Two weeks ago, news broke that Janet Jackson is pregnant with her first child. Today, as she turns 50 (and rests up, as she and her husband prepare to become parents), we celebrate her exceptional career, which has inspired and broken ground for a whole generation of younger musicians.
Through innovation, bravado and hard work, Janet managed to rival the astonishing success of her superstar brother, Michael. Undeniably one of the music industry’s dominant figures, she has also served as a force for cultural and social advancement.
On her website, she prominently features this quote: “I just want my music and my dance to catch the audience’s attention and to hold it long enough for them to listen to the lyrics and what we’re saying.”
In other words: Speak softly and carry a nasty beat.
From the Soundstage to the Concert Stage
As the ninth and youngest child of Katherine Esther and Joseph Walter Jackson, Janet Damita Jo Jackson was born on May 16, 1966, in Gary, Indiana. While five of her brothers were ruling the pop music charts as The Jackson Five, she was garnering national attention as a child actress with her role as Penny on the hit sitcom Good Times. Parts on Diff'rent Strokes and Fame followed before her father steered her toward a recording career when she was 16.
After producing two mediocre albums—Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984)—Janet made the difficult decision to fire her father as her manager. Her new manager sent her to Minneapolis to work with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—who were best known then as having been part of Prince’s band The Time. Jam and Lewis took the time to get to know Janet and had her contribute to the songwriting. The resulting female-empowerment tracks included “Control” and “Nasty,” which showcased a lot of her new-found attitude and sly sense of humor.
Released more than 30 years ago, on February 4, 1986, Control was not only Janet’s career-making declaration of independence, it also pushed pop and R&B in exciting new directions, topped the Billboard 200 and spawned six top 20 singles, with “When I Think Of You,” reaching No. 1. The album also earned four Grammy nominations. The songs themselves represent significantly more than just what’s spelled out in the lyrics—they show a 20-year-old woman learning to trust her instincts and enjoy herself on her own terms.
Creating a Rhythm Nation
Now that she had taken control of her own business, Jackson's next ambitious venture was to enlist the world’s youth in the Rhythm Nation. Rocking black combat gear and topical subjects, Janet released Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989, which combined elements of R&B, hip-hop, new jack swing, pop and rock. Jackson described it to Essence as "containing my views about what was going on in the world and the problems we have in trying to educate the kids and give them hope." The album produced hit after hit, including "Miss You Much," "Escape," "Black Cat," and "Love Will Never Do (without You)." Jackson again performed at the Grammy Awards and the album's long-form video counterpart won a trophy. Ultimately, Rhythm Nation 1814—the number refers to the year in which the U.S. national anthem was composed—became the first album ever to have seven of its singles on the Billboard Top Five; four of those singles reached the No. 1 position.
Janet shared the wealth from her successful world tour by donating 25 cents from each ticket sold to the Cities in Schools program, which works to keep kids from dropping out of school. After the tour ended, she gave nearly a half-million dollars to the United Negro College Fund in the form of a Rhythm Nation Scholarship.
Jackson received a Chairman's Award from the NAACP in 1992 in recognition of her public service work, especially on behalf of young people. "I don't consider myself a social leader," the singer told Essence, "but I do feel a responsibility that comes with being an entertainer. For me the big issues all come down to children. What are we doing to protect them, to make their future world better? I'll never stop fighting illiteracy and drugs [and helping organizations that work to combat AIDS].”
Addressing the Pleasure Principle
With Jam and Lewis, Janet had fused melodic dance-pop with more aggressive beats influenced by industrial and hip hop sounds; they helped usher in the new jack swing era. Then the juggernaut that was her next album, 1993’s janet. secured her position as a global icon. On it, she explored themes of social justice and daring sexuality in her lyrics while the music combined funk, hip-hop, jazz, rock and rap as well as diverse guest vocals from opera star Kathleen Battle and Chuck D of Public Enemy. To promote the album, Janet famously appeared on the September cover of Rolling Stone with her chest covered only by her then boyfriend Rene Elizondo's hands.
Inspiring a New Generation
With over 160 million records sold, she is one of the best-selling artists in history, and she still holds the record for the most consecutive Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 by a female artist with 18. Her prodigious sonic and visual style has inspired a wide range of artists, including TLC, Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Missy Elliott and Rihanna. Even today’s up-and-coming singers, such as Ciara and Keri Hilson, cite her as a major influence.
Exploring the Visual Possibilities
Janet and her brother Michael famously teamed up in 1995 to record the single "Scream," an answer to intrusive media outlets. The song’s accompanying video featured exciting choreography and also proved to be one of the most expensive in history.
She is widely known and admired for award-winning music videos as well as being a highly regarded performer. Her concert tours are always stunning shows spectacularly designed—and they always feature intense choreography. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, Janet maintained her stature through a combination of impressive quality control and stylistic evolution. From platinum album to platinum album, Janet’s image smoothly shifted as it projected power and independence.
Getting Her MTV
In 2001, MTV presented Janet with the inaugural MTV ICON Award solidifying her accomplishments and affect on pop culture. Musical artists such as Destiny’s Child, NSYNC, Outkast, Usher and Pink recreated the music videos and performances of her classic hits in honor of her work, influence and overall impact in the arena of music.
Janet is the only artist to earn Grammy nominations spanning the Dance, Pop, Rap, Rock, and R&B categories. She has won five Grammys, multiple MTV Awards, Billboard Music Awards and Soul Train Music Awards. In 2004, she received the Legend Award at the Radio Music Awards.
Jackson managed to remain an innovator and trendsetter in the entertainment business for more than 30 years. She has occasionally taken on acting roles in Poetic Justice, The Nutty Professor, Why Did I Get Married Too?, and the lead role in the big-screen adaptation of For Colored Girls.
Unstoppable and Unbreakable
In 2015, Janet returned on her own Rhythm Nation label with "No Sleeep," a slow-jam Jam and Lewis collaboration that hit the R&B Top 20. She followed up her 11th studio album, Unbreakable—another No. 1 hit—and a world tour. Though she has delayed the second leg of tour so she and her husband can plan their family (as she phrased it on her Twitter video message), she made it clear that she would be back. Who would doubt it?
As she states on her website: “I’m proud to have stayed in the game and survived. And I’m proud that I’ve remained true to myself. But if you go back and listen to the music, you’ll hear how that self is always changing.”