I was watching Selena: The Series, the series which made its debut on Netflix in two parts last year, and it made me think of Aaliyah. Selena: The Series made me think of how female musicians while shining brightly, they also carry a burden far too great underneath it all for others around them to understand and even for themselves to handle. This was true for Selena, the Mexican-American idol who died — was murdered, actually — heartbreaking and tragically in 1995. I remember the day Aaliyah died, and she became a martyr for modern day celebrity deaths, musicians, and women around the world. I also remember the day Selena died, or hearing of it faintly as I was only an infant when Selena was shot in 1995 at the hands of her former manager of her fan club. That was the first time we’d been subjected to such a cultural event for a female artist. That was before Aaliyah, so the widespread of Selena’s death brought a different type of history and legacy. I am, like we all are, still impacted by the legacy of Selena, which preceded all other female musician deaths, but I couldn’t help but think, like Aaliyah, how graceful and strong she was throughout her life and career despite great tragedy. The Selena series, within the limited expectations of a Netflix release for the millennial age, portrays this very idea of success through adversity, and there’s never been a better time for women and their stories.
A new year is upon us. We’re in the month of August of it, and everyday in this new year while we are remembering and still mourning the legacies of Selena and Aaliyah — there is Janet Jackson. As long as the legend has lasted, she comes by way of a television documentary titled Janet Jackson to detail her story and work, which offer us some light and remind us of genius at its highest level. When I watched Selena, I thought of Janet Jackson, and how her legacy created a pop aesthetic that would last generations and inspire careers such as Selena’s. Janet is not much different from Selena in her road to superstardom, especially on the path as a female artist, and this great comparison between the two female stars and the doctrine of female superstardom is all throughout Selena’s series, although there is the obvious and important difference that Janet is the first of her kind and the pinnacle which inspired the likes of Selena. In return for this inspiration, there are obviously many references and parallels drawn to Janet Jackson and The Jacksons as a family dynasty in the series about a Mexican-born singer’s quest for the same success The Jacksons achieved as an African-American family from Gary, Indiana. That parallel is something that draws us to an even deeper connection than just a series and documentary; the projects draw us to a necessary conversation about women empowerment, culture, success, and it serves as a revival of lost female artistry. At the top of the hour, in the midst of overzealous pop culture, Me Too and Trey Songz, and celebrity propaganda, the dire need for genuine artistry and genius orchestrated by women is at an all-time high. That’s what Selena: The Series accomplished in 2021 and now what the Janet Jackson documentary is doing in 2022.
It is important that we talk about Selena with Janet, and it would be a dishonor to female artistry and women everywhere to not appreciate the cultural upheaval of the past year.
Much like Selena in real life, born Selena Quintanilla, the television portrayal of Selena portrays a Mexican-American female singer with a dream, which is by all means underrepresented in the world she lives in. Selena, portrayed by Christian Serratos, is a singer at heart and her dream is to make it big with her gift. The opening of the series is that of Selena singing one of her greatest hits live in a sold out concert in Chicago years past imagining this dream and now living it as a full grown adult. We’ve seen this Selena before and who wants to forget such beauty. The dream in Serratos’ eyes and love around her smile as she’s portraying Selena makes you warm inside, and the series feels like a heartfelt portrayal of one of the world’s most beloved artists and cultural figures. Selena, whose beauty and music inspired many and gave hope around the world, and on the day she died made the waters tremble, is in good hands in this biopic. This is a very different scene from what was first said about the biopic. Some critics didn’t like the actors or wardrobe chosen for the series. But in spite of this, the biopic actually continues to tell the story of a little girl with a dream and you can see that the story is driven by our skepticism of a figure like Selena. The film, like many biopics, invites heartfelt emotions over the important figure and that is the best part, although the light of Selena’s song and dance guides us through most of it.
