I have been feeling extra grateful lately about coming into my awareness of popular music in the mid-1990s. When songs first started to stick with me in 1995/1996, Lauryn Hill, Gwen Stefani, and Mariah Carey were all dominating the Billboard charts. In spite of epic battles (or breakups) with their respective record labels and/or collaborators, these women came off confident and strong—in both their artistic gifts and their sexual allure. Growing up in the incredibly racially diverse Jersey City, NJ, seeing a black woman, white woman, and mixed race woman (who my younger self mistaken for Latina) appear so frequently on MTV and BET was an extension of what my daily life looked like. Despite not being a person of color (or not being the faux punk meets Marilyn Monroe type that Gwen Stefani was) and being many years away from any conscious recognition of desire, I connected with them.
And then there was Janet Jackson. Before I watched any of her music videos, I saw the album cover for her 1997 album The Velvet Rope hovering over the Sam Goody at Mill Creek Mall in Secaucus, NJ. Most of my music purchases during my preteen years were made at this Sam Goody. Although I would not right away realize that it was Janet Jackson on the album cover, I would nevertheless appreciate this seemingly thoughtful woman watching over me as I expanded my music collection. During this time, I was listening to a wide array of music—everything from hip hop to R&B to alternative rock to capital P pop music. This was the late 1990s after all, when dancing to TLC and Aaliyah existed on the same continuum as rocking out to Alanis Morrisette and the Spice Girls for many of us who were preteens during the later half of the decade. But something about this visual of Janet Jackson really spoke to me. The now iconic cover art for The Velvet Rope presents Jackson with dyed red curly hair that clashes with the bright red background. Jackson is dressed in a black long sleeve shirt and has her eyes turned downward and away from the camera. As I would learn many years later, this visual of looking inside herself was an allegory for the (lifelong) depression Jackson dealt with while recording the album (which sonically, in addition to visually, manifests itself). What I saw as a ten-year-old was someone who seemed comfortable spending time with herself and taking a moment to be thoughtful about things. As I was already someone who spent extended periods of time in a room alone journalling and/or listening to music, I felt very drawn to this image of introspection.
In early 1998, the music video for Janet Jackson’s “I Get Lonely” appeared on MTV and BET. Sonically, “I Get Lonely” felt considerably different from other songs and accompanying music videos that resonated with me at a young age, such as Mariah Carey’s “The Roof” and the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly.” While also a R&B song, “I Get Lonely” was unwilling to make the clean break towards the hip hop and R&B fusion of Mariah Carey’s Butterfly and the neo soul, hip hop, and gospel fusion of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation (which producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis factored into significantly). As I watched this video over and over again, what stuck out to me as a young person was the smoothness of Jackson’s movements, culminating in the moment where she and her dancers rip open their shirts with one minute remaining in the song. I can remember seeing this as a preteen and saying to myself, “Oh, okay, she’s just expressing herself.” Of course now that I’m older and am beginning research for a dissertation chapter about Janet Jackson’s 1980s output, I realize how much the status of sex symbol was thrown on her—and how caught up that is in herstories of black exploitation, commodification, and fetishization. But as my younger self followed Jackson’s movements on the TV screen, this gesture signaled the vulnerability—and necessity—of opening ourselves up to the world. Her bravery moved me.
My most recent encounter with Janet Jackson out in the world occurred at Kaytranada’s show at Emo’s in Austin, TX on September 22nd. After already appreciating images of TLC (because 1990s R&B) floating across the projection screen earlier in his set, I suddenly noticed some very old footage of Janet Jackson that I had never seen before. The footage, which switched back and forth between being in color and in black and white, showcases Jackson in big sunglasses and big 80s hair out on a beach island somewhere. Jackson looks visibly happy, looking directly at the camera and smiling often as she dances with her girl friends or just lounges around. This same footage would reappear once again towards the end of the Kaytranada set, before he transitioned into his remix of Janet Jackson’s “If” to close out the set. At this point, the very diverse crowd (especially for Austin) absolutely lost it for this remix. Since this was an all ages show, I got the impression that some of the people around me were at least a decade younger than me. I was so struck that the lasting power of Janet Jackson is so massive that it transcends generational lines.
But I also had mixed feelings about the ways that Janet Jackson appeared in the set by Kaytranada (née Louis Kevin Celestin). In terms of musical influences, Kaytranada’s reach is expansive in that he draws on house, disco, hip hop, and R&B and mixes them all together in some very funky fusions. Also of interest here is that Celestin identifies as gay, as he shared with The Fader back in April. House music as a genre has a long history where gay (and often black) male producers have coupled the vocals of black women with synthesizer and drum machine sounds—effectively disembodying black women’s voices from their bodies yet again (since all recorded music enacts an original separation of vocals from the people singing them). On Kaytranada’s really quite good debut 99.9%, both male and female vocals feature prominently in a majority of the tracks on the album. But, with the exception of images of Celestin himself and some artwork, it is visuals of women—TLC, Janet Jackson, and the women in Kaytranada’s “At All” music video—that circulate during the live set. From my position as a dancing member of the audience at this show, it is difficult to tell whether Kaytranada is paying homage to these women or if he is circulating these sexy images to be provocative (or both). While I don’t want to give up on the utopic possibility that Kaytranada is circulating these images so as to center black women, I am also not as sure about his intentionality as I am of someone like Devonté Hynes. In other words, Kaytranada’s art is not so easily deciphered. In all its smoothness, it’s… still messy.
We still need (his) art anyway. In all of its messiness, art (and pop music counts as art!) offers us an inroad to reimagining what our world(s) could look like. In her keynote at UT-Austin Black Matters conference earlier tonight, Angela Davis suggested that we seek out new theories of freedom in the cultural realm. While I was waiting to enter the hall in which Davis would be speaking, I had a conversation with an older man who was surprised to hear that my intellectual work is grounded in ascribing political potential to the music/videos of mid-80s pop stars such as Janet Jackson and the contemporaries who reference and remix them. He shared that growing up with the explicitly politicized hip hop of Public Enemy had tremendously influenced his social consciousness. What could be so revolutionary about pop music? My response was that pop can reach so many people and can (sometimes) inspire in them little changes over time. This is, after all, an argument that many scholars and music critics have already made about Prince and Michael Jackson. [In fact, entitling this post “On Janet Jackson” is a riff on Margo Jefferson’s excellent essay collection On Michael Jackson.] By the end of this exchange, this older man and I had connected over the ways in which pop and hip hop in the mid-1980s interfaced with one another—and how all of this affected people’s lives. I have to think that Kaytranada and the many other people who still look—and listen to—Janet Jackson at least partially feel this way as well. When reformatted in the present, the past can be a portal to something else entirely.
That is why, when writing about popular music in any context (music criticism, academic work, etc.), there is so much more at stake than just the music itself.