Let's talk about Janet. But first, let's talk about me and get an important thing out of the way:
I am a Janet fanatic (a Janatic?). "Same," you may be thinking. NO. This is no causal brand of fandom. As my friends can attest, I have a borderline Janet Addiction that has, at times, threatened their patience and probably made them question whether or not to continue associating with me. My friend Jason even recently decided to stop answering my texts the minute they go Jackson. He says it's out of love.
So you get the idea. I'm an avid ambassador of the Rhythm Nation. I get so lonely. I go real deep. I have no chill when it comes to Ms. Jackson.
The second thing that needs stating is that, in spite of the title of this post, I don't really think Janet can get a hit. Not at this point, anyway. I also don't think that's a problem. Let me explain:
A couple of weeks ago, Janet announced her first batch of new music since 2008's Discipline (possibly titled Conversations in a Cafe), the launch of her new label, Rhythm Nation Records, and finally this Monday, her first tour since 2011's scaled-down Number 1's Trek. Seven years in between albums might as well be eternity in the 21st Century pop game, but the truth is that Janet hasn't had a relevant hit since 2001's "Someone to Call My Lover."
Or really, more accurately, since her bare breast made its' infamous 2004 Super Bowl debut in front of 1 billion viewers, igniting the most inane pop cultural shitstorm of the modern age. I won't delve too deeply into the utterly outrageous fallout from the incident (if you want to read a great wrap-up, check out Rich Juzwiak's comprehensive look back on the whole debacle), but the point is that it unfairly and prematurely ended Janet's then gravity-defying 20 year run over the course of a single second.
And while we're at it, let's just quickly recap that career. From 1986's Control through 2001's All For You, Janet had a nearly unprecedented run. Each of the five albums released in that period hit #1 and spawned multiple top top singles, with both 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814 and 1993's janet. scoring an astounding seven apiece, a manifestation of her sheer dominance. Her 1997 masterwork, The Velvet Rope, is considered one of the most influential albums in pop history, a singular balance of introspection, experimentation and a pure pop sensibility that impacted a year prior to Madonna's similarly coded Ray of Light.
Then there's the tours, the videos, "Ms. Jackson, if you're nasty," the military jackets, the "Rhythm Nation" choreography, the "That's The Way Love Goes" VMA performance, the "If" dance breakdown, the septum ring, "Scream," the fire red hair, Poetic Justice, "What About," the nice package, alright, having to ride it tonight, and so on. Indeed for two decades, Janet was a virtually unstoppable force and for very good reason.
Janet is immensely talented, not in the other-worldly virtuosic way her brother Michael was or at creating and manipulating trends like peak Madonna. No, Janet's gift is honing in on her precise strengths: her dancing, her ear for infectious and slightly off-kilter hooks, her potent sex appeal and her effervescent personality, an alluring mix of steely determination and palpable vulnerability. Janet makes your jaw drop in admiration while simultaneously enticing you to hold her while she cries. She's the perennial younger sister. It's an intoxicating mix and during her imperial phase, she was able to conjure that magic potion each and every time she stepped to the mic.
And as she slowly distilled across her five blockbuster albums, Janet appeared to favor slow evolution over abrupt reinvention, using each record to to refine and build upon an existing world rather than concerning herself with the cutting edge. There is a very clear "Janet" sound in abundance across discography, with only minor tweaks to the production and lyrical content based on the time and her maturing interests.
Looking back, though, that steadfast commitment to her musical world, once her commerical calling card, can be equally faulted for her post-Super Bowl downfall as the unfortunate tit reveal.
Starting in earnest with janet., the Janet World became increasingly sex-centric. This exploration of her id was handled with nuance and depth on that album and Rope, and with a more direct, carefree frivolity on All For You. But there is also no question that that her post-You catalogue showcases a certain stagnation, where staying in her lane slid into simply retreading You's electro sexbot formula too precisely with diminishing returns. This aesthetic plateau is starkest on 2006's 20 Y.O., her only flat-out dud, but is also present on 2004's Damita Jo and the uneven Discipline.
Which brings us back to Janet's imminent 2015 return, an interesting year for her to be staging a comeback. Not to harp on Madonna, but Madge, who released her new album Rebel Heart in March, serves as an interesting foil for Janet. Unlike Janet who backed away from the spotlight amid diminishing record sales and commercial viability, Madonna, true to form, has pushed forward, releasing an album every three years and viciously fighting to maintain her place in pop culture, whether that means teaming up with hit-maker dujour Diplo, Instagramming with the vigor of a hormonal 14-year-old girl or making out with Drake at Coachella.
And while Madonna has spun off a couple hits in the fifteen years since Janet's last - some worthy smashes ("Hung Up"), some thirsty stunts ("Four Minutes," "Give Me All Your Luvin") - it appears that Madge's no holds barred approach to remaining relevant and playing the singles game has also sputtered out in the 2015. She hasn't visited the Hot 100 top ten since '08 and Heart was her first to miss #1 in almost 20 years.
In standing, I believe the top of the Hot 100 will not be welcoming to Janet in 2015 either, no matter how good the single. Fair or not, pop is a young person's game, especially if you're a woman.
I think this opens a great opportunity for Ms. Jackson, if she handles it right. Free from the pressure of keeping up with the Perrys and Swifts, Janet should approach her new album Rope style: keep it real, keep it introspective, and deliver music with the sharp point of view of a world-weary 50 year old female legend, a perspective very few pop artists can, or are willing to provide. Since she last released music, she ended one long-term relationship, started another, lost her brother and considered backing away from music for good. We need to hear about all of that.
Rope is credited with spawning the sub-genre PBR&B, or hipster R&B (ew), an offshoot that houses Frank Ocean and Miguel, artists who've succeeded by releasing cohesive, subtle, emotionally resonant bodies of work rather than aiming for the singles charts. Janet should be looking to have the favor of her prescience returned by using Ocean and Miguel's method as her template (and also possibly working with them? That would be great, right?)
In fact, the contemporary musician I think Janet should be looking to most for inspiration, at least in terms of her approach to releasing music, is Beyonce. Considering how dominant Bey's last album cycle felt, it's important to realize that she owned the conversation without a #1 single. In fact, only one song from her self-titled opus, "Drunk In Love," briefly hit the top 10. The rest, songs that felt so central like "Partition," "XO," "Blow" and "Pretty Hurts," didn't even go Top 20.
This was by design - by prioritizing her complete vision rather than Top 40 radio, Bey avoided having to go hit-for-hit with the pop-lets. Janet's pop agenda-setting days may be behind her, but following this map is her path to a successful comeback, more so than a trendy single, a corporate tie-in, trotting out You's ethereal sexbot once again or Diplo-collabing could ever be (please Jan, no DIplo collab!). I even hoped Janet might take Beyonce's lead and drop her album without releasing an advance single at all but news leaked this week that a new song, "No Sleep," is imminent.
In any case, I believe there is still an important place for Janet in pop, both for her upcoming record and beyond. And I also want to be clear - she should still talk about sex, if that's what's truly on her mind (I'd venture that is)! Whatever the subject, she simply needs to remind us that she's a great artist, a singular one more than capable of delivering a potent album-length statement, before she she worries about proving that she can still hit #1. The less concerned she is with having a hit, the less having a hit will matter.
So if anyone knows Ms. Jackson, do you think you could pass this on? And also, can you please introduce us so that I can get my life? Mainly, I need us to be friends because none of my current ones while answer any of my Janet texts.