One such scene of this guiding persistence is when Selena first starts to sing in the backyard at her home, and her hardworking and protective father Abraham Quintanilla, played by Ricardo Chivara, hears her. She is a child of only 8 years old, which makes everyone smile and the young Selena begins to sing a song about love, a song the family says is too mature for her. But the song young Selena is singing outside, the one her father catches her singing isn’t about love, it is about dreams. The series makes this point already: that Selena is a girl between her dreams and love, things she doesn’t learn about until she gets much older, but it is a thing Selena possesses inside of her early on and experiences through her greatest strength of song. The gift of song in Selena and the importance of this gift given to a woman destined for superstardom is depicted beautifully in the series, and perhaps, one of the prime examples of such a woman was Selena. Selena has rhythm, too, as shown in one such scene where she along with her parents and siblings are eating dinner at the table and her father asks one of them if they can play the drums for Selena as she is preparing for an early audition. The very next scene is young Selena singing behind a microphone and bouncing to a beat on stage. Selena was, after all, a woman moving to the beat of her own drum with her jet-black hair, red-painted lips, and curvy frame. She was a drum with style. Selena had plenty of style, which came to life in Episode 5 of Part One and continued throughout all 9 episodes of the entire series.
As Selena’s career began to take off, she changed and emphasized her style. Selena was an icon and cultural symbol whose look was important, so her fashion-sense became serious to her outlook as an overall performer. The majority of the Selena series takes place in a dressing room where the singer is either preparing for a show or doing a photoshoot. The show, to its credit, portrays all the glitz and glamour of music show business, which Selena was obviously born to do. Selena’s upbringing and family, her singing, her gracious look and cultural aspects of it — are all the makings of a global pop superstar. The series reminds us that there are women like Selena who paved the way for Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, who portrayed the singer graciously in 1997 in an appropriately-titled biopic Selena, and others. When I hear Biggie rap on a record from 1995, “All the ladies in the place with style and grace,” I think of Selena and I can’t help but think the Notorious B.I.G. was talking about Selena. For all the women around the world, the Selena series is for you. That’s where Janet matters.
Before Selena, there was — and I say this by some irrefutable power and force — Janet Jackson. The name alone is shivering and barrier-breaking before there were barriers, bearing the name of the most prominent music family. This is what Janet Jackson in her documentary, Janet Jackson, wants us to know. That she is, after all these years, a force to be reckoned with.
And she was then, especially in the prime 1980’s and 1990’s, by every force imaginable, a force to be reckoned with. Janet was the one who showed us how to take control, and there was no other way out of the warehouses of the music industry than to dance with the rhythms like she did on “The Pleasure Principle.” Janet Jackson, like her older and famous brother Michael Jackson, has an immeasurable gift of dancing and grabbing ahold of the industry is a philosophy he held onto, and Janet took that philosophy, sharpened through years of show business etiquette and discipline that they obviously learned from their father, Joe Jackson, who managed their careers early on. There was a difference between Janet and Michael, although the distinct features aided by skin-lightening and plastic surgery on their faces, their soft-spoken voices, and their military style jackets and inspiration draw a stark comparison. This was a difference Janet wanted us to know early on, and this difference is what makes her an icon — he was a man and she was a woman in the industry. This difference set the siblings on separate paces at times, but it was a good difference because their similarities were so great. Janet became busy with setting the standard early and raising the bar, and she had little freedom. Michael Jackson had freedoms because he was a man, because he was the lead singer, because he was a genius and music’s most popular musician, the Pop King which everyone in the world fainted to their feet and bore witness to, but he also had difficulties for these same reasons and because of his eccentricities, which stood him a part from the normal, everyday life of most people. Janet had to work for her freedoms, so she took this freedom and instead of letting it overtake her career, she took control of it.
Janet Jackson wants to show us this in two parts for a running total of four hours. The subject of Janet Jackson for a documentary in the year 2022 premiering simultaneously on Lifetime and A&E is not an easy task, but that’s what makes the documentary special. The documentary and its expectations for today’s primetime television aren’t all that high and the obvious thought is that it’ll be muddled in all of today’s culture of misinformation, misappropriation, and other things. But that’s why Janet Jackson is necessary; the documentary is a gem in this day and age of celebrity culture, and Janet in it, sitting in front of a camera and while it’s following her to capture moments over the course of five years as the legend tells her story, is as vibrant and moving as she’s ever been and you get the sense that her story must be told. The documentary is meant to commemorate 40 years worth of story and legacy.
