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.

The Imitator
The Originator

More Evidence
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?
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sally said...

I love me some Janet, pre-wardrobe malfunction. Her newer stuff just hasn't held my attention, but I never realized why and I think you're right in your speculation about why there was a shift.

Pleasure Principle is still my favorite Janet song, but it's hard for me to even choose a favorite album because I love Rhythm Nation and Janet equally with Control and Velvet Rope right behind those. The themes covered through those albums are so varied and so relevant that I can pick a song for almost every mood I have.

I would say the biggest impact for me has been the sexuality element. To stick with Madonna as an example, I've always seen her sexuality as intentionally shocking. She tries to make people uncomfortable and purposely push their buttons, so while I was happy that she went there, I didn't relate to it. Meanwhile, I always saw Janet's expression of her sexuality much more shocking because it seemed to be completely genuine and raw. When I became comfortable enough to listen to Janet and Velvet Rope without skipping tracks, I felt very encouraged to be more open about being sexual and enjoying the pleasure we're taught to ignore.

Damn, you've really got me thinking a lot about this now. Maybe I'll need to write a post.

Oh, one last thing, how much do I HATE that stupid Soldier song!!!! All my friends loved that song and I was always like huh? I don't want this weird stereotypical guy she keeps singing about... Though Lil Wayne's line is high-larious! "I blend in with the hood, I'm camouflage." Alright Lil Wayne, alright.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Frau Sally Benz: Welcome and thanks for commenting. I wish there was a way to transfer comments left on Twitter to import to the Blogger comment section! The conversations over there are always entertaining! I'm going to read your post now.

Citizen Ojo said...

My wife is under the impression that she is the #1 Janet Jackson Fan in America. She will hate me for this but I believe Janet is past her time. It's hard for artists from the 80's to endure long lasting careers. Sure people are still performing but they don't have the crowds they once had. Janet was unable to change with the times. Does that speak against her talent....nope. It just means that she was not able to adapt. Her recent work comes off as someone trying to compete with Ciara, Keisha Cole etc etc... Really!! It is pointless for her to do that. Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Baud prove that you don't have to be sexy to sell records. Janet is at the point where she can't dance around on stage anymore but she can't do an Anita Baker on us either. I think she should focus on the fans that have been with her. Create music that they would love and appreciate. Because these new jacks (music listeners of today) are the worst. They wouldn't know talent if it bit them in their behinds.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Citizen Ojo: I don't agree obviously. Madonna's still out and I really hate all her work with the latest rap artist du jour but notice she's trying to stay relevant. Janet has influenced a lot the artists you mentioned so she isn't copying them, they're copying her. The only difference is they're younger. And I'd loathe to declare Badu, Scott, et al aren't sexy: they don't try to have their sexiness validated by men and center their careers around appealing to them. Notice the female artists that do tend to have a very short shelf life to make room for the next crop of what I call cock humpers. I have to be brutal. It's disgusting and it needs to be said. Janet had an innocence that was refreshing and substance. If she can reclaim her substance and connect with an audience again her career resurgence will be set.

Lady M said...

New to the site, and so far, I'm liking it.

Janet Jackson is one of my favorite artists of all time. I sometimes get the side-eye because I listen to her a lot... especially after the wardrobe malfunction. I lost a bit of respect for JT after that incident, he just shoved her under the bus. I really think she could come back, if she toned down all the sex just a little. She could always go into acting more if she wanted to.

My fav Janet songs are "Let's Wait Awhile", "What Have You Done For Me Lately", and "If", and I loved "Scream" with Michael. Lil' Mama also imitated that video for "Shawty get Loose". I did like "Feedback", off her most recent album, nice video, too.

Dead at "cock humpers" see Ciara's "Love, Sex, Magic" video with JT for a visual representation of that, if needed.

Khadija said...


Thank you for this post. Words cannot describe how deeply annoyed I've been over the years at how Janet Jackson has been robbed of her due. I'm probably one of the few listeners who has been a fan of hers over the years since her single (waaaay back in the day) "Come Give Your Love to Me." LOL!

Part of the problem is of her own making (perhaps due to insecurity). It seems that she never developed a game plan for how she was going to market herself once she went past the age where it's appropriate to have "I shake my groove thang" as one's primary calling card.

As you noted, Madonna (at age 50-ish) can get away with that stuff, but not Janet in her young 40s. Oh, and about Madonna: I was also there at the beginning of her career. [I was in college when Borderline, Lucky Star, etc. came out.] At the time, I couldn't stand her. I recall her "strategic dating" of a producer named John "Jellybean" Benitez at the time. Hmmph.

I also couldn't stomach the huge "Boy Toy" belt buckle she ran around in during those days. Most of my friends characterized her as a "No-singing, no-dancing whore." This was because WE could perform the dance steps to her videos. And we DID, as a form of mockery whenever the Lucky Star video came on in any of the campus tv rooms.[LOL!]

I didn't think Madonna would make it past 2 albums. Who knew she would still be around 25 years later?!! I must admit that I do admire her cunning and ability to repackage herself over the years. And I'll 'fess up: I own several of her cds. LOL!

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Citizen Ojo said...

The artists that I did mention - you are correct in that they are sexy. They don't put it out for everyone to see. I will have to disagree with the statment of Janet influencing them (based on what they do and what she did). BUT I say that with the fact that I don't know their influences personally. I will agree that Back in the day Janet provided substance that we could use today. (that is an aspect of the artists that I mentioned that makes them stand out). Great discussion. I'm going to add you to my blog roll.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Welcome Lady M: Thanks for visiting. As much disdain as I have for Timbersnake's cowardice I will concede a little to the fact that he's younger and the role Jackson may have played (if any) has yet to be determined. She got the full backlash though regardless. I've seen the new Ciara video. There was a time that would've gotten an "R" rating and only been played at midnight ostensibly so the kiddies couldn't watch it - but the kiddies of today may very well be doing what they're seeing in the video b4 it even aired.

Hey Khadija: Welcome back from your mini-break! Hope you're rested. I can admit w/o shame that I love many Madonna CDs as I can listen to them and enjoy them w/o the video as the songs are good. I have a lot of respect for Jackson but I haven't felt that way about her music for a very long time. She fought to get out of the shadow of her brother for so many years too. Madonna has an uncanny tenacity and desire to survive that I think is useful for AA women to adopt. Funny you mention the dating strategies she used as well. Since so many female artists are pimped out for as little as free studio time Madonna wasn't going to be used and get nothing back! Again...a valuable life strategy (callous but smart).

Citizen Ojo: To be clear, I wasn't referring to Badu or Scott being influenced by Jackson. Who were the AA female dancer/singers out in the late 70's-mid 80's that would've influenced the current under 30 dancer/singers: Jody Watley and Janet Jackson. Jackson achieved superstar status when the Ciara's were young girls and definitely would've been a huge influence. It's simple math, but we don't have to agree. Thanks for the blog roll!