New Janet Jackson Documentary Reveals an LGBTQ Icon's Enduring Legacy

by Darian Aaron

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 2, 2022
Originally published on January 28, 2022

Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson  (Source:A+E Networks)

Janet Jackson is both adored and dismissed because of the soft tone of her voice, but in "Janet Jackson," a two-night documentary premiering on Lifetime/A&E, she roars.

Jackson, 55, has largely remained quiet throughout her career, relying on her artistry through four studio albums between 2004-2015 to address the truth about her life during a relentless campaign by media gatekeepers intent on destroying her legacy.

Now the fiercely private entertainer grants access to her life and legendary career in an unprecedented way. As she did in 1986, with the release of her third album, "Control," Jackson is reshaping the narrative that has attempted to reduce her to a footnote in pop history instead of the record-breaking, award-winning, multi-platinum, crossover success that defined a generation.

This is a reckoning. And Jackson, along with her legions of LGBTQ+ fans, are coming with receipts.

In the age of streaming, TikTok, and viral videos, many young music consumers born at the start of the new millennium or in the years following have little to no concept of Jackson's catalog or her musical and cultural influence. It's as if her artistry ceased to exist in the years following the release of "All For You," Jackson's seventh studio album, released in April 2001, becoming her fifth consecutive number one album on the Billboard 200 with the highest opening week sales of her career.

Following Jackson's controversial 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show, an influential radio and television blackout at the bequest of disgraced former chairman and CEO of CBS Les Moonves silenced the megastar entertainer for years on all Viacom Media platforms. The targeted campaign against Jackson by Moonves and others caused irreparable damage to her career, rendering her invisible and inaccessible to a new generation of fans. Many of those fans later embraced superstar entertainers such as Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, and others, each influenced by, and who borrow heavily from, Jackson's blueprint as a Black female entertainer, yet she often goes uncredited. Until now.


"She's definitely had an incredible impact on my career. If there's no Janet, then there is no me," says singer Ciara, who is among a list of celebrities that include Missy Elliott, Mariah Carey, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel Jackson, and more who provide commentary in the documentary.

"She paved the way. Janet has planted the seed that will continue to flourish and impact so many. That's what legacy is about. Janet Jackson is an icon," Ciara adds.

"She's literally done it all," said R&B singer Teyana Taylor, who, along with Ciara, is another of Jackson's musical daughters whose image and stage performances are heavily inspired by Jackson's artistry.

"I was watching some of her old concert footage, the way Janet went in with everything that she did, the girls don't go in like that these days," says Broadway dancer James Harkness ("Ain't Too Proud") and a lifelong Janet fan. "They think that they are. Janet went in hard, and she still does. She worked to get to where she is."

From the socially conscious and ground-breaking "Rhythm Nation 1814" album released in 1989, in which Jackson made history as the first and only entertainer to score seven singles from one album in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100, to becoming the first album to produce number one hits in three separate calendar years, Jackson's follow up to "Control" not only surpassed expectations, it shattered them. In 2021, the album was inducted into The National Recording Registry by The Library of Congress, praised as "culturally, historically, or artistically significant."

Jackson's military-inspired clothing and accessories for "Rhythm Nation," including her signature key earring, cemented her as a fashion icon and trendsetter whose style would inspire fans and other celebrities years after the album's release. Although she remained conservatively dressed for the majority of the videos during this era, she still managed to exude a subtle sex appeal that would be fully unleashed in the Herb Ritts-directed video for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," another number one single, and the pre-cursor to her sexual exploration on the 1993 massive hit album, simply titled "janet."

'Go On Girl, Miss Janet'

Rolling Stone Magazine. September 16, 1993. A confident Jackson appears on the cover, clad only in a pair of jeans with a silver chain belt. Her arms are crossed behind her head; her hair is in Shirley Temple curls. She's topless. Two hands that belong to René Elizondo Jr. (her now second ex-husband) cover her nipples. The once-demure baby of the Jackson family is now a grown-ass woman, in charge of her career, her sexuality, and her need to give and receive pleasure, anytime, anyplace, safely.

"Every album after 'janet.,' Janet let us know, 'I'm evolving. I hope you're evolving. Take the journey with me. Take the ride with me,' " says Dr. LaShay Harvey, Interim Associate Dean of Student Learning and Research Creation in Graduate Studies at MICA and creator of Black Girl Saturday School's Janet Jam Session — a virtual event created for Black women to unpack the revelatory details of Jackson's documentary.

From the overtly sexual lyrics and iconic choreography for the hit single "If" to the sex positivity and visual for "Anytime, Anyplace," Jackson's departure from singing about "Let's Wait A While" to "Throb" both empowered and enraged music consumers.

"I think we take for granted now with the Cardi B's and Nicki Minaj's, and even the Lil Kim's, and the Foxy Brown's and the Doja Cats. Y'all couldn't have been that if it were not for Janet," says Harvey.

Harkness also recalls the impact Jackson's sexual agency had on women in his circle in the early '90s.

"I witnessed other people around me, especially women, that were really attached to what she was doing and felt their own confidence within their sexuality and their ability to be a woman on their own terms," says Harkness.

Whatever pushback Jackson received in 1993 would pale in comparison to the criticism she'd receive for her vocal support of the LGBTQ+ community in 1997, with the release of her most personal album, and what many critics consider her magnum opus, "The Velvet Rope."

Let's Get Free



Released in October 1997, "The Velvet Rope" offers a stark departure from Jackson's previous album. Same-sex relationships, homophobia, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and sadomasochism themes are woven throughout the tracks on Jackson's sixth studio album.

