As luck would have it, my childhood and adulthood were at a crossroads last Friday. As I’ve stated extensively, Janet Jackson was the female singer of my childhood. I wasn’t too far into Whitney Houston’s golden-girl image that grew into awesome sassy aunt as her career started to wane in the early 2000s. Same for Mariah Carey, who all but peaked around 2000 save for that Emancipation of Mimi comeback that I was tortured with on a journalism-camp trip to Sam Houston State in high school. No, it was Janet.
It had been Janet since my parents bought Rhythm Nation 1814 and Control. It became that way with that iconic Rolling Stone cover, with an undisclosed man covering her bare chest. It became that way with “Go Deep” and the Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi”-sampling “Got Til It’s Gone.” It stayed that way when my father and I literally had an argument over whose room would take the Janet Jackson poster or the Mariah one (he won, thus he proudly sleeps under Janet every night). Unlike Mariah, whose songs mostly border on desperation through big breathy vocals and Whitney, Janet explored her merit as a woman, as an individual. She broke from her father Joe the same way Beyoncé eventually split from Matthew.
The only difference in that comparison: Joe wasn’t searching for the next Janet; he just let his youngest child exist and mature into her own woman.
Last Friday, the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee released Unbreakable, her most polished and open album since 2001’s All For You. The major tie-in to Unbreakable was that Janet had reunited with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, reforming the trio that gave Damita Jo her first two classic albums and morphed her into a mononym. We sadly cast Janet away as a casualty of a Super Bowl halftime show, letting her career drift into forgotten-legend territory. We do it with a lot of female singers (see Madonna): identify them by singular moments as opposed to their entire worth. The female singers we deem icons begin to age, and the more we begin to create a divide between them and their male counterparts. Paul McCartney would earn ink by the barrel for his recent double-album reissues, all of the songs spun inside out so that every metaphor reads like a child’s prep sentence. The same can’t be said for Madonna’s Rebel Heart; the most we heard about it involved her nearly sucking the soul out of Drake during a kiss at Coachella this year.
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What we get from Janet with Unbreakable is a return to her playing an intoxicating role of being an assured optimist. Love is no longer fleeting, but she’s vulnerable enough to detail her scars. The purrs of a quiet storm in lead single “No Sleeep” give way to a responsive bounce and rhythmic dance track in “Dream Maker/Euphoria." Much of the first half of the album is wound opening and closing, more inviting than dismissing. There are fragile, almost broken moments in her voice on “After You Fall” and reflective intuition on “BURNITUP!” Even during dance tracks like “BURNITUP!” a pulsating ride where Missy Elliott flexes feline impersonations, do you wonder why this album wanes and crests the same way classic Janet albums did. The sounds of Unbreakable are more wide-open and fun than The Velvet Rope, but it reminds us of what we had decided to give up for the sake of decency and insane moral ground. We let Janet go, only for her to return and us far more appreciative of her status as the mother of a literal ton of singers to come after her.
If Janet Jackson is the Alpha for R&B singers who chose to wow us with dance moves and performance, then she may be the only one who dictates when the Omega happens. The world currently offers that entertainer title to Beyoncé, but without Janet, you don’t get elaborate stage setups and provocative, freeing moments. You don’t get the shrieks and declarative punches of Rhythm Nation and you don’t see the constant growth of a woman who while still learning herself is far more secure in her feminist superhero suit than she’d ever let on.
Jackson’s tour doesn’t hit Houston until January 23 at Toyota Center. Part of me wants to sit there and enjoy her running through her medley of hits. The snob in me hopes that her diehard fans learn the lyrics to Unbreakable's songs the same way they learned “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Pleasure Principle,” “All for You,” “That’s The Way Love Goes” and so on. I want them to feel just a tinge of heartbreak hearing “Should’ve Known Better” and especially on “Broken Hearts Heal,” her tribute to late brother Michael. I want these things to happen because I’m a huge Janet Jackson mark.
Our superhero of both vulnerability and confidence has returned. Let us become married to that fact and enjoy it as we should.