The new documentary on this special pop icon is more than about Control; it’s about Janet Jackson. Control, the groundbreaking album released in 1986, is one of the most well-known works of the artist. It’s the one, as mentioned, where she grabbed control of the music industry and spawned such hits, “The Pleasure Principle,” “Nasty,” and the feminist favorite, “What Have You Done For Me Lately.” That was the album, by all industry standards, which broke barriers and color lines for black and female artists, and the one where Janet became “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.” It seems to me, though, that starting out this documentary on Control would be cliché because that’s certainly not where the extent of Janet’s genius and importance lies, although it’s where it sprung into popular culture and familiarized lines such as the one mentioned above. Everyone knows by now, and should, how much of a music legend Janet Jackson is and what her Control album meant for women and music everywhere for its time, but what’s underneath it all is the heart of the matter for the woman artist as she struggles her way through a male-dominated, sex-driven industry and for Janet, things mean that firsthand and not just the fluffy tale of a music industry.
The public has to understand that before Control, there was Janet Jackson, a debut album released in 1982 which didn’t see six figures and was sung by a 16 year old songstress fresh out of the waters of childhood superstardom and testing the waters of a new superstardom as the charming cover of Janet submerged in a swimming pool would suggest. As the documentary states, indeed the album Janet Jackson was a struggle for the singer. It wasn’t the massive appeal Control was; the album failed to create an image for Janet, who struggled all her life with body image issues. The weight of the world was put on her shoulders too fast, but even underneath this was always superstardom, a rare superstardom, one that would unearth a generation of pop hits and set the music industry, especially for the women, ahead to a more fast-paced music industry that embodies all the aspects of such a thing: music royalty, high-profile celebrity, and politics. Underneath Control and the persona that it encompasses, is Janet Jackson, a soft-spoken woman born into child stardom; a polished performer with a large amount of influence over a music industry; a drive to success that uses issues of body image and insecurities over making the best art to her advantage. The documentary wants to explain the ins and outs of the celebrity business, but with a subject like Janet, they are forced to reach inside and delve into one of the most important stories and artists in the history of the industry. The documentary, as a result, is not a normal documentary on a celebrity subject or celebrity scandal, although that requirement is there for Janet; it is one which tries to explain who Janet Jackson is and it succeeds.
She is, by all measures, music royalty. Janet is the one who put the engine in motion and took control of it. Janet is a high-profile celebrity, whose performance at the halftime show of the Super Bowl in 2004 turned into the most controversial event of the 21st century. Underneath this, though, is still our sexy and classy queen of the ‘80s and ‘90s from pop family royalty, who handled these situations in the light. Janet is a Jackson, the youngest of 9 children from the Jackson family dynasty who got her start in show business before entering the typical music business.
Janet wasn’t always Janet, what we think of her in mass appeal today. She was “Penny” on Good Times and “Cleo Hewitt” on Fame, which by coincidence was a show about young students at an art school making it in the industry, thus the name of the show and its meaning was a small thing to a young Janet Jackson embarking on a full-time life and career as an artist. She was a child star on The Jacksons Variety Show, playing in a ‘Batman and Robin’ act with older brother Randy Jackson, who executive produced the documentary and is in many parts. She is sometimes the baby sister of Rebbie and LaToya Jackson, the daughter of Katherine and Joseph Jackson. There’s still a backstory the documentary wants us to know behind the chronology of all these events. She had to assume the role of an abused child by the hands of her mother on Good Times as her first role and she played the part on Fame while on birth control and struggling with weight issues. Janet, through clips and a thoughtful process of Lifetime and A&E is seen as a starving, but serious artist climbing to the top of the ladder and very much so a ladder she placed where she wanted it to be.
