“I promised you’d hear it from my lips. And now you will. This year. New music. New world tour. A new movement. I’ve been listening. Let’s keep the conversation going.”
That was the message pop megastar Janet Jackson gave to her fans this past weekend. On her 49th birthday, the legendary Ms. Jackson announced from her website that she is returning to music after a quiet several years. It’s been seven years since her last studio album, 2008s Discipline; and four years since “Number Ones: Up Close and Personal,” her last major tour. The news of Janet’s return sent social media into a flurry. Fans had been wondering out loud what the six-time Grammy winner has been up to—there had been rumors for the past several months that she was working with her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. She’d tweeted that she would let the world know when she was good and ready—and this weekend, she did.
Since the announcement, fans and media have been asking whether or not Janet Jackson can pull off a successful comeback at this point in her career. Since her 2001 album, All For You, Janet’s missteps have been well-documented: from the infamous “Nipplegate” controversy during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, to the string of lukewarm albums that followed. Over the years, her album sales declined, she started and ended a high-profile relationship with superproducer Jermaine Dupri, was blacklisted from radio stations (due to Nipplegate), lost her superstar brother, starred in a couple of Tyler Perry movies, and got married to a billionaire. With Janet finally returning, everyone seems to question whether or not she can reclaim her place in pop music. But in all of the commentary, a very important point has apparently been forgotten:
Janet Jackson doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone.
From 1986 to 2001, Janet consistently delivered the best dance pop music of her generation. It was better than Madonna’s over that same stretch. It was even better than her legendary brother Michael’s post-Thriller output. That may seem like blasphemy to some, but with Jam and Lewis in her corner, Janet’s albums from Control to All For You were more thematically unified and fully-realized than well-crafted-but-inconsistent late 80s/early 90s MJ albums like Bad andDangerous. With Control, she helped lay the groundwork for New Jack Swing (Jam and Lewis deserve as much credit for popularizing that sound as Teddy Riley or L.A. Reid and Babyface) and with Rhythm Nation, she delivered that genre’s most compelling and ambitious LP. For what it’s worth, Michael didn’t get hip to New Jack Swing until he teamed with Riley in 1991, which was five years after his sister and about two years before the style was dead. Whatever dismissals one can toss at Janet as a songwriter, it’s obvious that her albums were representations of her—even with Jam and Lewis handling the bulk of the music. The Velvet Rope is very much an album that feels introspective and brazenly personal.
But while other superstars of her era can release new music without scrutiny, Janet is being analyzed and dissected. Having announced her comeback, the news was met with skepticism in some circles. Talk show host Wendy Williams had some “advice” for Jackson. “She should stick with her number ones, the songs that we know,” Williams said on her show. “Janet is 49 years old right now. She’s married to that billionaire WASP… she wants to put out new music but nobody bought the music last time. I think that this comeback is going to be impossible; she’s living in a Beyoncé/Rihanna/Taylor Swift world. The music-buying public barely buys and they’re young kids, they’re not us with mortgages and tuition.”
“She needs to sit down and wait for Mariah, Britney and Jennifer to leave [their Las Vegas residencies] and do all the songs that we know the words to.”
Janet’s commercial lag isn’t all that unique. Most chartbusting superstars of yesteryear have experienced sales declines in the era of streaming music and illegal downloading. And great artists do age, with younger generations finding their own heroes to listen to. Prince hasn’t been the chart-topping juggernaut of his heyday in quite some time. But that doesn’t matter because he’s Prince. No one really cares if he doesn’t have a “When Doves Cry” or a “Diamonds and Pearls” dominating radio anymore; his legacy is as firmly set as Stevie Wonder’s or Neil Young’s. The Purple One has released six albums in the last ten years and only two have attained gold status. Paul McCartney’s last two albums didn’t hit the gold mark, either. Similarly, the most recent albums by icons like U2 and Bruce Springsteen only garnered relatively modest sales. Madonna’s status as a consistent presence on the pop charts waned around the same time as Janet’s did; the Material Girl has mostly dominated just the dance/club charts over the last decade. That transition hasn’t led to any loss in Madonna’s status as the so-called “Queen of Pop.”
No one is telling those aging legends to stop releasing new music. We don’t seem to expect them to have to compete with their younger counterparts at all. If their die-hard fans enjoy the albums and the artists enjoy making them, they’ve earned the right to not be judged by the same standard as the hit-making pop star of the moment. Once a legendary artist has cemented their place in the canon of popular music, there is nothing left for them to do to affirm it. The greats don’t have to keep auditioning. They made the grade long ago, and everything they achieve now is just an addendum to their legacy.
So what does a “successful” Janet Jackson comeback mean? Battling the Beyoncés and Taylor Swifts of the world for pop supremacy? None of that matters. None of that is necessary. A successful Janet Jackson comeback simply means that one of the greatest artists of the last 30 years is back to doing what she loves and what her fans love seeing her do. Delivering a compelling album and an electrifying tour is all that matters, not sales or Grammys. She’s done all of that time and again. It’s past time to recognize that Janet Jackson is among the artists at the very top of popular music’s hierarchy. It’s past time to give her the respect she deserves. She doesn’t have to prove she’s still “hot” or “relevant.” She’s a legend. She should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She should be as heralded as Tina Turner. This return isn’t about her “proving” anything to us. She’s doing this for her. And that’s good enough.
With all the great music she’s given the world, she’s more than earned that right.