What is Janet Jackson to do now? With the musical world filled to max capacity with young “divas” sporting major attitude and precision dance routines, there seems to be little room for Miss Janet, an innovator who popularized the Sexy Diva With Choreography paradigm in the first place.
I’m a Janet fan, and I’ve been proud to be one since the days of Control (1986), her feisty but introspective LP that showcased her newfound artistic and developmental independence. It wasn’t her debut album, though, as she had made two previous attempts to find her sound, engage a wider audience, and step out of the gigantic shadow cast by the weight of the Jackson family name and the success of her famous, supremely talented brother, Michael.
Those attempts, Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984), didn’t have the conviction or the sincerity of Control, and her transformation back then from bubble gum teen singer to dance floor diva is truly remarkable. It also suggests that there’s hope for the future. If she turned things around once, she can do it again. I know it’s tough to compete in a post-Beyonce world, but maybe Janet can regain at least some of her stature.
I’m sure she’s somewhere right now, thinking, “I’m worried about the future. I wonder what that guy at PopMatters thinks I should do next?” Of course. So here are my thoughts on what needs to happen to effectuate a full scale Janet Jackson comeback.
All of this assumes Janet is still interested in making music. Let’s face it, if she decided to sit home and eat corn chips and never release another album, she’d still have a solid legacy. She’d still be considered an icon. She doesn’t even have to use her last name anymore. She can just go by “Janet”. That’s how you know you got it goin’ on.
She’s also set her sights on acting. As a kid, she played the adorable “Penny” on the sitcom Good Times, where she carried a torch for Jimmy Walker’s tall, pencil thin jester J.J. “Dye-No-Mite” Evans. Her character tackled serious social issues such as child abuse, social work, and adoption procedures.
After that, she appeared on Diff’rent Strokes, the show with Gary Coleman (“Arnold”) and his trademark line, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” Janet was opposite Todd Bridges (“Willis”), playing his onscreen girlfriend. Later, she was the poetry-minded “Justice” in the movie Poetic Justice, along with Tupac Shakur, and she showed up in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?.
She’s not hitting home runs at the box office, but there’s no career imperative that necessitates her return to the studio, either. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I said I was okay with her going out on her last album, Discipline. In fact, I’d like to see her find redemption for pretty much everything she’s released after the Janet (1993) album (and sometimes I’m good with Velvet Rope (1997) too, it depends): All For You (2001), Damito Jo (2004), 20 Y.O. (2006), Discipline (2008). In order to do that, she’s got to go into her comeback album with a mission, with something to prove.
That’s a tall order for an artist who’s won plenty of awards and has enjoyed worldwide acclaim. But if she can summon the desire, her excitement for her new material would be her best chance of getting us excited about it, too.
What Janet doesn’t do will be as important as what she actually does. Ever since the infamous Wardrobe Malfunction of the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, she’s been on the losing end of an ongoing punch line. Type “Janet Jackson Super Bowl” in your search engine and watch all of the articles, jokes, video clips, and spoofs you get about “Breast-gate”. You can say, “Well, that’s not fair,” and point out that although Justin Timberlake was involved in the Wardrobe Malfunction, his career’s been going really well ever since. But none of this changes the fact that, fair or not, we haven’t been taking Janet seriously.
Getting “real” means no publicity stunts. It means avoiding the usual Jackson family stereotypes like cosmetic surgery and airing out dirty laundry. It means not doing Weird Celebrity Stuff. It means getting back to the basics of what makes Janet worth watching and listening to.
Promoting a new album isn’t the time for Janet to authorize a tell-all book or memoir. It definitely wouldn’t be the time for another greatest hits package. What would it contain that isn’t already covered by the last package, Design of a Decade (1995)?. The comeback trail won’t be jumpstarted by popping up in bikinis on the cover of Vibe or Essence. A change in fashion sense or style might be acceptable. Another dramatic movie role wouldn’t hurt, either.
When it comes to Beyonce, movies seem to divert attention from her albums. Janet, on the other hand, could use the attention, even if it’s not music related. However, the attention has to show that she’s grounded and focused.
// Notes from the Road
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