follow. Then, in 1995, her and big brother Mike teamed up for their iconic duet, “Scream.” It was the first time the two had ever done a song together (with the exceptions of Janet providing background vocals on Michael’s “P.Y.T.” in 1982, and Michael on Janet’s “Don’t Stand Another Chance” in 1984). Janet previously had reservations about working with her legendary brother, as she was adamant about not wanting to seem like she was riding on the coattails of her famous family. But, Janet had a name all to herself by this point, and the timing never seemed more right.

The song was made in response to the media bashing regarding Michael Jackson’s 1993 child sexual abuse allegations. Though the song would go on to become a hit for both Jacksons, and its costly $7 million sci-fi inspired Mark Romanek-directed music video would result in the most expensive music video ever created, it’s a touching yet aggressive display of brother and sister standing side by side. Janet wasn’t acting as Janet Jackson, the popstar. She was acting as Janet Jackson, the sister.

That same year saw the release of the hitmaker’s first greatest hits collection, Design of a Decade. Jackson’s starpower by this point was brighter than ever. In fact, it was more of a supernova in a galaxy of twinkling counterparts. As The Boston Globe put it, “And who could dispute that Janet Jackson now has more credibility than her brother Michael?” Her contract with Virgin Records was then renewed for a whopping $80 million, earning her back the title of being the highest-paid recording artist in history. But despite insurmountable success, Jackson was struggling behind her trademark smile. Depression and anxiety resulted from an emotional breakdown by the recording artist, and the byproduct was the music.

In October 1997, Jackson’s sixth studio album was released – The Velvet Rope, an offering inside the unknown private world of one of the most famous women to exist in it. The album was applauded for its openness to topics of sadness, domestic violence and same-sex relationships. In addition to the album’s darker essence than that of Jackson’s previous projects, the singer debuted a striking new red afro, septum piercing and a kind-of-hard-to-tell-but-not-really nipple piercing. Like janet., The Velvet Rope would later take Jackson on another highly attended and critically acclaimed world tour, The Velvet Rope Tour.

The album’s signature single, “Together Again,” gave Jackson her eighth number-one hit on the Hot 100, and was inspired by the death of a friend she lost to AIDS. Songs like such, as well as “Free Xone” – a campy anti-homophobia anthem – established Janet Jackson as a gay icon. She would later be awarded the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music.

But not every song on The Velvet Rope marked a celebration. The album’s closing track, “Special,” is a solemn plea to feeling needed, wanted and validated. The album’s heaviest moments, though, won’t be found here, or even on the raunchy beginner’s guide to BDSM, “Rope Burn.” Jackson’s vulnerability is on full display on tracks like “What About,” a song detailing the harrowing effects of an abusive relationship. “What about the times you hit my face? What about the times you kept on when I said, ‘No more please…’,” Jackson sings in agony, serving as a voice to those who have been beaten, battered and scarred.

Despite the album’s subject matter, Jackson was still able to find light from the pain. The Velvet Rope allowed the singer to fully immerse her life, her suffering and her anguish in her work.  “I’m still working on myself,” Jackson revealed during a 1997 press interview with MTV. “I like myself very much, and I can finally say that for the first time in my life. Now I’m trying to learn how to love myself.”

Icon

At the close of a dominating decade, Jackson’s Emmy Award winning HBO airing of The Velvet Rope: Live in Madison Square Garden became the most watched program among home subscribers, garnering over 15 million viewers. Following her winning the Legend Award at the 1999 World Music Awards, Jackson was declared Billboard’s second most successful artist of the decade, behind Mariah Carey. It was now the start of the new millennium, and nothing was stopping Janet in her tracks.

She made her second feature film appearance in 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, playing Professor Denise Gaines, alongside comedy legend Eddie Murphy. The following year, it was announced that Jackson would be honored with the very first MTV Icon Award. The ceremony consisted of various artists, including Pink, *NSYNC, Usher, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears and Aaliyah, commenting on Jackson’s influence and performing the songs that turned the child star into a worldly icon. Jackson would close out the show with her newest number-one, “All For You.”

The single became one of Jackson’s most favored hits. Sampling “The Glow of Love,” by 80’s disco group Change, the dance track became an instant classic, even earning Jackson the title as being the “Queen of Radio.” After hitting the airwaves, it became the first song in history to be added to every pop, rhythmic and urban radio format during its first week of release. Receiving a seven-week long run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, “All For You” became the longest-running number-one hit of the year. It’s accompanying album, All For You, would be released in April 2001.

Upbeat and bouncy, All For You was drastically different than its less-than cheery predecessor. The album gave the diva the biggest opening first week sales of her career, after becoming her fifth consecutive album to crown the Billboard 200 Albums Chart. Through a cohesive mix of pop, R&B, dance and rock, All For You provided the perfect balance of party jams (e.g. the irresistibly catchy “Come On Get Up”) and bedroom bangers (e.g. the erotically inducing “Would You Mind”). Like before, the album was supported by a world tour that both impressed and shocked attendees with Jackson’s overtly sexual stage antics – most visible during her performance of “Would You Mind,” in which a latex-clad Jackson would select an audience member to join her onstage and receive a private dance from the bombshell and her six-pack assisted figure… all while being strapped onto a gurney. Sound familiar? Go re-watch R&B singer Normani’s performance from 2021’s MTV Video Music Awards. Janet Jackson is still influencing the rookies.

Jackson’s history of exaltation, though, was about to come to a dramatic halt.

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

Written by John Antonucci