Her days of show business and growing up in the Jackson family compound molded her into the professional she is. Janet is a versatile, worldwide music performer who continued her footing in various endeavors, such as acting. Janet is a wonderful actress. Audiences today came to know this and fell in love through the culture classic Poetic Justice where the singer wore box braids and recited Maya Angelou poems, which became famous amongst black women and audiences everywhere. The documentary could have taken this route, an exploration of the pop culture phenomenon Janet became even before and including the Super Bowl with a salute to Tupac Shakur and anecdotes from celebrity friends, but the documentary gets to the heart of why we have loved Janet for so many years. Janet is a serious actress, which established her as the crossover, multi-dimensional artist we’ve always known her to be. Why Did I Get Married? and its sequel Why Did I Get Married Too? were two important films that placed the famous singer in a lead and dramatic role 15 years after her film debut in the John Singleton-directed Poetic Justice. The experiences of the script, which celebrity friend and film tycoon Tyler Perry, says that he thought of Janet when he wrote the script for his two box office hits, fit Janet’s personal experiences of having two failed marriages. Janet was also in For Colored Girls, another Tyler Perry production that showcased the star’s dramatic acting ability. The acting of Janet Jackson expanded her talent and career, making the singer all of what she’s supposed to be and the best part is that others feel that impact and influence.
The documentary shows us who Janet is as the multifaceted artist and woman she is, and it’s hard to fathom what it looks like if the world wasn’t appreciative of this great woman and talent. At last, the documentary doesn’t shy away from celebrity anecdotes much to our delight who corroborate who Janet is. Mariah Carey says, “She’s an empowered woman;” Regina King says “She’s the blueprint;” Tyler Perry called her a “Warrior;” Ciara called her a “Legend.” Missy Elliott breathed a heavy sigh and Teyana Taylor had more to say when asked the question, “Who is Janet Jackson?” Janet is all of these things and an example for all artists, past and present and probably the future to come.
How she became this pop icon is exemplified through show business and her acting ventures, but it’s often back to the music above everything else due to her 1989 hit. Rhythm Nation 1814, even after Janet Jackson and Control, propelled her to another status. Rhythm Nation 1814 saw Janet as a pop music performer capable of more than the studio work of Control. She built a nationwide fanbase on the Rhythm Nation World Tour, which set the record for the highest attendance for a tour in its debut, a record she still holds today. The documentary hones in on a long line of fans gazing in adoration for Janet at a concert in Miami, and this was after a show the night before that saw literally no one in attendance. It didn’t take long for the pop singer who was now a multi-platinum selling performer to bounce back and hit the road hard, proving the title of her album. It was a rhythm nation, a nationwide takeover of rhythm and blues, of politics and history. The most memorable aspect of the Rhythm Nation Era is the military style choreography, which innovated the dance and style of the mass choreography and live stage performance we see in the industry today.
We glance back at this takeover and Rhythm Nation takes us back to a moment in time, and the inspiration and cultural importance of the moment can’t be escaped. George Orwell’s 1984 takes a backseat to the futuristic, dystopian plans of Rhythm Nation 1814. Rhythm Nation was just a girl with her rhythms taking over the nation. Rhythm Nation saw Janet break concert records and match her brother Michael Jackson’s record of producing 7 top 10 singles which he achieved with Thriller. Rhythm Nation 1814, in 2021, was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. We knew and loved Janet for Control, but we bask in the rhythms of Rhythm Nation and its different level of takeover in all aspects: the music, the live performance, and the time. Rhythm Nation set the tone for the rhythm and blues of the 1990’s, which Janet spearheaded with the Janet album in 1993 and sultry lead single, “Any Time, Any Place.” The silhouette voice crooning, “In the thundering rain…” on that single proved Janet’s mastery of R&B as well as pop. Rhythm Nation 1814 would be Janet’s last pop-sounding, Control-type album, at least as far as the 1990’s are concerned, but that’s what’s most impressive.
What I have always admired and found most impressive about Janet as a fan of the music, is how she, like Whitney Houston, produced pop hits and later transitioned into the R&B genre. Janet, as an ‘80s artist and child star is a titan of the industry, but her involvement in the R&B movement of the ‘90s with her records Janet and The Velvet Rope, aren’t to be underscored by her earlier works. The documentary starts from the beginning and you’re in for a Janet Jackson–Control–Rhythm Nation trio, but there’s an appreciation for Janet’s evolution through clips of her on the sets of her videos and interviews with red hair and makeup blushed on her high cheekbones during the 90’s. The greatest image, perhaps, taken in pop culture history is the 1993 Rolling Stone cover featuring Janet Jackson with hands covering her topless chest. The documentary takes us on a ride from Janet Jackson the album all the way to her Unbreakable album released in 2015, and you’re able to appreciate her control, rhythms, her essence as Janet, and the velvet rope and red carpet experience reserved only for legends like her. The evolution of Janet Jackson is sometimes a rollercoaster ride, and that’s mostly seen in Janet’s love life.
