As the baby of pop music's best-known family, Janet Jackson (b. Janet Damita Jo Jackson, May 16, 1966, Gary, Indiana) could have spent her career in the shadow of her eight siblings, particularly brother Michael. Instead, with the help of some savvy creative and professional advisers outside the family, Janet established herself as the preeminent pop-funk diva of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her wispy voice was a pale echo of Michael's, but on Janet's albums — and in her videos and live performances, which revealed a crisp, athletic dance technique not unlike her brother's — singing wasn't the point. Her slamming beats, infectious hooks, and impeccable production values were perfectly suited to the breezy zeal with which she declared her social and sexual independence.
As a young child, Jackson was a tomboy who aspired to be a jockey. When she was seven, though, her father, Joseph, encouraged her to join her brothers — by then famous as the Jackson 5 — in their music and variety act. (Sister La Toya joined them for several shows in 1974; the following year, La Toya, eldest sister Rebbie, and brother Randy were all in on the act, while brother Jermaine bowed out.) Shows in Las Vegas resulted in a summer-replacement TV show in 1976 (on CBS), which led Janet to roles on the popular sitcoms Good Times and Diff'rent Strokes.
Next, Jackson secured a contract with A&M Records, and in 1982, while still managed and creatively guided by her father, she released a forgettable debut album, Janet Jackson. The album did yield a Number Six R&B single, "Young Love." Another TV role, on the series Fame, followed, as did another unremarkable album, 1984's Dream Street, and another R&B hit, "Don't Stand Another Chance" (Number Nine). Also in 1984, at the age of 18, Jackson defied her family by marrying singer James DeBarge, whose fledgling R&B sibling act DeBarge was being hyped as a successor to the Jacksons. The marriage was annulled after less than a year; but the seeds of Jackson's independence from the family dynasty, and her father in particular, were firmly planted.
Then John McClain, an A&M executive and family friend, suggested that Jackson work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of the Time. Collaborating with these musician/writer/producers, Jackson recorded her breakthrough album, 1986's Control, which topped the pop and R&B album charts and spawned numerous hits: "What Have You Done for Me Lately" (Number Four pop, Number One R&B), "Nasty" (Number Three pop, Number One R&B), "When I Think of You" (Number One pop, Number three R&B), and, in 1987, "Control" (Number Five pop, Number one R&B), "Let's Wait Awhile" (Number Two pop, Number 1 R&B), and "The Pleasure Principle" (Number 14 pop, Number One R&B). Helping fuel these singles were Jackson's highly energized, elaborately staged videos, most of which featured movie-musical-inspired choreography by Paula Abdul, who was discovered by Jackie Jackson, Abdul's boyfriend during her L.A. Lakers cheerleading days.
Having asserted her adulthood and self-reliance with Control, by 1987 Jackson had dismissed her father as manager (as other siblings had done before her) before recording Rhythm Nation 1814. Control's successor dealt with larger social issues, like the need for tolerance, and found Jam and Lewis assuming more of the songwriting duties. (Years later, Jackson would also credit her boyfriend, Rene Elizondo Jr., for contributing ideas to many of her songs beginning with this album; it was known that he helped choreograph, and eventually directed, some of her videos.) Rhythm Nation hit Number One in the pop and R&B categories in 1989, and generated the smash singles "Miss You Much" (Number One pop and R&B) and, in 1990, "Rhythm Nation" (Number Two pop, Number One R&B), "Escapade" (Number One pop, Number One R&B), "Alright" (Number Four pop, Number Two R&B), "Come Back to Me" (Number Two pop, Number Two R&B), "Black Cat" (Number One pop, Number Ten R&B), and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" (Number One pop, Number Three R&B). To promote the album, Jackson embarked on her first major tour, which matched the energy and spectacle of her videos.
In 1991 Virgin Records owner Richard Branson lured Jackson away from A&M with a contract worth more than $30 million. Her last original hit with A&M was a 1992 duet with Luther Vandross, "The Best Things in Life Are Free" (Number Ten pop, Number One R&B), recorded for the soundtrack to the film Mo' Money. In 1993 Jackson made her own movie debut as the heroine (opposite rapper Tupac Shakur) of director/screenwriter John Singleton's Poetic Justice, for which she received lukewarm reviews but an Oscar nomination for the song "Again."
That same year, Jackson's Virgin album janet. shot to the top of the pop and R&B charts, as did the single "That's the Way Love Goes." More Top 10 singles followed, including "If" (Number Four pop, Number Three R&B, 1993) and "Again" (Number one pop, Number Seven R&B, 1994). Her new material was just as confrontational, and more aggressively sexual, than her previous work had been; ditto for the accompanying tour, which featured Jackson in midriff-baring costumes, interacting suggestively with male dancers — indeed, more reminiscent of Madonna than Michael. While Janet's once squeaky-clean image wasn't shattered by scandal as her brother's was, it was clear by the early 1990s that the littlest Jackson was nobody's baby, and very much her own woman.
