In September 1993, Janet Jackson appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone for the second time. She had released Janet. several months earlier, an album that was already a smash success and a provocative exploration of female pleasure and unbridled sexuality. The LP’s cover showed a tight close-up of her face, calm and mysterious with her hands resting atop her curls. On the back was a shot of her bare stomach and unbuttoned jeans.
The pair of images were already an alluring tease of the album’s themes, but she saved the full-length portrait, taken by Patrick Demarchelier, for the September RS cover. There, she would be seen in the same sepia tone but with the revelation that the only thing she wore between her Mona Lisa smile and loose jeans was her then-husband Rene Elizondo’s hands over her breasts.
The visual quickly became a part of the pop lexicon, noted for being the official coronation of Janet Jackson as an icon far removed from the shadow of her Jackson family name.
“Well, for the first time, I’m feeling free,” Jackson said in the accompanying RS interview that announced her new era. Much like the music, the image served more as a manifesto than a statement of shock value. She had found maturity and comfort within her own skin. The old Janet – modest, naïve, clean-cut – was long gone. “For me, sex has become a celebration, a joyful part of the creative process.”
By the early Nineties, there was no question that Janet Jackson was up there with Madonna, Prince and her brother Michael as one of pop’s true giants. However, her conservative image and an older, even more successful sibling made it tough for her to achieve her true due as an artist – to the world, she was still the Jackson family baby who catapulted to the top only because of a famous last name.
With Janet., she was determined to separate herself. Establishing herself as a mononym, she tackled sexual intimacy with an empowered stance reflective of her Control and Rhythm Nation eras, which asserted her independence and social-justice leanings, respectively. This time around, she wanted to express herself as a woman who felt incredibly comfortable in her own skin and aimed to do so with the poetic justice the topic deserved.
“You could say I’ve entered a happy phase of sexuality,” she told RS. “I’ve had to go through some changes and shed some old attitude before feeling completely comfortable with my body. Listening to my new record, people intuitively understand the change in me.”
Jackson’s exhibitionism and power worked in her favor: The album ushered in her Nineties rebirth, a time when she continued to explore a bedroom-R&B sound. In her earlier work, intimacy was tied solely to more modest acts of romance. Her Janet. lyrics explored everything from foreplay to oral sex. Most importantly, she maintained that an active sex life does not deter a woman from being a role model figure, and she placed a heavy emphasis on safe sex in her visuals (especially since this era was still the height of the AIDS crisis).
“How many nights I’ve laid in bed excited over you?/I’ve closed my eyes and thought of us a hundred different ways,” she sings on the single “If.” It’s a far cry from the more innocent yearning captured in her Control era hit “When I Think of You.”
Janet. ended up being a commercial and critical success, debuting at Number One, which made her the first female artist to do so in the SoundScan era. It yielded six Top 10 hits and held down the top spot on the albums chart for six weeks straight. Janet. was not only a phenomenon but an open door for the women who would follow in Jackson’s footsteps.
The process of shock and awe at young female sexuality is cyclical: think of the moments when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera kissed Madonna at the 2003 VMAs; or when Miley Cyrus twerked on Robin Thicke at the show 10 years later; or when Beyoncé sang the line “he Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown” later that same year. Before Jackson, there were few female pop stars who risked alienating their family-friendly fanbases by singing or performing in a way that reflected their personal evolution.
When female artists publicly assert their intimate sexual desires, the culture tends to respond with equal parts controversy and praise. The Britneys, Mileys and Beyoncés of the world were met with as much respect as they were arguments over respectability politics, though approach and career timing factored in heavily to the responses. Jackson, surprisingly, was met with mostly support. Her biggest detractors were wary of her actual creative control and involvement in the writing process. Her false image as a “producer-dependent artist,” as Greg Kot wrote in The Chicago Tribune during this era, might have played into her being snubbed in the three major Grammy categories – Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year – the following year.
Regardless, Jackson’s statement, both artistic and personal, came through clearly. Her provocations were uninhibited and steered clear of any gaze that did not personally belong to her. She created an album entirely about female pleasure and made sure that her videos reflected that sense of power. Songs like “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “If” and “Any Time, Any Place” feature her as a creator and purveyor of erotic fantasies who will make the decision whether or not those wishes will be fulfilled. “I don’t wanna stop just because people walking by are watching us/I don’t give a damn what they think/I want you now,” she offers on the classic PDA anthem “Any Time, Any Place.”
In the 25 years since Jackson’s landmark manifesto of desire, she also revealed a new possibility for black female identity in the entertainment sphere. Our black female stars often teeter dramatically between being seen as the oversexualized jezebel or the desexualized mammy. Disco stars like Donna Summer worked to bridge that image gap in the mainstream – following in the campy footsteps of the blues women who came long before the disco era – but the very public image shift that Jackson performed was unparalleled.
Since, artists like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Solange, SZA, Janelle Monáe and Rihanna have not only cited Jackson’s work as integral to their own careers but have also embodied the power, intimacy and assertiveness of Janet. when exploring similar subjects in their own material. Some of the finest, most nuanced explorations of female sexuality have come from the aforementioned artists: Beyoncé detailing marital intimacy in the wake of having children on her self-titled album and the healing process following infidelity on Lemonade, while Monáe and SZA included themes and select lyrics, respectively, dealing with queer experiences on their latest releases.
“She was one of the first female pop icons that I could relate to,” Rihanna told Times Online of Jackson in 2009. Her coming-of-age process in the spotlight has seen her use sex as both provocation and power on songs like “S&M” and “Kiss It Better.”
“She was so vibrant,” Rihanna continued. “She had so much energy. She still has power.”
It can’t be a mere coincidence how much more openly sexual the female rap stars of the late Nineties became as well. Lil Kim and Missy Elliott were not only embodying bravado their male peers could get away with but were doing so with the confidence in ownership that Jackson exuded and demanded. It was the dawn of a new era where sex and sexuality could move to the center of the pop-music conversation.
Jackson has never stopped tackling these themes. In the decades that followed, she continued to explore how she felt about her body and her intimate relations in an increasingly extroverted way. Janet. paved the way for its even more evolved follow-up The Velvet Rope in 1997, an album that explored her history of childhood trauma and body issues alongside themes of sexuality in all forms.
She still reveres the groundbreaking work she did with her 1993 image shift, speaking about it recently in a Billboard cover story written by David Ritz, the same journalist who sat down with her for her iconic RS moment 25 years ago. While she has long emphasized the joyful aspects of the sexuality she explored on Janet., she makes sure to note that this was a political act as well, one meant to uplift herself as a black American woman with the free will to give and experience carnal pleasure.
“I didn’t want this album to ignore serious issues,” she said, noting the influence of Maya Angelou on her lyrics. She specifically cites the LP’s Chuck D collaboration “New Agenda,” a song whose lyrics seem to echo the assertive punctuation mark that concludes the album’s title.
“Because of my gender, I’ve heard no too many times/Because of my race, I’ve heard no too many times/But with every no I grow in strength/That’s why as an African-American woman, I stand tall with pride.”