Janet Jackson will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the 2019 class. And the ceremony is being broadcast on HBO on Saturday, April 27. She’s had a lauded music career, with 5 Grammys, 11 American Music Awards, 11 Billboard Music Awards, and 9 VMAs. Jackson has had No. 1 Album debuts in each of the past four decades, selling roughly 80 million albums worldwide. And among her long-list of top 10, chart-topping, record-breaking releases are some of the songs — and accompanying videos — that made me into the woman I grew up to be.
Janet Jackson, as you undoubtedly know, is a product of the unbelievably successful Jackson family. One of three girls among six brothers and the baby of the clan, she was not part of the Jackson 5, but made her mark as a child actress with a recurring role on the sitcoms Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes (both of which I watched religiously), and later on Fame. She recorded her first album in 1982 when she was only 16-years-old, but took her a few years to get traction in the music world — and to distinguish herself from her brother, Michael, who was the most famous person on the planet during that decade, and not yet mired in scandal.
My love affair with Janet began with her 1986 album, Control. My entry point was “Nasty,” which was the jam all summer at YMCA day camp. The song was irresistible from the opening yell to “Gimme a beat!” to the driving percussion; it was great to dance to. It also had that cheerleader vibe, where it sounded better when a chorus of girls sang it — which we did a lot, to the boys at camp, every time they were obnoxious...so on a near-daily basis. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the song was teaching me to demand respect from boys and assert myself, to never put them above me or cater to their gaze.
I immediately picked up what Janet was throwing down, though, on “Control” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” The lessons in taking control of your own life kept coming (out of eight tracks on the album, she released a remarkable six singles). “Pleasure Principle” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” were missives about sex I took to heart; they told me it was okay to prioritize my own happiness and not feel obliged to do things just because a boy (or my friends) were. It sounds corny, but media was very crass in the ‘80s. There were exposed breasts in every teen movie, and women in pop were being made over in the highly sexualized image of Madonna, but without the self-aware wink. The empowering alternative that Jackson offered in both her message and her on stage, on-camera wardrobe — her buttoned-up blouses and blazers, covering her from head to toe — was incredibly appealing and welcome.
I didn’t get the studio mechanics at the time, but this album was different for then 20-year-old Janet, in part because she was working with Minneapolis producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, members of Morris Day and The Time and had played with Prince. Recording Control would kick off a long collaborative relationship with Jackson and be the breakthrough point in all of their careers, as well as her declaration of independence from her father, Joe Jackson. They gave her an edge by bringing more blues and funk to her pop-R&B sound. It sounds simple because it is, but no one else was doing this at the time; most hit records in the genre had their rough edges sanded down to nothing. But putting some drama and samples in the style of what rap was doing made all the difference — influencing generations of producers and singers, from Aaliyah to Rihanna to Ariana Grande.
It would be years before I understood with any depth the meaning behind Jackson’s 1989 concept album Rhythm Nation 1814, but I watched with rapt attention when MTV debuted her short film/video premiere special (in retrospect, a precursor to Beyoncé’s Lemonade). Like most kids, I tried to learn the choreography from the video — that way she counted down the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” at the song’s beginning became the go-to hand sign we flashed at each other on the bus. Whatever her army was about, I wanted to be a soldier. Though my white, suburban life did not properly equip me to understand her message about racism, poverty, ignorance and gang violence, I got the point that it was time to give a damn thanks to the catchy-as-hell title track.
The track that shook my world on that album was “Black Cat.” It let Jackson enter into the almost entirely white male world of rock as hair metal was cresting on a wave that would, within a few years, crash into grunge. In the video, she came in with a song loaded down with cowbell and a guitar, banged her perfectly-coiffed wig to and executed perfectly choreographed dance moves with a group of male dancers in Hammer pants. “Black Cat” forever silenced critics who complained of Jackson’s supposedly thin voice; she practically screams on this track, reaching for the same high notes as Axl Rose combined with the raspiness of Joan Jett. It served as a reminder that, despite the rock videos on MTV that depicted them as strippers and hood ornaments, women could rock.
It’s hard to put my finger on why, exactly, the video for the final single from Rhythm Nation was so impactful, but the Herb Ritts-directed take on “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” became an obsession. Maybe it was the way Ritts made her look like one of the glamorous supermodels whose presence had loomed over the late ‘80s. Maybe it was the happiness that seemed to radiate off her in the stripped-down video; it was a Janet we’d never seen before, as if she became a stunning sexual goddess overnight, with curves, confidence and some mysterious joy that I wouldn’t understand for years. This marked a fundamental shift in how I (and millions of others) viewed Janet Jackson: I had been a fan, now I wanted to have what she had.
I wasn’t done learning from Jackson yet. When she returned, more sexually enlightened than ever, with 1993’s janet., she had some new lessons to teach me. I was in the front half of my high school career and lingered somewhere between perturbed by and curious about my burgeoning womanhood. I didn’t have any first-hand experience with sex, but as Jackson explored her sexuality in her music with “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “If,” and “Any Time, Any Place,” she granted me permission to think about my own pleasure principles. “You Want This” allowed me to act out some sense of self-confidence I didn’t yet have, while “Again” soundtracked roughly a million deflated crushes that never left the whisper network of my teen girldom. “Throb” was, perhaps, too advanced.
After that, our paths diverged. Jackson went on to 1997’s The Velvet Rope (which saw her dabble in bisexuality and S&M, among other things) while I turned my growing teen angst more fully the women of ‘90s rock like Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani, and Shirley Manson. In the 2000s, I shifted into indie rock music snob territory while Jackson went further down the path of R&B-laced sexuality in her music. I was working at MTV when that Superbowl moment happened in 2004, not high-up enough to have been involved or know anything you don’t know. But it was whiplash to see how quickly her once-celebrated sexuality got used against her after that moment. In the last decade, seeing her bounce back and build up her legacy by racking up icon and lifetime achievement awards while headlining festivals, releasing new music and working with young artists has been another lesson: they might put you in a penalty box, but they’ll never take you down.
I grew up with Janet Jackson — as if some of her evolution mirrored my own, as a little foot soldier in her army. More than most pop stars, Jackson taught me to protect my autonomy, control my own story, and that the world (especially the men in it) doesn’t need access to more of me than I want to give.