The New Janet Jackson Documentary Proves She’s Always Been In Control

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A solitary Janet Damita Jo Jackson, clad in a cropped denim jacket and black jeans, enters a warehouse, turns the lights on, and begins one of the most iconic and recognizable music videos ever. “The Pleasure Principle,” the second single from Jackson’s third album Control would become the then 21-year-old’s room-shaking (re)introduction to the world. The video, perhaps even more important than the song itself, features her signature sharp choreo, with Jackson dancing alone in front of a mirror, accompanied by only a chair and a microphone. It’s almost hard to believe that this five-minute and 13-second video would single-handedly influence generations — yes, plural — of pop stars to come in the 35 years since its release. Jackson didn’t just inspire artists, from Britney Spears to Tinashe to Beyoncé, she birthed them.

As her new, two-night, four-hour, self-executive produced documentary, Janet Jackson, debuts today, retrospectives on her massive career abound. The stats are dizzying: five Grammy awards, 10 MTV Video Music Awards, 11 American Music Awards, over 160 million records sold, Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated, and the second most winningest artist of the Soul Train Music Awards’ history (second only to Beyoncé). It is an astonishing testament to Jackson’s magnitude as an artist that the fact that her older brother is Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is one of the more unremarkable things about her. But, as the documentary details, the road to icon status was a hard fought battle that Jackson is only now taking in and reflecting on. After decades of being tabloid fodder and the subject of unauthorized documentaries and biographies, she’s finally taking control of her story.

Jackson is candid and transparent in the documentary, answering questions and sharing never-before-seen footage that even the most diehard fans will appreciate. Her legacy has been handled with care — maybe a little too carefully. It’s hard not to wonder how objective a subject can be when self-producing their own documentary. But this is Janet Jackson, a rare celebrity who is adverse to over sharing. The documentary reveals as much as you would expect from the icon — so, not much. Still, it is evident that Jackson wants to pull the curtain back a bit, and share more of herself with those of us who are most keen to know.

Jackson didn’t owe us anything else in her already long and admirable career. It would have been understandable if she wanted to draw the curtains shut and call it a wrap on the industry and public who had abandoned her. Frankly, we didn’t deserve her.

Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Janet was the youngest of 10 in the musical Jackson family. Her debut album entered the charts when she was only 15, but Jackson was already a seasoned vet in entertainment. Through acting in The Jacksons variety show, timeless classic TV shows Good Times, and Fame, she would go on to win America’s heart with her signature smile pushing high into her trademark cheekbones. Despite her own successes, though, she was still a hyphenate, a footnote attached to her magnanimous brother, Michael.

Old interview footage in the documentary reminds us that wherever she went, Janet was still, in the media’s eye, second to Michael, a conduit to get closer to her megastar sibling. “When you have the last name Jackson, there’s a certain microscope they want to use with that,” Janet says in the doc. She details how Michael’s scandals, most famously, his child sex abuse accusations, had ripple effects on her own career. Her support for her brother made her seem, in her words, “guilty by association.” And it appears that others agreed. On the verge of signing a Coca-Cola sponsorship deal, what would have been the biggest endorsement of her career at the time (in 1994), the company pulled out at the last minute.

The rift between Jackson and her brother, which she says began during the release of Thriller, only continued to grow. The star remembers struggling with her body image as young as 10, exacerbated by Michael’s hurtful name-calling. He often called her horrible things like “pig” or “cow.” This contributed to her complicated relationship with food and her weight, an issue that Jackson says persists to this day. Despite their relationship growing increasingly distant over the years, she still wanted to rekindle the closeness of their childhood.

Jackson recounts being hurt by Michael’s team keeping her away from the star during the shooting of the “Scream” music video. With opposite shooting schedules, she recalls feeling confused and hurt, “I felt like they were trying to make it very competitive between the two of us… I was there fighting the battle with him, not against him.” It’s not easy to carve out a name and lane for yourself when your older brother is Michael Jackson. It’s made only more difficult when the public is quick to judge you for his sins (I do wish Janet would have directly addressed his alleged victims) and when your attachment to your sibling throws up roadblocks on that lane you’ve tirelessly built. But Jackson’s power is that her ambition is fueled only by the desire to be better — for nobody but herself.

“She never said she wanted to beat Michael,” Jimmy Jam, of the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis duo, who wrote and produced many of Jackson’s hits, says. “The competition was more within herself to beat herself, to be the best that she could be.” Jackson has always been solely focused on creating art that made sense to her; others seeing themselves in it was an added bonus. For me growing up watching Jackson, it was revelatory to see a dynamic Black girl growing into a woman, allowing herself to extend into the corners of her femininity as she defined them.

As Jackson’s career trajectory continued upwards, the culture that owed so much to her would turn on the singer. Enter the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime show, perhaps the most controversial moment of her career. Jackson, alongside co-performer Justin Timberlake, shouldered all of the blame for the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” seen around the world. The fallout from the incident resulted in Jackson’s quasi-exile from the music industry. Forced to apologize for something Jackson didn’t herself do (never forget that Timberlake was an active participant in the onstage stunt), she was subsequently uninvited from the Grammys and effectively blacklisted by the entire industry.

