One of the most striking things about Janet Jackson‘s self-titled debut album is the ambivalence she feels towards the project. Though not ashamed of the work, and she never wholly disowned the project, she’s candid in her feelings about the record: namely, it was something she did to please her influential and ambitious father, Joe Jackson, who set his sights on making her the next big superstar of the family. Like the rest of the Jackson siblings, Jackson exhibited a natural talent that was blessed with a single-minded work ethic, but her interests were more thespian than pop star. As a sheltered young woman, she was hoping to experience some milestones of normalcy, namely studying at Pepperdine and becoming a young co-ed.
But Joe Jackson had different plans for his youngest daughter. Janet Jackson was released in 1982, and despite it being her first album, it wasn’t an introduction. By the age of 16, Janet Jackson was a showbiz veteran, mugging and singing with her siblings at the Jackson brothers’ Las Vegas stage show as well as the family’s summer variety show. Though Michael shone brightest, Janet displayed a similar charisma and charm and possessed some solid comic chops. With youngest Jackson brother, Randy, Janet became a mimic, impersonating the grand divas of the 1970s, including Toni Tennille, Cher, and Olivia Newton-John.
Jackson’s biggest hit was her impersonation of legendary comedienne Mae West, whose ribald jokes were smoothed out for network television. The exposure from the variety series led Jackson to meet with TV legend Norman Lear who cast her in the sitcom Good Times, taking on the difficult role of an abused little girl. After Good Times ended, Jackson starred in the short-lived A New Kind of Family, before getting a recurring role on the long-running sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. Even if music always seemed to haunt her TV career, acting was Jackson’s primary career.
But Janet Jackson wasn’t Jackson’s first foray into the recording industry. She penned the cooey love ballad “Lovely Is She” for sister LaToya’s debut album. She was also one of the PYTs on Michael Jackson’s Thriller record. But because acting was her day job, her presence on vinyl was limited. After Joe Jackson overheard one of Janet’s demos in the family’s home recording studio, he arranged for her to meet with A&M to strike out a deal. For her first album, Jackson was given to Angela Winbush and René Moore, both of whom were accomplished performers in their own right. They were the primary architects of Janet Jackson and in charge of making their client into a superstar.
Being a Jackson was a mixed blessing because though it meant she could sail through many doors, it also meant the expectations were higher, especially since she shared her name with unarguably the greatest entertainer of the second half of the 20th century. By 1979’s Off the Wall, Michael Jackson had proven himself to be a musical juggernaut – a man who seemingly created pop music. His brothers, all of whom were talented musicians in their own right, struggled as individuals and as a group to establish careers that could withstand his looming shadow. Brother Jermaine was rewarded with a successful solo career after his brothers decamped from the legendary Motown for CBS once the Jacksons decided they wanted to write and produce their own material. Jermaine stayed behind (he was married to Berry Gordy’s daughter) and, for his loyalty, was repaid with an estimable career in his own right.
When approaching the challenge of competing with her family, Jackson said, “I didn’t want my last name to be on the album.” She goes on to explain, “I wanted [audiences] to accept me for me, to be interested in [my music] for me, not because I was the brother or sister of…” 1 Though her surname was included, none of her famous siblings appeared on the record, but there are some starry names who contributed to the album. Alongside Moore and Winbush, a number of the brightest session musicians were brought in by A&M to make the record. Unfortunately, Jackson herself had limited say on the direction of the music, essentially dismissing her work as “a matter of going to the studio, doing what [the producers] wanted you to do, and then leave.” She characterized the music on Janet Jackson as “the kind of music [the producers] wanted me to make.” 2
Despite her admitted reticence in making music, Jackson dutifully promoted Janet Jackson and its singles, which included television appearances, most notably miming her debut solo single, “Young Love” on vital music shows Soul Train and American Bandstand. Watching these early performances of a teenage Jackson is an excellent look at the genesis of an entertainer who would later become a performing legend. Though only 16, Jackson exuded the confidence of a seasoned pro when performing the track. That confidence was a fascinating contrast to the shy and bashful young woman who fielded questions from talk show hosts with guarded timidity. Queen Latifah once observed, “She’s so shy, but you put her on a stage, and she lights up.” 3
Soul Train and American Bandstand were pop music institutions. Both shows were integral in highlighting the talents of musical performers. Soul Train was essential because it was a fabulous celebration of Black talent. Appearing on Soul Train and being interviewed and introduced to the world by host Don Cornelius was a fantastic opportunity for young artists. Music writer Nelson George summed up the influence and significance of the program, saying, “what Soul Train did was take black joy – the excitement, the vitality, the spirit of soul music, of black music, of funk, of the beginnings of disco – and put it here in a format for everyone could enjoy in their living room.” 4 Cornelius was a star maker of sorts, his show providing a platform for musicians to have their records played on television. Jackson’s appearance was so important because she was a member of what was often seen as the Black American Royal Family.
