Originally published for Vulture on Feb 1, 2022
Janet Jackson’s signature timbre is delicate but firm; it has been her calling card since her youthful days performing alongside her brother Randy at the MGM Grand in Vegas. Even then her petulant demeanor, performed for laughs, communicated a childlike grace with mature clarity: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until I say go.” Just 7 years old, she had no idea of her prescience: Traces of Janet Jackson’s musical DNA would eventually be in everyone from Britney Spears to Bruno Mars to BTS. These are far from novel assessments: Over the years, a number of projects have attempted palliative approaches to rectify the rocky narrative that trailed Jackson after her infamous Super Bowl halftime show — including the rare at-length interview — with the New York Times recently producing a special embracing the pop icon’s transcendent, multigenerational impact that was upended by one of the few forces beyond her control. Now, at long last, Damita Jo has given the definitive account of her life and career to add to her oeuvre — and not a moment too soon, as we’ve lost Black legends in rapid succession of late. Aretha Franklin, who was notoriously very hawkish over her memory and legacy as a walking archive of the Black sonic canon, transitioned before she could see her vision realized onscreen, relegating the arbitrage of authenticity over Jennifer Hudson’s and Cynthia Erivo’s portrayals to a mélange of family, friends, and fans, as opposed to engaging with the art itself.
When music documentaries are done in direct partnership with the artist, they tend to lean redemptive in tone: a reclamation of an artist’s musicianship, their life, or any amalgamation of the two that amounts to their legacy. With the four-hour Lifetime documentary special, Janet Jackson. — which both Janet and Randy executive-produced, with direction from Benjamin Hirsch — Jackson gamely attempts both. Given the family’s commitment to protecting their privacy after years of keeping the tabloid industry in business, it’s no minor challenge; the stories that encircled the clan of 11, originally from Gary, Indiana, danced between the levers of man, myth, and legend, nestled between the two titan pillars of Michael and Janet Jackson. Far from an intimate portrait, the youngest Jackson doesn’t stray too far from her comfort zone, but she does invite the casual fan into her lens of the people, places, and moments that she sees as shaping the four-decade-and-counting career that shaped pop music, on her own terms.
One lie pop sells is that, often, its women are the creation of someone else — most commonly, a man — as if they were merely a marionette beholden to the ministrations of a puppeteer. Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, for example, were often minimized as the respective constructions of Clive Davis and Tommy Mottola, as if their gifts were in any way reproducible. Janet Jackson is no exception. Despite having an arc predicated around her choice to reclaim her agency in her artistry, almost every era of her life still gets benchmarked by the perceived dominant male influences in her life at the time, from her management under her father to her creative work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. And for a while, as Janet admits, her life was shaped for her, as the youngest of the clan — her father Joe set her up with her role as Penny in Good Times and a paint-by-numbers bubblegum-pop career instead of the business-law future she had charted out for herself. Through a combination of archival footage and narrative voice-over, Hirsch and Jackson work to squarely recenter the icon as a multitalented powerhouse directly involved in her career’s architecture and trajectory. For those who were not there to see the early years, you get a glimpse into her own Beatlemania, from the crafting sessions that led to the record-breaking Rhythm Nation tour to signing the largest recording contract in history in 1996.
The documentary struggles, however, in navigating the portions of history where Hirsch is entrusted to fill in the gap between Janet’s perceptions of history and the confluence of events as they may have been perceived both then and now. Left unchallenged, for example, Jackson stops just short of identifying the infamously exacting Joe Jackson as abusive, clarifying that while she may not have gotten to have the relationship with her father that she desired — absent the tenderness and innocence of a typical youth, and devoid of the nuanced charm and humor that the Jackson patriarch deployed in his adult friendships, counterbalancing the hardened exterior he presented to the public — “discipline without love is tyranny, and tyrants they were not.” She often defaults to language around safety and security and love, a common defense in working-class households that practiced any form of corporal punishment. Jackson later acknowledges finding herself in repeatedly harmful romantic cycles with male partners, an admission that is not elaborated or expounded upon for any potential deeper revelations of her associations between intimacy and power — particularly in her marriages to James Debarge and Rene Elizondo Jr. Instead, a lot of the more probing questions around her partnerships are diluted into the minutiae of the rumor mill: Were she and Elizondo getting kinkier in the bedroom around the Velvet Rope tour? Did Jermaine Dupri really cheat? Did she really have a secret baby that her sister Rebbie raised?