Timberlake, who received almost no backlash at the time, went on to perform at the Grammys the very next week and didn’t issue a formal apology to Jackson until last year, an astounding 17 years later. While I haven’t seen the episode that deals with Jackson’s reaction to the fallout from the incident (media was only provided with screeners for part one of the doc), it is rumored that Timberlake makes a surprise appearance in part two, airing Saturday. It will be interesting to see whether Jackson and Timberlake reconcile, and I’m curious to know how she sees the moment almost two decades later. I’ll admit that I’m less invested in hearing Timberlake’s thoughts. The many missed (avoided?) opportunities to come to Jackson’s defense has left me apathetic to any excuses or reasoning he may offer.

Black women have always been seen as disposable profit machines for an industry that runs on misogyny and racism. And Jackson wasn’t immune to the fickle winds of fame. Her eighth studio album, Damita Jo, was released the next month, in March 2004, to favorable critical reviews and eventually went platinum. But because CBS and Viacom had incurred massive fines from the FCC following a probe into the crassly-named “Nipplegate” incident, a widespread embargo was enforced on Jackson’s songs and videos. Damita Jo was her lowest-selling album since 1984 and Jackson had become Public Enemy #1.

Jackson didn’t owe us anything else in her already long and admirable career. It would have been understandable if she wanted to draw the curtains shut and call it a wrap on the industry and public who had abandoned her. Frankly, we didn’t deserve her.

Janet Jackson shows us a girl all grown up. She’s still soft-spoken, quiet, and careful with her words, but there is an unmistakable assuredness emanating from her. This is a woman who knows who she is.

In the documentary, we hear Jackson describe her early years of naïveté and you can feel her frustration. She describes being taken advantage of, starting young. Her first marriage to James Debarge, when she was only 18, ended in an annulment a year later due to his drug use (and, for the record, they never had a secret baby). “I was just incredibly innocent.” Jackson recalls. Following the controversial implosion of her marriage and facing her stalled music career after two unsuccessful albums, Jackson recognized something drastic had to change. Her life, as we see in the documentary, is a symphony of do-overs. Unafraid of tearing it all down to start again, Jackson never stuck to a formula. She was always tinkering, reformatting.

The release of Control was a pointed, in-your-face reclamation of the steering wheel of her life. Rhythm Nation, the follow up to Control was massively anticipated. But no one expected the star to make a socially-conscious album. And frankly, neither did she. Throughout the doc, this is what Jackson wants you to know about her. She’s no phoenix, incinerating into ashes. No, an icon like Jackson is the incinerator. She is the one that burns through the successes, the failures, missed targets, and pain. Hers is a flame that may fluctuate in intensity but it remains burning nevertheless, always clearing a path for lush, new growth.

Throughout her life and career, Jackson has been uncomfortable with the assigned hyperbole and pretense that comes with fame. As Jackson now prepares to enter into her 60s, she has parsed through the noise thrust upon her by the vestiges of her last name and demanded that the world reckon with Janet Jackson — period. Janet Jackson shows us a girl all grown up. She’s still soft-spoken, quiet, and careful with her words, but there is an unmistakable assuredness emanating from her. This is a woman who knows who she is. Establishing and maintaining a career in both music and acting is a tall task in itself, but to create a legacy that has since generated powerful contemporaries in their own right is Herculean. Whether it’s her legendary music videos, breathless choreography, eclectic fashion sense ranging from streamlined suits to military-inspired stage costumes to comfy grunge looks that all channeled her Black, feminine essence, or instantly recognizable roles like Justice in the 1993 cult classic film, Poetic Justice, (a role that has become a consummate rite of passage Black girl Halloween costume), Jackson isn’t simply a pop culture icon, she is pop culture.

It’s been seven years since Jackson’s last album release, but you would never know according to her fans, infamously and doggedly protective of their Queen of R&B. 2021 saw the 35th anniversary of the release of Control and fans wasted no time launching the album to the number one spot on Apple’s Top 40 Pop Album chart. Jackson is relentlessly defiant against a world that sees Black women as expendable. So it should be of no surprise to anyone that that same spirit of persistence has been imbued in her fans. They’ve let the world know that they’re not going anywhere, and neither is Jackson.

Intellectualizing Janet Jackson’s impact seems almost a fool’s errand. Sometimes the landing of a meteor is an extinction-level event. It’s not just a shift or a changed landscape, it’s an entirely new world; a clearly identifiable point in time where everything that came after is a direct result of that event. Jackson is that kind of artist. She has, and continues to, weave a peerless tapestry out of song and dance. Just as in “The Pleasure Principle” video, Jackson is a singular force — her only competition is her reflection in the mirror.

Janet Jackson premieres Friday, January 28 at 8 p.m. E.T. on Lifetime and A&E.

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