In 1997, an album like "The Velvet Rope," with its progressive content and lyrical plea for LGBTQ+ equality, was considered extremely risky for a Black mainstream artist, but Jackson had just secured an $80 million contract renewal with Virgin Records and was in the driver's seat. Power moves like this ultimately paved the way for other boundary-pushing projects from Black artists like Beyoncé's "Lemonade" and Lil Nas X's "Montero," two deeply personal and introspective albums. Jackson's open support for LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV through her music (only five months after Ellen DeGeneres caused a firestorm of controversy by declaring on the cover of Newsweek, "Yep, I'm Gay") was a natural progression for an artist whose work was a reflection of her life.

"We would like to believe that we were so progressive by '97, but we were not," says Harvey. "It is impossible to talk about Black music without talking about the queer presence. Period. Any Black music must talk about the queer experience."

"The Velvet Rope" was Jackson's arrival as an icon. She'd now permitted herself to make songs like "Free Xone, a funky, upbeat smack-down against homophobia, and "Together Again," an international number one hit that celebrates the lives of friends lost to HIV/AIDS-related complications, without succumbing to pressure by record executives or conservative America to change course.

"She could have left that particular social quandary off," says Harvey of Jackson's willingness to explore HIV/AIDS in her music. "But it is almost as if to say, if not Janet, who else at that time in '97? Toni Braxton wasn't singing about it. Whitney Houston wasn't singing about it. Anita [Baker]? I love them dearly, but nobody was singing about it, surely not Black women."



Choreographer Sean Cheesman, who toured as a dancer with Jackson from 1993 to 1995 on her "janet. World Tour," believes the disease's devastating impact on the dance community, to which Jackson was directly connected, prompted her to act.

"It was a really hard time. We were all in our 20s, and people were dying around us that were our age," says Cheesman. "Janet would always call us dancers The Kidz. She always had this mama feeling to her. And I think with her fans and a lot of her dancers being gay, it [HIV/AIDS] was killing them. Dancers were dying. So it was really dear to her heart."

"Janet has always been there for her gay fans," says Harkness. "We a part of her life, she keeps us in mind when creating and she loves us, but she doesn't use us for extra exposure for her platform."

Harkness points to "Tonight's The Night," Jackson's cover of the sensual Rod Stewart classic in which she yearns to experience sexual pleasure with a woman, refusing to change the original lyrics.

"I respect her for honoring the song as it was written instead of taking it and changing the gender," he says. "And wonderful for that because there are women that are going to want to send that song to their significant other. And why not by a major artist? Janet brought something into the mainstream market that didn't exist, and she did so fearlessly."




Jackson would find herself embroiled in rumors surrounding her sexuality from that point on. She addressed the gay rumors in an interview with journalist Clay Cane during the "All For You" era.

"It never frustrated me. I never got upset behind it. For what reason? Why get upset? Because someone said you were gay or called you gay? That should upset me? That would mean that it is something negative to me, and it's not. It's just another rumor, like all the rest of them," she said.

Jackson reaffirmed her support for the LGBTQ+ community during her Out 100 Icon Award acceptance speech in 2017.

"We insist that love is for everyone, and we will love according to the demands of our hearts. We will love according to our natural disposition," she said.

SPOILER WARNING

While Jackson does not identify as queer, she has been married and divorced three times, with specific details of those marriages, including a decades-old rumor of a secret child with first husband, James DeBarge, which has been off-limits for discussion until now.

In one of several tearful moments from Jackson during Part One, she opens up about DeBarge's drug addiction and their tumultuous year-long marriage before their union was ultimately annulled.

"I remember times I would find the pills, and I would take them and try to flush them down the toilet, and we would be rolling around the floor fighting for them," Jackson said. "It's not a life for anyone. I sit and say, 'Are you stupid? Were you dumb?' But it wasn't that. I cared so much for him, and I saw the good in him as well, and I just wanted that to take precedence as opposed to this ugliness, because I knew that he needed help, but I wasn't the help he needed."

So did Jackson, now a mother to five-year-old son Eissa, from her third marriage to billionaire businessman Wissam Al Mana, deliver DeBarge's child and allow sister Rebbie Jackson to raise the baby, as the rumor suggests?

"I could never keep a child from James," Jackson said as tears welled up in her eyes. "How can I keep a child from their father? I could never do that. That's not right."




Jackson also reflects on the end of her marriage to her second husband and longtime creative collaborator, René Elizondo Jr., who provides never-before-seen footage captured over a decade. Elizondo appears in the documentary via footage recorded during Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" era, suggesting the former couple remain estranged following his 2001 $10 million lawsuit.

An offscreen voice of a producer asks Jackson if she thought her marriage to Elizondo Jr. would be her last, to which she replies: "I wanted it to be it. But I thought that every time."

Many viewers will tune in to see how Jackson addresses the 2004 wardrobe malfunction that halted her meteoric rise — an incident that took 18 years before Justin Timberlake issued a public apology to Jackson as he also faced public backlash following the New York Times documentary "Framing Britney Spears" for the role he played in the mental and professional decline of the beloved pop princess.

"Throughout this entire thing up until now, she has always handled herself the same way, with grace, with dignity, and with drive. Her constitution is strong. She put her head down and went to work and she has continued to work," says Harkness, echoing a similar sentiment Jackson made in her 2004 Soul Train Awards acceptance speech just weeks after the Super Bowl incident.

"I'm convinced that we Black women possess a special indestructible strength that allows us to not only get down, but to get up, to get through, and to get over," she says

Now, for two highly-anticipated nights, Jackson's nearly 50-year career is told through her eyes and on her terms. Because it's all about control, and she's still got lots of it.


"JANET JACKSON."
2-Night event premieres on January 28 at 8/7c on Lifetime and A&E.

Darian Aaron is Editor-At-Large of The Reckoning, a Counter Narrative Project digital publication covering Atlanta's Black LGBTQ+ community. He is also the creator of Living Out Loud 2.0 and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.