For anyone who has followed any of my social media this week, you’ve seen my wholehearted support on full display for the triumphant return of Janet Jackson. This week in 1986, her album Control premiered at number one on the Billboard charts. This week, 36 years later, the album charted at #1 on iTunes. And, this week, I tweeted not once, not twice, but three times about Janet, after months of nothing in my Twitter feed. Today, I feel compelled to publish a blog post for the first time in 13 months. Why is this so important to me? In 1986, I was seventeen. I did what people told me. So young and so naive.
From the very beginning of my memory, around the age of two, I wanted to be in the music business. I felt an alliance with Janet Jackson throughout my 1970s childhood. Janet is just two years older than me, and I had seen her appearances on her brothers’ television specials and other variety shows, and then as a member of the cast on Good Times. She exhibited a multitude of talents, while I searched to discover mine. My earliest memories are of practice, practice, practice, behind the closed door of my bedroom, attempting to imitate every facial expression, every gesture or head nod, every tone or accent I’d witnessed from my favorite musicians in performances that I had seen on television. First, there was Cher, then Lynn Anderson, Loretta Lynn, and Linda Ronstadt. By the time I reached kindergarten, it was Barbra, Barbra, and more Barbra. Throughout elementary school, I most admired and imitated Olivia Newton-John and Marie Osmond. Despite all that disciplined practice and my nightly prayers, I was never offered a solo in our church’s children’s choir. But I persevered. At the age of four, I had been told I “stuck out like a sore thumb” by one of the other girls’ moms as we lined up for photos before my first dance recital. The photographer reinforced her opinion of me by making me stand on a box in the back row with the older girls because I was “too tall” to stand with my classmates. Nonetheless, I continued in search of my musical talent. In second grade, inspired by Christine McVie’s “Songbird” I aspired to become a songwriter. I wanted to learn to play piano so that I could learn to read music. A few months later, I was told I had to quit piano lessons. My disinterest in the sheet music I was given–hymns and military marches–was inferred by the adults around me as my lack of interest in playing music. I never had the guts to ask for a copy of “Songbird”. At the age of twelve, my new stepmother began to instill in me an assurance that I was nothing special and that I should give up my unrealistic dreams of any sort of career in music. I believed all of these external messages about myself. By middle school, I was certain that I could not become any of the things I had aspired to throughout my childhood. I believed other people knew me better than I knew myself.
In high school, I was told by my English teacher and my journalism teacher that I could write well. So I studied compulsively to earn the grade point average that would award me with the scholarship funding I would need to go to college and study journalism. Despite being a voracious consumer of fashion and music magazines, the messages I’d received from my choir director, my dance instructor, my piano teacher, my stepmother, and even what I inferred as messages from God at that time, led me to believe I was meant to become the kind of journalist who wrote for the local weekly newspaper in my hometown. As I grew bigger, my dreams grew smaller, until 1986.
Yesterday, I had a lengthy and long-overdue phone call with two of my best friends from high school. We were reminiscing about the simplicity of our small-town teenage life in the 1980s when I said something about wishing I had been more confident then. One of my friends replied that I changed during the summer of 1986. “You were bold,” she said, “Something changed that summer before our senior year. You knew you were going to leave our small town and do big things.” From the ages of twelve to sixteen, I had been a tightly wound coil of insecurity. But at seventeen, I took control.
During our teenage years, Janet appeared on Fame, living my dream as a student in a high school for the performing arts. Then, in 1986, when she sang of finding the courage to ignore what others had advised her, I wanted to experience that feeling and to find that courage in myself. Throughout my senior year of high school as Janet was dropping single and after single into the Billboard Top 5, she empowered me to believe in myself. Although we never met, Janet guided me through my last full year of life in rural Missouri. Just as she expressed in her music video for “Control,” I too would soon be on my own. And like Janet emphatically declares to her parents in the first minute of the music video for “Control”, eventually, I too had an apartment in Westwood.
In the summer of 1986, I developed a lifelong friendship with my mentor. Immediately, upon our first acquaintance, she spoke to me with complete enthusiasm about my future. She radiated with a level of optimism that I had never encountered before and was willing to invest time and energy toward my success. Her words validated the message in Janet’s lyrics that I was trying so hard to instill into my future, while simultaneously negating all of the messages I’d previously indoctrinated from my past. Confident young women were empowering me to be bold.
