When Janet Jackson named her fifth album, 1993’s Janet (often stylized as janet.), she was making a bold statement. She was saying that she was Janet, and that’s enough. No last names are needed. When explaining why she chose to use lowercase letters when writing her name, bell hooks said she wanted to emphasize the “substance of books, not who I am”. For Janet Jackson, Janet was just that, a way direct attention to the work, not the famous last name. Though she had been in the business for a decade and was a superstar since 1986’s breakout album, Control, Janet was the supreme moment in Jackson’s career when she took her rightful place as the Queen of Pop.
The story of Janet started in 1982 when Janet Jackson released her self-titled debut album on the A&M label. The record wasn’t successful, and Jackson’s feelings toward a recording career were ambivalent (her singing career was at the behest of her father, Joe), and she had little input in making it. After the disappointment of her second album two years later, Jackson was at a thoughtful place in her career. Like her other siblings, she had tried to find success as a recording artist, despite having to contend with brother Michael and his overwhelming stardom. (Brother Jermaine forged a successful career after leaving the family act.)
Her fateful union with former Time players Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis jumpstarted one of the most significant collaborations in pop music. From Control, Jackson established herself as an iconic pop star of the decade, following it up with 1989’s Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. With those two, Jackson sold over 15 million albums and scored 12 top-five hits on the Billboard charts, with five going to number one. Michael Jackson was reportedly rattled by his sister’s success when following up his blockbuster album Thriller with Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991).
By 1991, Jackson was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet and was at the center of a bidding war when her longtime contract with A&M expired. She eventually signed with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records for a then-record-breaking $30 million. For the Los Angeles Times, Chuck Philips reported that Jackson’s youth and style were a major draw when shopping for labels. “Jackson – at just 24 – is still a relatively fresh face on the pop scene, and… her dance-pop style is ideal for today’s pop/video climate.”
Phillips’ assertion that Jackson’s stock was high because she was trendy is interesting because Jackson had waited four years between Rhythm Nation and Janet. Pop music had undergone a seismic shift then, ushering in grunge. Like other pop stars of the 1980s, Jackson would be entering a decade hoping to ride these new musical trends. In 1991 when Phillips was writing, dance-pop was still dominant, but by Janet‘s release in 1993, the synth-heavy pop of Jackson’s ’80s triumphs was replaced by more soulful, hip-hop-influenced sounds.
Jackson also released Janet the same year Whitney Houston‘s soundtrack to The Bodyguard was still selling millions. (Houston’s album was released in November of 1992 and stayed in the top position for months, extending its consecutive reign in March of 1993, before returning sporadically to the number-one position throughout the year, finally ceding its top spot to Jackson’s album, which stayed at number one for six weeks before being replaced by Barbra Streisand‘s latest effort.)
The Growth of a Superstar
To announce the release of Janet, Jackson and her label did something quite clever when choosing the debut single, “That’s the Way Love Goes”. Instead of a dance single, Jackson opted for the slinky, jazzy, midtempo soul ballad. Looking to soulful hip-hop and contemporary R&B, Jackson and her songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis created a lush, funky song that introduced audiences to a sexier, sultrier Janet Jackson. (There was a peek of this Janet Jackson in the Herb Ritts-directed video for “Love Will Never Do [Without You]” in 1990 that showed off the singer in a crop top instead of her patented boxy suits.) The accompanying music video was also startling. Instead of a high-impact clip with lots of special effects and split-second choreography, we see a sensual Jackson, baring her midriff, dancing suggestively with a male dancer. At the same time, other attractive and beautiful figures join. The vibe of the video is laidback and relaxed, reflecting the song’s languid tone. (Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a pre-superstar Jennifer Lopez dancing in the video.)
