Monday, May 11, 2009
Give Janet Jackson Her Due
I'd like to have a conversation about our failure to properly recognize the musical and cultural contributions of some of our most talented and innovative recording artists. It is no coincidence that they are usually female....and African-American. Quick: name a current female MC or rap artist who's currently in the Top Ten...Twenty....Thirty?. Exactly.
So you'd think a superstar like Janet Jackson would have been able to avoid showing up on the Missing Music Artist files but such is the fate of many undeserving talents. Now I am unable to offer a complete analysis of the ins and outs of maintaining a career in music industry, but I can tell you the times produce the artists - not the other way around.
If people started demanding quality music and stopped supporting the lowest common denomination perpetrators this flood of Auto-tuned, low grade, embarrassing fakeness would end with a quickness. Some people have a vested interest in promoting the gutter because it fits into their disempowerment plans. There was and still remains racism and sexism at play that marginalizes many great creative talents.
I'm also sure many can recall the Dallas Austin "effing for tracks" video that was pulled from the internet. It highlighted the practice where many female artists have sex with male producers for favors and a choice selection of songs. I bet we could go down a list of artists that draw a question mark as how they got a record deal, why they were "dating" so and so and who got promoted by their label - and who didn't. After he almost went to prison for having drugs in Dubai you would've thought Austin would've learned a little humility and the art of keeping your mouth shut - but I digress.
I also can only offer my opinion on what Ms. Jackson is using for inspiration these days. I think she was at her best when she had a message that was focused on something productive. First it was autonomy, next it was social justice and later it was her exploration of her sexuality. For me personally I felt she lost her voice when she listened to other people telling her to compete directly with Madonna and/or believed those that would give her credit for being innovative but not Janet. I don't know if this actually happened, but I noticed a huge shift in her public persona and music. Some of which I felt wasn't authentic and didn't necessarily care for.
Perhaps it was insecurity or a response to being thought of as less than. The focus on securing male validation felt like an abandonment of her earlier progressiveness. We know how African-American are constantly under assault and have internalized indoctrination of worthlessness. Just look at what Lil Kim has done to her face and body as proof of that. Being famous and wealthy does not provide cover or relief for that. Black women's bodies have been promoted by others to be open, available and unrapeable. Can I be blunt? When the breasts started going out on window display Jackson alienated me as an early fan.
Either way Jackson was on the verge of a career resurgence when the ill-fated SuperBowl mishap occurred. We'll never know whether it was an accident or a publicity stunt run amuck, but the damage to her career had been severe. A hint of decollate wasn't the same thing as the full monty and she got a lot of negative feedback. If you do a Google search the #2 subject after her name is "wardrobe malfunction". It's been years and people are still talking or thinking about it. I've made my feelings clear on this: Justin Timberlake got away with murder while Janet has been hung out to dry. That's racialized sexism at its bloody worst.
I'd like to focus on the positive though and I'm certain that Ms. Jackson is capable of being musically relevant again IF she is willing to return to a message of uplift or something else with a deeper meaning. The "I'm so breathy, cute and sexy" look doesn't work with Mariah Carey and it doesn't work with Jackson either. We are capable of dancing to something of substance just as easily as something of folly. The (0ver)sexualized imagery smacks of desperation - at least to me and was too close to being compared to Madonna. The same Madonna that thinks nothing of lifting bits and pieces of everybody else's culture and creating a new image around it. I usually liked her but I was always amazed how her whiteness protected her scrutiny of it. That may not be a fair comparison or situation for they are two different artists....but I think there's a certain racism prevalent where a Black woman will always be demonized for being sexually "free" in a public forum. Jackson has far too much talent to rely on displaying her body and relying on youth for appeal.
In the meantime, we have Janet's amazing body of work to review. We can see her influence across a spectrum of artists. She deserves the credit, yet so many of Jackson's most ardent copiers (thieves!) have the nerve to give it to Madonna. Some of us aren't fooled - or impressed. I can write about and speak about it, but let's look at the evidence: music videos. See for yourself.
See this video where Janet turns the tables on the typical male female dynamic. Almost masculine imagery as the women take on an aggressive role, initiate the contact and control its execution. What was empowering is that they did not leave with the male romantic interests but left them in the dust - literally. This is an empowering message for women regardless of their orientation as well. I'd love to have discussion of this video from the LGBT community.
Compare this in contrast to the rather backwards pining of Beyonce and crew for a "hood" guy and the hyper masculine images on display. The role of the men are limited by definition. Further this is problematic in it being the only depiction of the Black male. Hood, ghetto, tough, animalistic even. They were trying to control the beast of the hip-hop misogyny with fake empowerment. Soldier = Thug = Criminal.
There are many other artists who've been influenced by Jackson but I want to keep this post somewhat brief. What are your favorite Janet Jackson videos, songs and what impact has her career had on you?