While every day should celebrate one of music’s most undeservedly underrated legends, there’s no better day than the Super Bowl to give Janet Jackson her due. After all, the 2004 Halftime Show infamously derailed her career in a stunning conflagration of misogyny, racism, and Jackson-ism. Jackson went from being one of the biggest hitmakers of all time (she logged 25 top-ten singles and ten number-one singles from 1986 to 2002) to being persona non grata, with her legacy diminishing as a result.
Thankfully, a more modern look at the controversy (including the acknowledgement that Les Moonves hypocritically targeted her while carrying on years of sexual harassment and abuse) has given Jackson a long-overdue reset. For my part, I’ve pulled together an admittedly-short retrospective of the diva’s career to educate those who only know her for that “wardrobe malfunction.” Let the below list introduce you to a woman who inspired a generation of pop stars (yes, including Justin Timberlake) and set musical and performance standards that very few artists have hopes of reaching today.
What Have You Done For Me Lately? (1986)
The hard-driving beat, the fierce vocal delivery that doubles as cross examination, and that timeless question. Janet exploded onto the music scene after two mild, non-descript albums with the landmark Control and its undeniable lead single. Janet reintroduced herself to the world with a funkified, ridiculously danceable call-to-arms for women stuck in stagnant relationships that served as the blueprint for countless kiss-offs (if you love “No Scrubs” by TLC, you can thank Janet Jackson). With “What Have You Done ForMe Lately,” Janet was no longer Michael’s precious little sister. She was a pop star to be reckoned with, and this was only the beginning.
“No, my first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet, Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.” Just in case you thought she was playing around with her first single, “Nasty” and its sledgehammer beats smashes you right back in line. “Nasty,” a fiery admonishment of men who lack respect is pure, unadulterated attitude. With a slightly menacing vocal, Janet put a generation of men on notice: Ms. Jackson was and never will be the one to try it with.
Rhythm Nation (1989)
If Control was a mission statement of intent, then its follow-up Rhythm Nation 1814 was the realization of Janet’s raw power and how it can be wielded for good. The album’s title track, a demand for social justice before the phrase was common amongst the pop culture lexicon, rewrote the rules for how pop music and political awareness engaged with each other. The industrialized R&B production would set Top 40’s course for at least the next five years, and its instantly iconic black-and-white militarized video sits at the zenith of the art form. “Rhythm Nation” may not have been a number-one hit, but its impact in undeniable. It’s more than a landmark single and her signature song: it’s Janet’s legacy.
Come Back to Me (1990)
Janet is primarily known for being an R&B-dance pioneer who can command even the firmest wallflower to the dancefloor, but she was just as effective as a balladeer. Case in point: “Come Back to Me” from Rhythm Nation 1814, and the second ballad she released as a single (after the abstinence anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile”). What sets Janet apart in her ballad performances is the intense emotional vulnerability she conveys. Wrapped in a warm, gentle quiet storm production, Janet sings about missing her lover with such quiet desperation that it’s bound to break your heart. Janet may not have the overwhelming vocal power that was standard for female pop divas of the time, but her ability to make an impact was just as profound.
As impactful as Rhythm Nation 1814’s heavy industrial production and social commentary is, “Escapade” is a welcome respite. Janet strips of the the military jacket for a joyous and buoyant detour into pure pop nirvana, recalling previous hits “The Pleasure Principle” and “When I Think of You.” Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis keep the dancing diva grounded with a new jack swing edge, but you can literally hear the smile on her face as she sings about a much-needed reprieve from the worries of life. When she tells you to have a good time, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason to defy her.
Love Will Never Do (Without You) (1991)
My personal favorite, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” was a turning point for the superstar. After years of artfully dodging it (and even preaching abstinence in the sweet “Let’s Wait Awhile”), this R&B-pop confection found Janet flirting with the sexier sides of her persona, setting the stage for the sexual liberation that would define the rest of her career. In a stroke of brilliance, Janet sings the verses in two registers to mimic the song’s original intentions as a duet: a deeply sensuous lower and a fun and flirty upper. Proof of Janet’s dimensions as a singer and artist, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” topped the charts two years after Rhythm Nation 1814’s release, making her the first artist to land number-one singles from one album in three separate calendars.