Debuting in the top 20, “That’s the Way Love Goes” went to number one in May, about a week before Janet debuted at number on the album charts. The single would become one of Jackson’s greatest hits, remaining at the top of the charts for eight weeks. The song also won the singer and her songwriting partners her first major Grammy for Best R&B Song. (Jackson’s first Grammy win was Best Music Video, Long Form for her Rhythm Nation short film in 1990.) Aside from the commercial and artistic accolades, the song also signaled a shift in urban-pop music that Jackson, Jam, and Lewis created: a new form of urban-pop that would incorporate New Jack Swing, pop, hip-hop, and soul, while still focusing on catchy pop hooks. This formula would be followed by Jackson’s dance-pop peers of the 1980s, including Karyn White, Jody Watley, Pebbles, Taylor Dayne, CeCe Peniston, and Paul Abdul, all of whom released records in the mid-1990s that took cues from Janet and “That’s the Way Love Goes”, specifically. Even the prescient Madonna adopted a downtempo soul sound for her 1994 album Bedtime Stories.
The other important aspect of “That’s the Way Love Goes” is that it emphasizes Jackson’s vocals. The subtle, restrained production, coupled with the midnight atmosphere, meant that Jackson’s singing was the song’s focal point. Jam & Lewis’ production was far more subdued than the work they had made for Jackson before. The pair pioneered a brand of funk-inspired synthpop in the 1980s with Control and Rhythm Nation, but for Janet, they turn the volume down on much of their work for their partner, instead allowing for sinewy grooves and soft, swinging beats to dominate. So, Jackson’s vocals were highlighted in this more relaxed musical soundscape.
Though Jackson was praised throughout her career for her music after Control, critics sometimes swiped at her voice. The consensus among her detractors was that though she was a talented vocalist, she possessed a thin, airy instrument, especially compared to powerhouse songbirds like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Therefore, in choosing “That’s the Way Love Goes” as the debut single for the album, Jackson has slyly selected a showcase for her underrated singing prowess. Singing in her trademark high register, Jackson emotes in a voice that’s agile and nimble, its soft prettiness a perfect compliment to the jazzy production. She sounds like a ’90s version of Lena Horne as she concentrates on phrasing and breath control. Jackson becomes a supreme song stylist and can silence her critics by proving that one doesn’t need a leather-lunged, multi-octave range to impress.
The sequencing of Janet has “That’s the Way Love Goes” be the first of a three-song suite that features a trio of hit singles. After the serene introduction to the album with “That’s the Way Love Goes”, the album launches into its first dance track, the propulsive “You Want This”. The final US single (released to radio in October of 1994), is a pounding, ripping banger that works its way off a fantastic sample of Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Love Child”. The music harkens back to the pop-feminism of Control, this time with Jackson laying down the rules of being her mate, with the savvy chorus chiming, “If you want my future / You better work it, boy / No, it won’t come easy, no / I know you want this / By the time I’m through with you, you’ll be begging me for more.” It’s a fantastic contrast to “That’s the Way Love Goes” because it features a loud and cacophonous production, quite expansive and dense, as opposed to the lean funk of the first track.
As with much of Jackson’s work, the accompanying visuals are key. Director Keir McFarlane was inspired by Russ Meyer’s 1965 b-movie classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Filmed in Palm Desert in California, the video has Jackson and her troupe of dancers leave a pokey motel in a caravan of convertibles, only to run into a pair of handsome studs whom they square off in a dance number choreographed by Tina Landon. Rap legend MC Lyte appears on the video version of the song (unfortunately, she is not on the album) and offers a scene-stealing cameo as she spits out a boastful rhyme with her inimitable poised delivery.
The final song on the trio of hits that kicks off Janet is “If”, a rocking dance song that, like “You Want This”, goes back to Motown and the Supremes – this time, lifting the iconic violin riff from “Someday We’ll Be Together”. The loud, heavy metallic sound of the track, with its crushing wall of studio effects and screeching guitars, will remind some listeners of the industrial sounds found in Rhythm Nation. The song featured tight harmonies, all performed by Jackson, with her vocals layered on each other as she sang in different registers and keys. She sings the verses rapidly, almost rapping, before crooning sweetly over the bridge and chorus. Despite the crush of sound, Jackson isn’t lost – she’s leading the charge with her vocals and her charisma. The lyrics of “If” also showcase a sexier, more explicit Jackson – this carnal side of the pop diva would be the dominant theme on the album and some of its publicity. In the September issue of Rolling Stone, Jackson appeared on the cover topless with a pair of man’s hands cupping her breasts. Patrick Demarchelier took the photograph; its cropped image became the album cover.