Alongside the music, the documentary delves deeply into the love life of the famous and adored singer. Being a music performer of Janet’s caliber isn’t easy, but she finds some solace in her personal life through relationships. Janet eloped to James DeBarge, a member of the DeBarge music family in 1984 and married René Elizondo Jr. in 1991, both of which were highly-publicized marriages, though ironically private at times. For highly-publicized marriages, they were serene and private, and that can be attributed to the sweet nature of who Janet Jackson is, which is highlighted throughout the documentary. The documentation of the marriages don’t hold back, and this is where the film lives up to its billing as a documentary. Janet’s marriage to René is mostly seen through archival footage shot by René himself while on vacation with his superstar wife and other various occasions. This candidness also, however, is what ended the relationship. In one scene, Janet can be heard scolding René for filming her in a private moment with her mother, Katherine Jackson. “René, don’t film my mother,” she says. The privacy of one of the world’s biggest stars is necessary after all. While Janet Jackson does share a lot about Janet, it does so in a way that is also respectful to the real essence of the story, and makes you think deeply about the task at hand of telling an inspiring story about an icon.
The love life of Janet offers the film a sweet moment and you get a look at the real Janet Jackson, which is a necessary component to unraveling our connection to her and not just as a normal requirement for a celebrity producing a documentary film. She was in real life married to a DeBarge brother, who shared the aspect of family and music and she also married her creative collaborator, and these are all the reasons why we admire Janet as an artist and woman. Then, who could forget, after the marriages ended due to substance abuse issues by both men, Janet’s engagement to record producer, Atlanta’s Own Jermaine Dupri? After the 1980’s and 1990’s and two failed marriages, Janet found love again and this time in the arms of one of the biggest names in the music industry. Janet and Jermaine Dupri, nicknamed “J.D.,” as a power music couple were one of the biggest topics in the 2000’s, even bigger than and before Janet’s Super Bowl scandal made its rounds, for which he was there by her side and details from his first-person account are in the documentary. Dupri makes an appearance in the documentary to tell it all, and he does. Dupri and his iconic love split, and this calls for a collective “aw” by all watching. After the star-studded relationship with J.D. ended, she married Wissam Al Mana in 2012. Although their relationship came to an end in 2017, it began Janet’s journey of motherhood and she gave birth to her first and only child that same year. The sudden sadness over Janet’s personal life doesn’t last long, though, because we’re prompted to visit a more precious moment in the singer’s life through her family.
The singer’s lost love is replaced by the love of her family. The documentary, in hopes of unearthing who the icon really is, doesn’t settle on publicized relationships and instead takes us back home to Gary, Indiana. The two-part documentary is largely Janet riding through the city where the Jackson family grew up and made their mark on the history of the world. That is where she is taken aback by a mural of the Jackson 5 painted on an industrial building. The mural has all five brothers of the original Jackson 5 in one of their iconic poses and they all have their heads in an upward position, except for Michael, which Janet observes, “Everyone’s looking upward except for Mike because he was always so nosy.” The mural of her famous brothers and the memory of Michael brings about tears. Janet is moved to revisit the subject of Michael Jackson, whose place in the history books as either music’s greatest name or lineage of African-American successful figures doesn’t come with much disagreement. Janet, though, chooses to revisit The King of Pop in the context she only knows how: her big brother.
The documentary’s real most precious moment comes by way of a clip of Michael Jackson, and all other moments pale in comparison. The previously unreleased clip made its way to the headlines before the documentary premiered, and the footage in its entirety is of Janet and Michael working on their 1995 collaboration “Scream” together in Michael’s NYC apartment. Seeing the siblings together and this time for a music collaboration shows a rare, never-before-seen glimpse into their music connection. You get the sense that Michael, her older brother and one of a kind genius, was the real love of Janet’s life. She talks about the rarity of their relationship, which can be gleaned and galvanized from old family clips and pictures of the two in the 1970’s, or moments like the 1993 Grammy’s when Janet presented the prestigious Grammy Legend Award to her iconic brother, or the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards when Michael and Janet accepted awards for “Scream” on stage together.