Jackson's status as a hitmaker led her to help her brother Michael regain some credibility by collaborating with him on the duet and elaborate video for "Scream" (Number Five pop, Number Two R&B) in 1995. The same year, she also had a solo hit with "Runaway" (Number Three pop, Number six R&B). She'd continue to please her fans with her next album, The Velvet Rope (Number One pop, Number Two R&B), in 1997. At times still sensual in nature — including a cover of Rod Stewart's seduction song "Tonight's the Night," without a change in the gender of the woman being sung to — much of the album had a melancholy feel and self-doubting lyrics. While doing interviews to promote the album and its tour, Jackson admitted to dealing with depression and long-standing self-esteem issues while working on the album. It did produce its share of hits, including "Got 'Til It's Gone" (Number Three R&B, 1997), based around a sample of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" and featuring the rapper Q-Tip, "Together Again" (Number One pop, Number Eight R&B, 1997), and "I Get Lonely" (Number Three pop, Number 1 R&B, 1998), featuring the group BLACKstreet. In 1999 she enjoyed a hit with Busta Rhymes, "What's It Gonna Be?!," which hit the top of the R&B singles chart.
But Jackson's life wasn't everything it appeared to be. Fans were surprised when, in 2000, Jackson's longtime creative and romantic partner, Elizondo, filed for divorce from the singer after nine years of marriage. Although Elizondo was seen as a loving, stable presence in Jackson's life, it had not been public knowledge that the couple had ever married. Jackson explained that she'd wanted to protect the union from media scrutiny. Also in 2000 Jackson returned to acting, costarring with Eddie Murphy in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, which featured Jackson's "Doesn't Really Matter" (Number One, 2000). The following year she released the double-platinum All for You (Number 1, 2001), featuring the Grammy-winning Number One title track, as well as "Someone to Call My Lover" (Number Three, 2001), which included a loop of America's "Ventura Highway," and "Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)," a Missy Elliott remix featuring the vocals of Carly Simon from her Seventies hit "You're So Vain."
On February 1, 2004, Jackson returned to the public eye with a halftime performance with Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl XXXVIII. The duet on his song "Rock Your Body" created huge controversy when the bustier Jackson was wearing tore open and exposed her right breast just as Timberlake sang the lyrics, "gonna have you naked by the end of this song." Jackson apologized for the incident, claiming it was a "wardrobe malfunction," and the three producers of the show — CBS, sister network MTV and the National Football League — all denied previous knowledge of the incident and abdicated responsibility for it. The display became the most-searched event in the history of the Internet, according to the Guinness World Records. And its ramifications were far-reaching. When Jackson declined to apologize to the network without claiming the incident was a wardrobe malfunction, she was denied a performance at the 2004 Grammy Awards. Record producer Jermaine Dupri, with whom Jackson had begun a relationship, resigned his position on the Grammy Awards committee. ABC stopped plans for Jackson to star in a made-for-television biopic on the life of Lena Horne when Horne expressed displeasure with the Super Bowl incident.
When Jackson's new album, Damita Jo (Number Two, 2004), arrived three months later, its highly sexual theme revealed what some interpreted to have been an elaborate marketing plan that began with the Super Bowl incident. In a soft-spoken remark at the end of the song "Sexhibition," Jackson says, "Relax, it's just sex." If it was a marketing ploy, though, it was a failure. Damita Jo produced no Top Forty pop singles — although "I Want You" reached Number 18 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart — and MTV aired none of its video. The album also met with vicious reviews, one critic calling it "the aural equivalent of hardcore pornography."
Two years later, Jackson rebounded slightly with one of the least sexual albums of her career, 20 Y.O. (Number One R&B/Hip-Hop, Number Two pop, 2006). One of its singles, "Call on Me," a duet with rapper Nelly, sold moderately, charting respectably at Number 25 pop and Number One R&B/Hip-Hop, but other singles were less successful. However, when she appeared on the cover of US Weekly that June, the issue was the magazine's biggest seller ever. In late 2007 Jackson appeared alongside Tyler Perry in the film Why Did I Get Married?, which opened at Number One at the box office, grossing $55 million. With her Virgin Records contract fulfilled, Jackson moved to Island Records for 2008's Discipline, which topped both the pop and R&B/Hip-Hop album charts and produced a hit in its first single, "Feedback" (Number 19 R&B/Hip-Hop).
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).