The pregnancy rumors, Janet demurs, were fueled by the fact that she had gained weight on birth-control pills while filming Fame. But if there is anything Janet is intimately familiar with, it’s an examination of the body — of her body. While the documentary doesn’t explicitly pull this out as a theme in the way Hirsch examines Jackson’s body of work, it punctuates eras of Janet’s life and career with somatic references. There is the body that her classmates physically picked and pulled at while she was in school and her brothers toured in newly integrating Encino, California: the same body that was being shamed and bound as part of a regular ritual for her to film on Good Times as a child actor. There was also the body that found recovery from a terrible first marriage to a drug addict within Paula Abdul’s choreography, shaping what would become Control and eventually her famously precise dancing style, equally powerful and sultry in approach. This body would also grace the cover of Rolling Stone, Elizondo’s hands bracing her breasts as she defied expectations to act reserved. Elizondo would end up demanding just as many expectations of her body as the public did; his camera lens slowly evolved from directing, engaging with, and chronicling Janet’s various physical, artistic, and more intimate transformations into a punishing microscope well before paparazzi would begin to turn Jackson’s relationship with emotional eating into content fodder. Absent an intentional connective thread, however, some of these through-lines are lost in the mix amongst the ad hoc asides of celebrities whose interviews mostly seem to appear as a reflection of the level of stature Janet continues to hold within the Black community.
The ultimate examination of Janet’s body, of course, happened during one of the most-watched sporting nights of the year. Despite the reparative aims of Janet Jackson., one of its more bewildering segments opts for a muted approach to addressing the 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance. Crudely referred to as “Nipplegate,” the incident has gone through a bevy of multimedia postmortem cultural critique, with Justin Timberlake and Les Moonves representing the avatar of white supremacy, and Janet Jackson’s subsequent mistreatment by CBS and the music industry — and the halftime show performances thereafter — indicating a perversely outsize reaction to the mere sight of a Black woman’s nipple. Instead of filling any narrative holes in the various other rehashings or detailing the full financial, physical, and emotional toll that industry blacklisting and her subsequent split from Virgin Records took on her, Jackson chooses instead to plead with her fans to abandon their crusade against Timberlake on her behalf; she stresses that they have remained friends, despite what her early frustrations may have indicated. After a career spent fighting for respect, Janet is now choosing peace in still-new motherhood, and she hopes her fans will accept and adopt her choice. It’s hard to tell if she’s over the incident entirely, or just the conversations about it. The documentary argues without making any arguments that she’s earned the ambiguity.
Despite the pitfalls, some edifying points are delivered well in the special — namely, in establishing that Janet always saw her older brother Michael as her competition, despite being frequently positioned against Madonna’s reign. That latter read on being mismatched with her peers, however, is implied. Critically, Hirsch fails to engage with the various inflection points of Janet’s history-making: In ceding her the space to tell her story, he also ceded the space to contextualize the fragile ecosystem the Jacksons have built to inoculate themselves from their more uncomfortable relationships with the press.
For fans who were looking for unique insight into the “real Janet Jackson,” you will be left wanting. There are some potent moments, though, courtesy of the archives of unreleased footage. Private videos from Elizondo’s vault where he declares that Jackson is destined for greatness reveal just as much as the tight winces that shape across her face when her second husband zooms in on her with her mother, Katherine Jackson, and asks her to do another take of embracing her mother with a kiss. While the existence of these artifacts is a valued surprise, the content within them says more than what is being discussed. If Jackson is constantly monitored in the press, constantly performing for the public, and expected to perform for the preservation of her legacy in video alongside her partner and loved ones, when was she able to take the time to discover the real Janet Jackson and share it with herself, much less the rest of us?
Ideally, these would be tensions teased out over the journey of this project, but it doesn’t seem like a conversation Janet is equipped to or interested in having yet, despite her acknowledging the efforts of her faithful fan base to ensure that her legacy be properly considered. While the youngest Jackson, now at 55, may be in a place of reflection, publicly wrestling with the perception of her family is a task that can only be taken on unreservedly, and as long as she has to maintain control, the granularities that allowed her to blossom into America’s definitive Black pop icon will continue to go unreckoned.