The footage of Michael and Janet making “Scream” comes to fruition because of Janet’s disdain for living under the shadow of the great King Of Pop. It is revealed that while their personal relationship remained intact and strong as any famous or non-famous sibling relationship could be, their professional relationship was strained as the management team of Michael Jackson’s didn’t seem to think their images worked well together and the “Scream” record shouldn’t have been recorded. According to Janet’s words in the documentary, the record company didn’t think it was a good idea and they tried to keep the two away from each other on the set of the video, refusing to let Janet near her brother’s trailer. The siblings did, behind the leadership of Michael, forgo that decision and wrote the legendary song and filmed the most expensive music video in history at the time.
As far as Michael and Janet are concerned, the child molestation case of M.J. created a shift as it did in the public eye, although not much to alter their personal relationship. Janet speaks of her brother’s case in defense and as his sister, adds some clarity to the case, which has never been heard before. Of course, when Michael Jackson’s trial happened in 2005, Janet and other members of the Jackson family were always by Michael’s side, walking to court hand-in-hand. It’s easy to see why Janet, after the trial and death of her brother, has chosen to stick by his side, although as gracious and smart as Janet is, she does so with clarity and consideration for the uproar that it caused in their work. Janet offers one glimpse of light about Michael, as footage of him is shown throughout the documentary, and it’s the light we’ve all been waiting for more than documentaries on the allegations or opinion pieces on Michael Jackson’s legacy from the world. Janet has one wish of her brother, “to have let the world know him better.” The part about Michael obviously precedes the part when she speaks of her father, Joe Jackson’s death. Her mother Katherine is left speechless, unable to talk as they scroll to a plaque of one of the many accomplishments of Michael Jackson hanging on the wall. Family and Michael’s legacy and reputation are important to Janet, and her words and her mother’s words prove to be the only standing voices on the subject. Janet’s documentary becomes a moment of clarity about Michael Jackson, who’s her brother more than the world’s pop enigma, and all at once, a star who’s recently been subjected to “Leaving Neverland” documentaries recounting years of sexual abuse alleged against him, regains his purity, power, and shine. Those documentaries are rightfully replaced by Janet’s documentary, a documentation of world-class genius.
The whole notion about living under Michael Jackson’s shadow brings this opportunity to talk about family in a special and rare moment for Janet, but also underscores the larger idea of women in the industry and women empowerment, and the things women go through. Being the sister of the world’s most famous entertainer isn’t just a matter of “must be” tough. It is. That’s why Janet would much rather prefer to be Janet Jackson, and that’s a matter of fact. The sentiments of being Michael Jackson’s younger sister carry a burden, and as we learned her image and her music were put against his. Janet Jackson, as the documentary comes full circle, shows that she is our sister and star, who finds a way out and above the standards of the industry. Control and Rhythm Nation broked records like Off The Wall and Thriller; her tours hold concert attendance records even The Bad Tour at Wembley would fathom to imagine. Janet mastered and managed pop like the King of Pop, and it speaks to her friendly competition with her brother, who’s the prime symbol for success and music mastery, but also it goes back to something bigger for Janet as a woman. It’s always something bigger for women, and Janet exceeded those expectations by being a great inspiration as the sister of Michael Jackson and our sister in the industry. There were many shadows for Janet, including her private life, family life, show business and child superstardom, and above all being a woman in all of it and having to get away from the shadow. She wasn’t living under a shadow, she was standing in her own light the whole time. Janet Jackson is a timeless icon. Her life story has now been documented, and the documentation of it should serve a greater purpose than a media consumption piece. The story of Janet Jackson is one of hope and light for women across the world. It was Selena in 2021 and how could one forget, and now it’s Janet in 2022.
In this new year without some of our brightest stars and as we celebrate them, it is equally important to talk about the stars and hold onto them. Stars like Janet and her documentary Janet Jackson remind us of that. Janet, like Michael, reminds us of the great, big stars. Janet reminds us of the great stars and women in history.