That’s The Way Love Goes (1993)
Armed with a new, record-breaking album contract and a new grip on her sexual power, Janet once again shattered people’s expectations of her, and what a female pop star could do. “That’s The Way Love Goes,” the first single from Janet., traded out Minneapolis new jack swing for straight-up quiet-storm R&B with a funky edge. Janet’s breathy confidence in how she could please her lover was stunning in how effortless it sounded, making for one of the sexiest singles that Top 40 radio ever heard. It would end up being her longest-running number-one single, proving that Janet could push boundaries and still score on the charts.
Did you know that Janet Jackson was once nominated for an Oscar? Janet penned “Again,” the love theme for her feature film debut Poetic Justice and scored landed in the Best Original Song category in 1994, with good reason. Easily one of her best ballads, “Again” tells the story of a woman succumbing to the memories of a past lover, even though she knows she shouldn’t. Amidst tragically romantic strings and piano, Janet takes her vocals’ ability to convey heartbreaking vulnerability to the next level, turning in her best vocal performance ever.
What happens when two of biggest pop stars in the world, who just happen to be siblings, join forces on a track? You get “Scream,” the first single from Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, a clashing, crashing rebuke of the world that turned on him. To get the point across, Michael enlisted his sister, who clearly had her own steam to burn off, matching his trademark vocal ferocity with her own. As furious and fierce as “Scream” is on its own, the gargantuan-budgeted music video is the true delight. The landmark video casts the Jacksons into space, where they could find solace from the grind of being icons in dancing, smashing expensive-looking decor, video games, and each other.
Got ’til It’s Gone (1997)
Borne from a bout of crippling depression, The Velvet Rope bravely explored some of the deepest parts of the biggest commercial music artists of all time. The album’s lead single was just risky, opting for the burgeoning neo-soul and alternative hip-hop sounds instead of the R&B and pop that audiences were used to. Built on an incredibly smart sample of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and featuring a killer verse from rapper Q-Tip, “Got ’til It’s Gone” may sound like an easy, laid-back groove, but it crackles with the darker energies that would define Janet’s most personal album.
Together Again (1997)
The Velvet Rope is a deep, complex album that finds Janet grappling with everything from her mental health to her evolving interests in sex. The number-one single “Together Again” offers the listener some breathing room amidst the heavier material. The R&B-house blend is one of the most danceable songs on the album, while also serving as a graceful, even joyous tribute to victims of the AIDS virus. It may seem straightforward compared to the emotional nakedness of “Empty” and “Every Time,” but “Together Again” is a triumph of the effortless hit-making that Janet was known for, while also offering encouragement and compassion in the face of devastating loss.
I Get Lonely (1998)
“I Get Lonely” is a pure R&B and soul masterpiece, hands down. The third single from “The Velvet Rope” takes Janet to incredibly soulful new depths as she unpacks the soul-consuming isolation that follows lost love. The passion in her voice is palpable and downright disarming, one of her strongest vocal performances. As achingly vulnerable as the song is lyrically, the production is incredibly rich, helping the song sound both timeless and current, no matter when you play it. Of all of Janet’s hits that didn’t go number-one, “I Get Lonely” is the most deserving of the top spot.
All For You (2001)
After the intensity of The Velvet Rope, All For You was a return to form of sorts for Janet. Newly single and ready to mingle at the turn of the millennium, Janet sampled soul classic “The Glow of Love” for her album’s title track to explore the annals of dating. Entering her third decade as a pop superstar, Janet sounds just as youthful and free as she did in the 80’s, albeit with a wealth of experience and sexual confidence that brims across this delightful pop confection.
I Want You (2004)
The Super Bowl controversy sank Damita Jo and any chance it had of spurning any hit singles. Had ViacomCBS (which owned virtually every music promotional tool in the United States) not blackballed her, “I Want You,” the charming doo-wop-styled ballad would’ve easily been a top-ten hit. Janet sings about her desire with a sweetness and vulnerability that’s as irresistible as her smile in the music video. If there is one song from Janet’s blacklist era that deserves a second look (besides, well, all of them), it’s this one.
After four years in pop culture jail, “Feedback” should’ve been Janet’s “get out of jail free” card. The fizzy, funky track beat the electro-pop craze that would take over the Top 40 airwaves by a full year, and was accompanied by one of her most visually engaging music videos. Alas, the radio airwave freeze against her hadn’t completely thawed, limiting the song’s success and dampening the chances of its parent album Discipline. The fact that “Feedback” even peaked at #19 (her first top-twenty entry since 2001’s “Someone To Call My Lover”) is practically a miracle.