We Are a Part of the Vindication

I’m bursting with pride over the latest accolade granted to my honorary big sister. She has persevered and persisted, making music on her terms, from her unique perspective, with her unique voice. My belief in her has remained unfailing for 32 years, even in the face of naysayers and some plain old nasty people. I and the rest of the “kids” have drawn emotional sustenance from her work.

On Thursday morning, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced Janet Jackson as one of seven new inductees in its Class of 2019. This is wonderful news for Janet, her fans and her supporters.

Lest we forget, though, Janet was eligible for induction in 2007. Madonna, the best reference point among past inductees, was eligible the following year, 2008, and was immediately inducted.

Curious that it took this long for Janet. Why were the RRHOF nominating committees for 2007 through 2015 (and 2018) so reluctant to nominate her? Why were the voters in 2016 and 2017, when she was nominated, so reluctant to induct her?

As it turns out, Janet has always been a bit of a low-key pariah in the “serious” music industry. It has been well-documented that Janet’s blacklisting after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show derailed her career. This year, it was further revealed how dramatic and vindictive that blacklisting actually was, almost singularly engineered by Les Moonves (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/janet-jackson-s-rock-roll-hall-fame-induction-years-overdue-ncna948101). But that’s only half of the story.

“…she fixates on the sight of lips, waists, and various organs. And who can blame her? Given her family, she’s probably unaccustomed to seeing authentic body parts… For all her newfound sophistication, Jackson still sounds tentative. She still sounds like a young woman from a male-dominated family who is searching for her identity and voice. Mostly, though, janet. sounds like a mess — period. C+”

–David Browne, Entertainment Weekly (May 21, 1993 issue) https://ew.com/article/1993/05/21/janet/

In the above mess (period) of a review, Mr. Browne appears to indict Janet Jackson on account of the fact that he can’t tear himself away from gossip about her family long enough to evaluate her music on its own merits. There’s also some thinly veiled sexism and myopia on display here. A woman who laid the foundation for her record-breaking career by recording Control, wherein she clearly stakes out and establishes her identity, is here depicted as a weak-willed ingenue who still just can’t quite get this whole “being a confident musical artist” thing right, even after two multi-platinum albums, the most successful debut concert tour in history, and 13 top ten pop hits.

Of course, there’s no revenge like success. This C+ album went on to become one of the iconic records of the 1990s. “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which Browne describes as “bland” in this same review, topped the pop and R&B charts for most of the summer of 1993.

But Browne was not an outlier. Janet has dealt with a torrent of insults, poor reviews, and insinuations throughout her career, all carrying the clear subtext that a beautiful young woman from a famous musical family couldn’t possibly have anything important to add to the musical landscape. When she rose to popularity in the 1980s, the battle lines were clearly drawn: she couldn’t belt like Whitney, she couldn’t provoke like Madonna, she couldn’t dance like Michael–ultimately, to many, she was a cute sideshow, riding on MJ’s coattails. To the extent that she was deemed to have released something that was relevant or artistic, credit generally filtered down to her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and often bypassed her.

When she bared her soul, the critics bared their fangs:

“Unfortunately, Rope’s second half is weighed down by sappy ballads. It reaches its nadir on the galling poor-little-rich-girl interlude “Sad.” “There’s nothing more depressing,” intones a sober Jackson, “than having everything and still feeling sad.” Pared down, The Velvet Rope would have brushed up against brilliance. Still, it’s a testimonial to the record’s merits that it’s ultimately stronger than Jackson’s sense of self-importance.”

–Ernest Hardy, Rolling Stone (October 30, 1997 issue) https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/the-velvet-rope-195286/

Again, a male critic bristles at Janet’s apparently misguided attempts to explore identity issues. Again, her fame is used against her as a weapon. It’s somehow “galling” to this critic that Janet recognizes her material good fortune but can’t shake her blues. It appears to be in her artistic best interest to pretend one or the other doesn’t exist.

With more than a decade’s hindsight, however, the editors of Rolling Stone ranked The Velvet Rope #259 in its list of The Greatest Albums of All Time.

More pervasive than attacks on her artistry, though, have been attacks on her voice. Through the years, Janet has had to navigate (and to her credit, completely ignore) these swipes. Critics have creatively insulted her voice for 30+ years. Browne’s review above calls it “thin as a clothesline.” Fans of louder singers have been even more cruel. Even her fellow artists have gotten a piece of the action. A couple of years ago, Elton John vented to Rolling Stone about Janet’s alleged lip-syncing at her live shows.

(For the record, if Janet is lip-syncing at her live shows, she should absolutely fire whoever is recording her vocals ahead of time. All that breathing and all those missing lyrics–they could do a much better job. I’ve attended 12 shows over the past 25 years, and she’s not lip-syncing. Elton is likely just upset that she out-sang him when he invited her to do a duet with him for the Aida album.)

Janet, for her part, is not about to get nodes on her vocal cords straining trying to prove to anyone what she brings to the table as a singer. She has no qualms about shutting up for the better part of a record (“‘Got Til It’s Gone”) or not singing at all. Even to her detriment, she has always prioritized the end product over vocal stunts to prove herself a worthy singer.

This approach to vocals ended up revolutionizing pop music. “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” in 1986, were among the first non-hip-hop tracks to rely on rhythm over melody in a lead vocal. With different marketing, Janet could have easily been billed as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, six years before Mary J. Blige claimed that mantle.

Starting with Rhythm Nation, she spent countless hours in the studio, laying down multiple vocal tracks, harmonizing with herself to create lush soundscapes of dozens of Janets. She has experimented with all manner of vocal delivery, from chanting to cooing, whispering to yelling, sneering to crying.

She also has range. When they weren’t able to get Prince in the studio to duet with her on “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” Janet shrugged and sang both parts, without changing the male part at all. Her vocal experimentation has been fearless, yet has flown almost entirely under the radar. The existing paradigm held that female singers were simply supposed to stand under a spotlight, sound pretty, and showboat. She broke that paradigm.

Male vocalists like Elton John and Bob Dylan have been pardoned for years for their croaky, imperfect timbres, under the pretext that such singing was part of their unique artistic expression. Janet has a pristine tone and a unique style, just not the volume or the proclivity for extended arpeggios that is highly valued for female vocalists. She’s often been dismissed out-of-hand because she doesn’t sing that way.

It’s simplistic to judge the artistic merit of music by how loud it is. What’s important is the feeling that it evokes in the listener. Janet’s thoughtful approach to her projects, from Control in 1986 to Unbreakable in 2015, has always kept this ideal in mind.

It’s unclear whether the RRHOF voters made those kinds of distinctions when selecting Janet. But it’s clear she could not have sold millions or records or held the adoration and loyalty of her fans without that understanding. And the impact she has had on our lives is part of what the voters were to consider when they made their selections. Further, the fact that she could have the impact she did, doing things the way she did them, further influenced other artists who came after her.

When I listen to a Janet album, I’m not just hearing someone singing. I’m experiencing someone being. With Janet’s induction in the RRHOF, both her legacy and that part of me that feels her art have been vindicated.


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