USA/Janet Jackson: Pop Music’s Most Disrespected Icon
How a legend got reduced to a “raunchy pop star.”
Even by tabloid standards, the crudely constructed headline, “From raunchy pop star to Muslim single mum at 50 – just what is going on with Janet Jackson?,” the brazen query from UK rag the Daily Mirror had all the subtlety of a sexual harassment employee video starring FOX News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the underlying fact that one of music’s most successful and culturally influential acts has been reduced to a “raunchy pop star.”
Yes, Janet Jackson — a woman who has sold over 100 million albums, becoming the blueprint for aspiring starlets worldwide who could unleash every eye-cutting note and body rolling move from 1987’s iconic “The Pleasure Principle” clip by heart — has become the most disrespected pop behemoth this side of Mariah Carey.
Such is the indignity of being the veteran singer and actress who is currently dominating the news cycle following her separation from her Muslim billionaire husband, Wissam Al Mana. Much of the coverage of the 50-year-old music legend’s split has trafficked largely in misogynistic conspiracy theories and innuendo that would have you believe that Janet, who is reportedly worth more than $250 million, gave birth to a miracle child and broke it off with Mana precisely at the five-year mark to tap into an unsubstantiated prenuptial agreement reportedly worth $500 million. Following the news of the breakup, social media went into a gossiping frenzy. “Janet Jackson is a scammer…Lol she got that baby and split…Collect that child support boo,” said one critic on Twitter. “Janet Jackson just showed us that marriage is nothing more than a wedding ring and business,” claimed another.
So how did we get to the point where an iconic artist who has amassed her own sizable fortune is suddenly demonized as a gold digging, loveless, calculating bed wench? You’d have to go back to the black nipple that flashed the world; that is, Janet’s infamous 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show performance, for which she was painted in a worse light than the CEO of United Airlines after former N’SYNC member turned blue-eyed-soul great white hope Justin Timberlake pulled the Control star’s bustier to reveal a barely covered breast. Almost overnight, the Grammy-winning diva saw her career flatline as radio stations dropped her from their playlists.
And while Jackson, who was publicly forced to do everything but carry a cross to atone for her alleged sins, managed to make a moderate comeback with her 11th studio album, 2015’s Unbreakable, and a well-received concert tour (postponed following news that the singer and her Qatari husband were expecting a baby), it has been strange, side-eye-inducing times for the music legend.
Most glaring is the puzzling case of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s continued snubbing of Janet, who received her first nomination in 2015, despite being eligible since 2007. According to veteran author and music journalist Alan Light, who serves on the RRHOF’s nominating committee, he is just as baffled at the institution’s disposable treatment of JJ. “To me, if Madonna goes in first ballot, but Janet Jackson goes on the ballot and doesn’t get in, there’s something happening,” he told me, making a reasonable comparison between the former pop peers and rivals. “How could one of them get in and not the other? I think it’s because Madonna is seen as having a more rock and roll attitude whereas Janet is seen as more of a dance artist.”
Well, that’s part of the reason. There’s also the Hall’s abysmal treatment of female artists, their rockist approach to black- and gay-anchored dance music and its massive blind spot for any R&B music released post 1978. And yet, your mind races back to those loud, triggering words “raunchy pop star…single mum.” It doesn’t matter that Janet can proudly point to six multi-platinum albums, including the aforementioned 1986 album Control, 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and janet., all landmark, empowering statements that have influenced everyone from Adele to Beyoncé. Or that, according to Billboard, Jackson has knocked out 10 Hot 100 No. 1s and 27 Top 10 singles, placing her in the same company as Elton John and Carey.
Nor does it matter that Janet broke new ground after signing a record-breaking recording contract in 1991 worth $32 million and was truthfully doing her larger-than-life sibling Michael a favor when she contributed to their hit duet “Scream” (The late Gloved One was still repairing a somewhat tarnished image after unproven accusations of child sexual abuse and needed a boost from his “hotter” baby sis).
To a good segment of American society, Janet Jackson is viewed no different than any other Black woman: a mere punching bag filled with baby mama tropes, “nappy headed ho” put downs (thanks French Montana), angry black woman archetypes, overtly sexualized twerkers and scheming, money-grubbing thots looking for the next come-up. It’s a sobering reality that White House correspondent April Ryan, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, 22-year-old waitress Maryam Barksdale and even former First Lady Michelle Obama know all too well.
And it’s the same double standard of reality in which a blond Madonna, who once released a nude, explicit coffee table book entitled Sex, can be celebrated for smashing patriarchal constrictions and waving the flag for female empowerment while Janet is dismissed as a freak during her bondage-indulging apex on 1997’s underrated The Velvet Rope.
It’s black and white.