With Janet Jackson's (woefully belated) acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's well past time for a broader reckoning with her place in popular culture, and especially the way she's challenged narratives in pop music. To me, her evolution, and unique place in culture, can be summed up with just one verse.
There's a brief, melancholy moment on Janet's 2015 album Unbreakable that shocked me when I first heard it, and has haunted me ever since for its accuracy and prescience. It comes in "Shoulda Known Better", a dance song that's a standout on Unbreakable, with fairly conventional pop production paired with a very unusual structure that alternates between a pulsing, even euphoric chorus and subdued, nearly heartbroken verses. It's not the loud-soft that every Pixies-referencing rock band trots out, but rather a striking grafting of two completely different moods into a single pop song. The overall sentiment of the song is conveyed by the jarring juxtaposition of cataloguing social ills (the kind that Janet has been discussing since Rhythm Nation) against an insistence that directly reckoning with such injustices can still help to fix them.
What Janet said made me rethink how pop music talks about narratives of race, and how it deploys hope and optimism or falls back to resignation or despair.
I had this great epiphany
And rhythm nation was the dream
I guess next time I'll know better
Janet's Unbreakable album has been unfairly overlooked, perhaps because she couldn't do a full-on promotional push at the time of its launch as she was going through a complicated pregnancy and a lot of change in her personal life. But as an album, it stands tall amongst the other formidable standouts in her catalog, and is perhaps her best complete album since 1998's Velvet Rope. "Shoulda Known Better" shows exactly why it's her strongest release in years.
A Vision of Blindness
The pop music tradition, especially the global superstar tier of pop music where Janet resides, has had a fairly consistent narrative for a few decades now. Just as the rhythms and arrangements of contemporary pop music can often find its roots in the funk and disco of the 70s, the lyrical grounding of most "issue oriented" pop music was defined in the simple, sometimes reductive, utopianism of the 60s.
Motown struggled famously with reacting to the political moment it found itself in toward the late 60s and early 70s, with Berry Gordy fighting against Marvin Gaye's cultural commentary in What's Going On, only begrudgingly agreeing to release the now-classic record. But despite the success of Gaye's efforts (and even more pointed songs like some of Stevie Wonder's work later in the 70s), the template for much of pop music was set: talking about racial problems in America was still supposed to finish with a call for color-blind idealism. And it's important to remember that Motown wasn't some abstract representation of excellence in black music to the Jackson family; Motown was the mentors who came around the house as the Jackson kids were growing up. Especially for Janet, as the youngest of the family and the one most rooted in California instead of Indiana or Detroit, the example set by someone like Diana Ross would have been omnipresent.
This expectation of pop music's conversation about race persisted for decades. By the end of the 80s, Janet was pushing forward the boundaries of pop music with Rhythm Nation 1814, with many of its songs explicitly articulating a vision of color-blindness. Even its title track, an all-time classic, opens with a spoken incantation:
We are a nation with no geographic boundaries
Bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals
Sharing a common vision
Pushing toward a world rid of color lines
Within two years after the release of Rhythm Nation, Michael Jackson would release his single "Black or White", whose chorus repeatedly insists that it doesn't matter if you're black or white. The same year, Prince would release his album Diamonds and Pearls, whose bridge enthusiastically promises, "u will be colorblind". The biggest stars of the MTV era had weighed in, and they had found consensus in their lyrics.
Telling the Truth
But lets's fast-forward to just over a decade after the peak of the MTV era. Janet had been sidelined by the predator Les Moonves for her Super Bowl performance. Prince had abandoned his name, written "slave" on his face, returned to his name, and re-emerged outside the conventional record label system. Michael Jackson had gone to war against his record label, calling his label head "the devil". None of their work would ever blindly champion ignorance of race again; all of them would reckon directly with the fact that even their extraordinary talent and success didn't shield them from the structural injustices of the industry they had mastered.
But it took Janet explicitly revisiting her past work to really drive this home. Unlike almost any other major pop artist, Janet revisited her signature song, in a world of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, and declared her past vision obsolete. In its place was an updated, more complicated vision.
Janet's vision of a post-Rhythm nation isn't a pessimistic one, though. Instead, it's a hard-earned lesson, an unpopular but necessary truth that takes courage to share. We can't solve problems that we can't talk about, and Janet had the wisdom to tell the truth of the problem, even if it meant challenging one of her best-known narratives.
Still, the first time I heard those lyrics in "Shoulda Known Better", it hit me like a gut punch. Part of it was the difference between hearing an idealistic message as a teen and hearing a tough, painful lesson as an adult. But more fundamentally, it was about recognizing the shortcomings and dangers of the colorblindness that we'd all been taught when I was young. Great art is supposed to challenge us, but it takes a truly great artist to give us permission to let go of our past. And Janet pushed us there.
I stil love the song "Rhythm Nation"; I always will. But I believe in Janet today. And just as with her Hall of Fame induction, the music industry may always lag behind, but it can never deny Janet's vision.