Released as the album’s second single, it would be another top-five hit for Jackson (her 14th) and become a classic in her storied discography. Though as impactful as the single was, it’s the music video that indeed remains. She has created memorable moments in music video history throughout Janet Jackson’s videography, most notably when marching in step with an army of background dancers in 1989’s “Rhythm Nation.” For “If”, she reunites with “Rhythm Nation” director Dominic Sena to create one of MTV’s most memorable dance sequences.
The video for “If” has Jackson and her dancers performing at a nightclub. After descending a small staircase to the main stage, she joins her dancers, who set to perform an intricate dance number conceived by Landon, Omar Lopez, and Keith Williams, with input by Jackson herself. It’s when the song crashes into its bridge when the screeching strings and the sawing violin sample from “Someday We’ll Be Together” that Jackson and company launch into the iconic dance break in which the crew moves from one side of the stage to the other, their arms slicing through the air in time with the strains of the strings. That dance routine would become the stuff of legend, echoing through popular culture. It would win two MTV Video Music Awards and be a crowning achievement in Jackson’s career.
Because dance is so important to Jackson’s sound, Jam & Lewis ensured that Janet’s core remained tied to dance music. On the house number, “Throb”, the trio takes the record to the clubs, incorporating acid-jazz, trip-hop, pop, and house. Like so much of the work on Janet, it’s quite experimental. Jackson’s presence in the song is minimal. As an intensely carnal piece like “If”, “Throb” prompted comparisons to Madonna‘s “Erotica”. Finding euphoria and joy in the deep house sound, Jackson and her writers sing the praises of classic ’90s house-pop song that manages to age well despite its stylish flourishes. Jam & Lewis move away from the Minneapolis Sound and fold in the continental sounds of European dance music, including UK acid-house.
Though Jackson was not raised in the clubs like many dance artists, throughout her career, she professed her love of dance music and club culture. With “Throb”, Jackson brings that love to her fans. Remixes of her songs have scored many nights in gay bars and dance clubs, and she’s rightly revered as a dance-music pioneer. So, her affection for club culture merged nicely with this tune, and when she performed it on tour, she would turn her stage into a dance club. She also brought the song to mainstream audiences on 14 May 1994 (a year after the album’s release, two days before her 28th birthday) when she was the musical guest on the 19th season finale of Saturday Night Live. That evening, she performed two songs, one of which was “Throb”. On the tight, intimate stage, she recreated a feeling of a dance club (her dancers prowled the stage in eccentric club gear), and she injected a queer eccentricity and sensibility into a show that was squarely aimed at mainstream comedy audiences.
Hollywood Calling: Janet Jackson and the Silver Screen
The summer that Janet was released, Jackson was not only unveiling a new sound, but she was also embarking on a new career: as a film actress. Though she started as a child star, appearing on shows like Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes, and Fame (as well as putting in guest appearances on The Love Boat and a host of variety TV including her own family’s musical series), Jackson’s film debut was met with some skepticism, particularly when the project was announced: John Singleton’s second film Poetic Justice.
By 1993, Singleton was an acclaimed director who stunned Hollywood with his brilliant debut, Boyz in the Hood (1991). Boyz in the Hood was a sensitive yet searing drama about a young man’s adolescence in South Central Los Angeles, where he must grow up around the ascendant gang culture. Singleton’s film earned him Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. It would become one of the defining films of 1990s cinema and made Singleton a respected auteur.
For his second film, he chose to write a romantic drama centered on two guarded and emotionally distant characters. Though far more intimate in scope than his first film, Singleton did fold in issues of gang culture and gang violence in Poetic Justice but focused more on the burgeoning love between his two lead characters. Jackson would be cast as his heroine, Justice, and Singleton’s leading man would be Tupac Shakur. Though Singleton would audition other actresses for the role, he always had Jackson in mind when writing the screenplay.
