Singularly Janet

29 October 2015 Nathan Smith

Singularly Janet

Photograph by Yu Tsai

Did you know Janet Jackson is partly responsible for the existence of YouTube?

Blame her infamous 2004 Super Bowl performance, when co-star Justin Timberlake pulled at Jackson’s costume too forcefully and accidentally revealed one of her breasts instead of a costume underneath. This created one of the most parodied pop-culture moments of recent memory and also added the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” to the popular lexicon.

Footage of the incident became one of the most searched-for in internet history, giving rise to the viability of video-sharing websites. YouTube creators cite the performance as a major factor in their decision to launch the website. The performance also led to American television networks adding a delay to their live broadcasts.

But Janet Jackson is far more than a wardrobe malfunction. The American singer from the legendary Jackson family has been rocking the airwaves and climbing the music charts for more than 30 years. Jackson’s music has long addressed issues as wide-ranging as America’s difficult social and race problems, the media’s obsession with celebrities and the importance of individual self-discovery and empowerment. Jackson is also credited with helping the smooth sounds of R’n’B make the move to the mainstream pop charts, thanks to many cross-genre albums.

Now after a longer-than-usual sojourn – her last album was 2008’s Discipline – Jackson is back with her 11th studio album, Unbreakable, which has been pegged by many as a comeback album.

Unbreakable is a relaxed blend of smooth R’n’B slow-jams and more upbeat pop songs of introspection and self-affirmation. The album has already served up the sultry and sensual lead single ‘No Sleeep’ (yes, that’s three “e’s”). The title track is suffused with a mellow sound as Jackson slowly repeats encouraging, empowering aphorisms – speaking about her love for her fans and lovers being unstoppable. ‘Burnitup!’ is a thumping, pulsating collaboration with rapper Missy Elliott, marked by a thick bass line and glossy slick keys complementing Jackson’s voice.

The album’s title conjures themes of longevity and endurance, which are no stranger to Jackson. Since her entry into the spotlight as a solo artist in the early 1980s under the tutelage of her authoritarian father, her image has been defined by self-sufficiency. Ironically, Jackson’s career has been notable for  her attempts to move away from the all-encompassing ‘Jackson’ brand – a name that originally helped launch her career.

Over the last year, Jackson has been engaging more online with her fans through her #ConversationsInACafe Twitter hashtag, offering vague and slightly mysterious updates on the development of the new album. As an artist whose music has attempted to bridge the divide between R’n’B and pop, Jackson has survived over the decades thanks to her dedication to her music. She has remained committed to her identity as an artist, distinguishing herself from the eccentric excesses of her late brother, Michael, and sister La Toya’s fame-hungry ventures.

Jackson’s music has often broken the mould, engaging with social and political issues that other mainstream artists would never address. With her iconic 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson showed a powerful passion for social concerns – including injustice, illiteracy and racism. This came after her earlier music looked at ideas of personal freedom and autonomy, explored in her incredibly popular 1986 album Control. (Unbreakable reunites Jackson with Control producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.) Jackson also established herself as an actor, first as a child and teenage regular on TV’s Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes before landing adult roles in hit movies such as Fame and Poetic Justice.

Following Michael’s death in 2009, Jackson has mostly shied away from the spotlight. Given the closeness of the pair – they recorded the song ‘Scream’ in the early 1990s, in defence of allegations of child sex abuse levelled against Michael – Jackson decided to take time away from her musical ventures. Issues of family strife, infighting and struggles living in the public eye have always marked the Jackson family members.

Unbreakable seems to be just as much a defence of Jackson’s decision to remain independent – having mostly moved away from many of her siblings since Michael’s death – as an attempt to fulfil her destiny.

Her decision to launch the new album with a massive world tour (not including Australia) is a sound one. Not only will it be an opportunity for the singer to reconnect with her fans, it will also galvanise Jackson’s control of her music.

After one of the most torturous decades of ridicule and tragedy for her personally – from the Super Bowl debacle to media scrutiny of the family and Michael’s very public death – this album is a resolute message to critics. Janet Jackson, and her love of music, is Unbreakable.

by Nathan Smith

Unbreakable is out now.

This article first appeared in Ed#496 of The Big Issue.