Yet, the album Jackson was gamely promoting was ultimately frustrating and disappointing. Though some prime artists populated it, the result was a mixed, fitful album with songs that hinted at some of the promise but failed to capture Jackson’s particular genius in the way that her breakout album, 1986’s Control, did. Some of the issues can be blamed on Jackson’s apparent ambivalence toward a recording and singing career. In an interview, she admitted not understanding Joe Jackson’s vision of her as a pop star. But even more crucial is that Jackson didn’t have a hand in writing or producing any of the tracks. Her absence behind the scenes truly differentiates the debut album from her successful albums. At 16, though her voice was pretty, she hadn’t developed a distinct music persona, and therefore there are moments that Janet Jackson felt like an anonymous dance-pop, post-disco album.
When assessing her recording career, Janet Jackson gets lost when looking at classics like Control or Rhythm Nation. It’s clear why: when Jackson started working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she finally could articulate her artistic vision. On the first album, Jackson’s in a constant flux of growth. The first song, “Say You Do”, is the record’s strongest moment. A bristling disco number with some sublime strings, its sound is indebted to Michael’s Off the Wall album. But you can hear echoes of Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and Chic.
“Say You Do” has a companion on the album, the first single, “Young Love”, which also gives listeners a peak into the kind of artist Janet Jackson would become. Her vocals on the song are strong and energetic – it’s an unripe voice, still not searching for its identity. But like “Say You Do”, “Young Love” is an energetic and engaging dance track that bridges 1970s disco with 1980s dance pop.
But the rest of Janet Jackson is defined by inconsistency. Much of it is dated due to overreliance on trendy early 1980s pop sounds. “Come Give Your Love to Me” is a particularly unfortunate example with its unconvincing stab at New Wave. Other dance songs like “You’ll Never Find (A Love Like Mine)” and “Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing” are competently written and performed but feel like bland dance pop filler.
The ballads on Janet Jackson are arguably the album’s weakest points. “Forever Yours” and “Love and My Best Friend” are syrupy slow numbers littered with lyrical cliches and tentative performances. Later in her career, Jackson would record classic ballads like “Let’s Wait Awhile” and “Again”, but on Janet Jackson, her voice has an adolescent airiness that is overwhelmed by the sentimental instrumentation and production.
Janet Jackson wasn’t a major success on the pop charts. Jackson acknowledged that the album didn’t sell well, but it’s important to note that she found success on the R&B charts early in her career. The first three singles off the record, “Young Love”, “Come Give Your Love to Me”, and “Say You Do” all landed in the top 20 on the US R&B charts, with “Young Love” peaking at number six and being the first of over 30 top ten R&B hits in her storied career. Two years later, she followed up her sophomore album Dream Street which was released whilst she was starring in the television spin-off of Fame. The record and the show were again projects which Jackson felt pressured into doing because of her father’s influence on her career. Her third LP, Control, would become a classic pop recording of the 1980s and set off a remarkable musical career, ultimately overshadowing anything she put out before it. As Eric Henderson put it:
There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Control as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s Janet Jackson’s debut album. Her two previous albums, Janet Jackson and Dream Street, have since been relegated to Janet’s “prehistory”. Control simply feels so much like Janet’s moment of entrance that pop culture’s selective amnesia can be easily forgiven.5
If Janet Jackson wanted to declare independence from her famous family, she did not succeed entirely with her debut album. It remains one of many non-Michael Jackson Jackson sibling solo records which failed to make their singers superstars. Still, Janet Jackson shows a promise that her brothers’ and sisters’ early attempts did not. It’s not a hidden classic but, instead, a pleasing prequel to her superstardom.
- Janet Jackson. Directed by Benjamin Hirsch, WorkerbeeTV/Lifetime/A&E, 2022.
- Janet Jackson. Directed by Benjamin Hirsch, WorkerbeeTV/Lifetime/A&E, 2022.
- Latifah, Queen qtd. 100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll. Produced by Michelle Mahoney, VH1, 1999.
- George, Nelson, qtd. “How Soul Train Shaped a Generation.” Tell Me More, hosted by Michele Martin, NPR, 3 April 2014.
- Henderson, Eric. Review of Janet Jackson’s Control. Slant Magazine, 30 October 2003.