It may be hard to believe, but this week marks the 20th anniversary of Janet Jackson’s 5th studio album, the blockbuster simply titled “janet.” Back in 1993 the album broke ground new ground and today is fondly remembered for its blend of soulful melodies and sexual liberation. Rolling Stone named it one of the 100 Greatest Albums Of The 90’s, while the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame lists ‘janet.’ in ‘The Top 200 Albums Of All Time’.
The success of ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ (which landed all 7 singles in the US Top 5) had placed Jackson at the centre of a bidding war. A&M Records sought to renew their contract but with several offers on the table, Janet managed to secure a $40 million deal with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records – at the time, the most lucrative deal in music history. The stage was set for Janet to return to the charts in a big way. In a move reminiscent of Marvin Gaye (who followed the politically-charged ‘What’s Going On’ with the suggestive ‘Let’s Get It On’), Janet’s replaced the socially conscious message and stark visuals of ‘Rhythm Nation’ with a warm sexuality that she’d previously avoided.
Long before the noisy social media of today, the tightly cropped shot of Janet’s crotch on the back of the CD had tongues wagging. Her jeans were unzipped, revealing a tiny waist and toned stomach – our first ever sighting of Janet’s mid section. Fans and critics agreed a body double was used, but when Rolling Stone released the full-length image on their September cover, naysayers were floored to see Janet had even more to reveal. Her naked breasts were cupped by then-husband, director Rene Elizondo.
The music was equally sexy, but unlike Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ (which came 7 months prior), ‘janet.’ left more to the imagination. Our first taste was the sensual lead single, ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ – which 20 years ago this week, sat at #1 on the Australian ARIA chart. While most expected her to return with an in-your-face dance track, Jackson “eased in the side door” with a more soulful groove. The music video was equally laid back, showing Jackson chilling with her dancers - one of whom was a then unknown Jennifer Lopez.
Further singles filled the up-tempo brief, with ‘If’, ‘You Want This’ and ‘Throb’ updating her high-octane style with a shot of the current New Jack Swing flavour. The music videos also allowed Janet to explore a more seductive style of movement; that she first flirted with on the ‘Love Will Never Do’ video. Janet worked closely with choreographer Tina Landon to develop a style that was provocative, but wouldn’t make the self-confessed “tomboy” look awkward. Such was their success that every subsequent female artist has demanded to work with Landon (Britney, Christina, J-Lo, Shakira, Pink, Rihanna…)
Janet tied her tracks together with spoken word interludes, which helped set the overall tone of the project. Guests ranged from Public Enemy’s Chuck D to Opera singer, Kathleen Battle. Janet also made use of samples at a level that was unusual at the time. Most notably, James Brown’s ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’ on ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’, Stevie Wonders’ ‘Superwoman’ on ‘New Agenda, and a pair of Diana Ross & The Supremes samples - ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ on ‘If’ & ‘Love Child’ on ‘You Want This’.
The album was an instant smash, hitting #1 here in Australia and in the US, where it notched 6 Top 10 singles. Janet picked up a Grammy for Best R&B Song: ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’, an MTV Best Female Video VMA for ‘If’, and an Oscar nomination for ‘Again’. The album was supported by a wildly successful concert tour, which included Janet’s first performances in Australia. 11 sell-out dates saw entertainment centres around the country packed with fans sporting denim overalls, flannelette shirts tied around the waist, and braided hair (a la ‘Poetic Justice’).
In recent years, Janet’s work hasn’t lived up to the sheer artistry of her 90’s output. The good news is that unlike those whose career faded as a result of diminishing skill, Janet is still as fierce as ever. Her talent remains strong; all that’s needed is the material. A vehicle as strong as the ‘janet.’ project. With this week’s news that she has now joined the billionaires club, at least studio time won’t be an issue.