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In an era of oversharing, Janet Jackson remains unknowable

Janet Jackson accepts the ultimate icon: music dance visual award at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday, June 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. Picture: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Janet Jackson accepts the ultimate icon: music dance visual award at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday, June 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. Picture: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Published Feb 19, 2022

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By Chris Richards

Four hours of strenuously hyped documentary footage flashed across our televisions, but the fortress surrounding Janet Jackson still stands.

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The documentary makers were promising a corrective tell-all about the superstar's famously turbulent career, because, as the singer herself explained in the opening shots of this eponymous memoir-doc, “It’s just something that needs to be done”.

Turns out “it” meant translating Jackson's Wikipedia page into cheap reality show grammar, leaving Jackson as unknowable as she has ever been.

Does any of that change the way we hear the music wafting over the castle walls? Hopefully, a little.

Jackson’s public reputation has been repaired, yet not fully restored – since that fateful evening in 2004 when a few square inches of her upper body were exposed to 140 million people watching the Super Bowl half-time show.

We all remember what came next: Jackson was swiftly excoriated in the media with a hateful intensity that we’d like to think couldn’t happen today.

Then again, this is a woman whose music told us that “We are in a race between education and catastrophe” all the way back in 1989. Here we are in 2022 watching school boards across the nation ban books about social justice and the Holocaust.

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Janet Jackson. Picture: Bang Showbiz

So yes, Jackson got a little public image bump in 2019 when she was finally inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but more importantly, her twin masterpieces – 1986’s Control and 1989’s Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 – have felt nothing short of prescient amid the chaos of America’s past six years.

Jackson has said she only ever intended for Control to reflect the command she was trying to take over her own musical career, but the album has since become a beacon of feminist pop that has resonated across the #MeToo movement and beyond.

As for “Rhythm Nation”, its high-hearted demand for racial justice sadly remains timeless in this failing country we share.

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Heavy world, light voice. The critic Margo Jefferson once described Jackson as “the original tiny-voiced teen girl rebel”, which holds true in the sense that her voice is as small as the edge of a blade used to cut broad, beautiful contours of the human condition.

Halfway through 1989’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”, the most ecstatic bright-spot in her entire songbook, Jackson sings as if shooing gravity: “I feel better when I have you near me.”

Good luck trying to find a simpler, truer, better definition of love in any other song or anywhere else.

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Yet as weightless and magnetic as she is in that moment, what makes Jackson’s work feel so perpetually disorienting must have something to do with her ability to pull us into a song while keeping us out of her life.

Her best music feels deeply personal, but rarely confessional, and at her zenith, “Rhythm Nation”, the life that matters most is that of the collective.

“Sing it, people,” she declares, inviting everyone within earshot to step into one of pop music’s greatest visions of utopia. “Sing it if you want a better way of life.”

The documentary’s most striking moment arrives when a camcorder lands on Jackson’s notebook in 1989, the first verse of “Rhythm Nation” scribbled down on an unlined page, proof of how something righteous and colossal can start with a few messy pen strokes.

But sadly, there isn’t much more about Jackson's process here. Instead, the film crescendos from controversy to controversy, with Jackson declining to say much about any of them.

She seems to excuse the allegations of abuse against her father (“He protected us”) while refusing to entertain the allegations of abuse against Michael (“My brother would never do something like that”). She isn’t angry with her exes. She isn’t mad at Justin Timberlake for what happened at, or after, the Super Bowl.

There’s some muted anger at the media’s fixation on her tragic family, plus a dash of vague contentedness about the joys of motherhood. While Jackson always seems genuine, she also seems distant, which, in an era of endless digital oversharing, makes this entire undertaking feel like a convoluted privacy flex.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” That’s something Jackson says on camera more than once over the course of this drab and redundant docuseries.

Truth is, we don’t really need her to talk about this anymore.

We don’t need to know the source of Jackson’s pain as intimately as we know her songs.

Her music – in its unflagging call for empathy and progress; summoned from a hurt that we can feel but never know – is here for us when we need it.

And we really need it these days. Sing it if you want a better way of life.

“Janet Jackson” airs Thursdays at 9.30pm on M-Net (DStv 101)

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