For Poetic Justice, Jackson, Jam, & Lewis collaborated on the film’s theme song, “Again”. A stirring and moving piano ballad, “Again” was a grand, orchestral pop ballad. Jackson fronts a full orchestra with regal strings and a melancholy piano to match her anguished performance. The song is a minor triumph, mainly because Jackson can wring true emotion and genuine pathos; she does so by using the fragility of her voice to embody the loss and regret in the lyrics. With “Again”, Jackson showed that one doesn’t need to run a marathon of vocal scales or cram as many high notes as possible in one syllable to sing a beautiful ballad. With an understated yet compelling presence, Jackson does a beautiful job of offering a tear-stained performance.
Poetic Justice would be an important moment in Jackson’s career not just because she would be making her first foray as a film star but because she earned an Oscar nomination for “Again”. Dressed in a beautiful ivory suit, Jackson performed the song at the 66th Academy Awards during a pop-heavy night that saw performers Dolly Parton and James Ingram, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen (who won for “Streets of Philadelphia” from Jonathan Demme’s drama Philadelphia). The honor wasn’t simply a heady accomplishment; it was yet another indicator of just how well-established Jackson’s career became and how successful she was at deftly wresting her way out from under her brother’s shadow.
What Janet established was Jackson’s superstardom on its terms. She was rarely attached to Michael Jackson’s celebrity. By 1993, she was a major celebrity in her own right and wasn’t merely reduced to Michael’s sister. The 1990s saw the Jacksons go through some of the most tumultuous times in the family’s history: Michael was facing child molestation accusations, sister LaToya joined in the allegations, and brother Jermaine had released a song slamming him. The Jacksons tried to pay tribute to their legacy with the ill-fated television special, The Jackson Family Honors, aired in April 1994.
Though the special was heavily hyped as a reunion, Janet Jackson gave a perfunctory performance of “Alright” from her Rhythm Nation album before leaving. The special lost money and was mired in lawsuits. So even if the Jacksons were going through a decennium horrendum, Janet Jackson was above the controversies, her media coverage focusing on her music and career and largely away from her personal life or her relationship with her famous family.
The Social and Political Themes of ‘Janet’
So even though Janet was a concerted effort to distance the singer from her family’s history, the record was a celebration of Black pop history and Black culture. Though Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis introduced sampling in Jackson’s music on Rhythm Nation, they continued the practice with the songs on Janet, looking to soul music, funk, and Motown. Not only did Jackson, Jam, and Lewis pay homage to the music that influenced her sound (as well as her brothers’ music), but they also found inspiration in Black culture in the songs.
“Funky Big Band” was a dance-funk jazz number set at the legendary Lenox Lounge in Harlem, New York. Great jazz artists like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. A central place during the Harlem Renaissance, the late Lenox Lounge was a historic fount of vivid culture and music. On “Funky Big Band”, Jackson plays the role of a scatting jazz chanteuse, fronting a loud, funk-fueled big band. The lyrics also allude to an inherent soulfulness, a sensibility when she sings of Harlem, crooning, “Harlem is the place, where you’ll find the face / Of those who feel the groove / It’s not taught to thee / But it’s born to we.” She honors the history of Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance, and Black music history. She highlights the legacy and birthright of Black performers, who are part of a large and vibrant history.
On “A New Agenda”, Jackson joins Chuck D of Public Enemy to celebrate Black feminism. The lyrics of the song are confrontational and militant, decrying the racist and sexist history of the United States. “History hidden from me,” she charged, “To hide my identity / So I’d never feel / I am somebody.” These words speak to the scarcity of Black history in American education, condemning the erasure of Black people from American history education. (These lyrics have become all the more timely during the current rash of book banning and whitewashing of education in US red states.)
For Jackson’s career from Control, her albums were built around a theme. For Control, she and her collaborators wrote songs about self-empowerment and pop feminism. When Rhythm Nation was released, Jackson, Jam, and Lewis took to music to critique social ills like gang violence, the scourge of drugs, and urban blight. For Janet, the theme could be seen as flourishing as an artist. She embraces the maturity and development of her sexuality and political identity, and in the process, she creates beautiful music.