During my senior year, I was captain of my twirling team and my cheer squad, and editor of our high school yearbook. I presented the concept of MTV as a theme for our yearbook to my journalism teacher and the class. I wanted this book to serve as a time capsule not only of our high school experience but also of the music that was most influential to us during that year of our lives. I wrote to the president of MTV to get permission to use their logo. Again, I was empowered by the affirmation I received from a successful woman of that time.
If you need a refresher or are not aware of Janet’s chart-topping discography, listen to Janet Jackson Essentials, a comprehensive collection on Apple Music. In the 1980s, Miss Jackson became the largest-selling debut touring artist of all time. Today, she still holds that title, that’s right, still. Since 1986, her career only continued to soar as she broke down barriers and climbed charts. She sang about things that young women needed to hear–taking control of your own life, and telling young men, let’s wait awhile. Throughout her career, she sang about issues that affect all women like domestic abuse, and about racism, things that Black women could not sing about, and remain pop superstars, previously. Janet had carved out a career on her own terms, achieving number one hits, number one albums, and a successful film career for nearly two decades until a momentous career pinnacle took her down.
From what I can find in my admittedly brief research today, Diana Ross and Ella Fitzgerald were the only Black women who had previously been invited to perform during the Superbowl halftime show until Janet’s performance in January of 2004. Justin Timberlake’s solo career was just getting started at that time. He became the top-grossing artist of that year and went on to become a gigantic success as a pop star. Janet Jackson’s career came to a halt and faded into near obscurity. There were people who tried to claim that what happened to her was a publicity stunt. Let me remind you once again that she was nearly the biggest pop star in the world in 2004. I wholeheartedly believe no music publicist would have advised her to do this to accelerate her career, and, I wholeheartedly believe she did not choose to be publicly assaulted on live television as a “stunt”. I wish social media had been around back then to shut down those people making those claims. Maybe this whole sordid story would have been stopped in its tracks in 2004, but it wasn’t. We glorified him and condemned her for what he did to her. This sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
Get irritated if you must, but don’t stop reading if you disagree with me. Let me finish what I need to say, let me get to the point about why this week is so important to me. There have been incidents in my life when someone took away my control, without my consent. In turn, I lost confidence in myself and made some regretful choices. Many of us have been there. We’ve found ourselves in times when we have been forced to choose between two unappealing outcomes, the flight of silence or the fight against the scrutiny which Rebecca Solnit talks about at great length in her 2014 book, Men Explain Things to Me. So, we choose and we hope for the best. Years later, or in the cases of Janet and me, decades later, I can see exactly how certain decisions informed what choices became available after that decision. I’ve come to believe that every choice truly does affect everything that comes after.
I have also made some decisions that have been more fulfilling than I could ever have dreamed they would be for me. Choosing to become a mom has brought more joy to my life than anything I’ve ever done. My daughter has grown into a young woman who is not afraid to speak her truth, and she encourages others to do so. Her courage inspires me to continue to find my strength and to use my voice. Choosing to book a music festival with 26 female-led artists in my first year of being in a position of control to make real change in my industry is the second-best thing I’ve ever done. My co-producer and I went for it, despite a lot of discouragement from a lot of people we respect. We used our control to affect change. She and I made a little chip in that glass ceiling that women have talked about since Marilyn Loden coined the phrase in 1978. This leads me to the song that I have started and ended each day with since it was released in October of 2020. Brandi Carlile and Alicia Keyes reignited a flame in me that hasn’t burned this strong in 36 years. “A Beautiful Noise” is nominated for the Grammy Song of the Year Award. Whether or not it wins on April 3rd, it is the most personally empowering song of my life since “Control” in 1986.
For those of you who have already, or who plan to watch the documentary Janet Jackson which premiered a week ago, I have a request. Do not disrespect her decisions about what she has chosen to share and not to share. She has chosen to give her fans some insight into how she has arrived at Janet the mother and the agent of change in the music industry that she is today. She reveals some of her pain and some of her regrets. She graciously chooses not to condemn any of the people who may have affected her in ways that led to that pain. What human cannot identify with all of that? Each of us has faced painful choices and dealt with what came after. How much of ourselves we feel safe in sharing with the rest of the world is our own choice to make. Otherwise, we lose control.