I Think, Therefore Icon: Janet Jackson

8.27.2014

By Les Fabian Brathwaite

Why the singer is one of the greatest icons ever

Photo: Getty

In the echelon of pop divas, few rank higher than Janet Damita Jo Jackson. And as a gay icon, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with her multi-platinum track record of LGBT support. Yet, for some reason, when lumping together the great ladies in our iconic pantheon — the Chers, the Madonnas, the Judys, even the Beys — her name is often and conspicuously absent. Meanwhile, what has Streisand done for you lately?

Though Ms. Jackson neither confirmed nor denied that a new album is in the works — those Jacksons are notoriously cagey — the thought of Janet’s return had the kids collectively clutching their pearls. It’s time we give Janet her dues as the other Queen of Pop, especially when you consider how much she's given the most recent queen of gays, Beyonce, who was honored by MTV with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. (The same honor bestowed upon Janet herself in 1990.)

Here are 10 reasons Janet is one of the greatest gay icons ever.

1. She taught us to dance.

“Get the point? Good. Let’s dance.”
- “Let’s Dance (Interlude)”, Rhythm Nation (1989)

Before Janet, women weren’t dancing this hard or this fierce or this sexy. Sure, Madonna was hopping around in mesh and lace — and that was real cute for her — but Janet pelvic-thrusted her way into stardom (with the help of a young, coherent Paula Abdul). And in households across the world, kids like me and you and Beyoncé were taking notes and learning each move on our own roads to fame — Bey took the HOV lane. Proof positive: crank up the dance break from “If” and guaranteed a gaggle of gays will come flocking from seemingly nowhere and tut that shit out perfectly.

2. She taught us to stand up for ourselves.

“No, my first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet/ Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty!”
- “Nasty”, Control (1986)

Those words went down in history as the rallying call for all women who suffered the indignities of street harassment, or just for anyone who wanted to slam a car door in someone’s face. But by standing up for herself, Janet set an example for all of us to take control.

3. She taught us to love sex. Like, a lot.

“Anytime and any place/ I don’t care who’s around”
- “Any Time, Any Place,” janet. (1993)

The sexual flowering of Janet Jackson occurred on September 13, 1990*. That’s when she made the video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”, and from thence Janet was nobody’s little sister. Ms. Jackson began talking and cooing candidly about sex, advocating it as something to (safely) enjoy. As often as possible. And she’s provided a tantric-length soundtrack of lovemaking tunes over the years to assist in her sexual revolution.

*Author note: The date also happens to coincide with the first time I knew I was gay. Thanks, Antonio Sabato Jr. and Djimon Honsou!

4. She recorded one of the definitive gay anthems.

“Dream about us together again”
- “Together Again, The Velvet Rope (1998)

Lady Gaga, I’mma let you finish, but Janet Jackson recorded one the greatest gay anthems of all time. An ode to a friend she lost to AIDS, “Together Again” is nonetheless an exuberant celebration of life that always gets the kids out of their seats and onto their feets.

5. She puts her money where her mouth is.

“Boy meets boy/ Boy loses boy/ Boy gets cute boy back”
- “Free Xone”, The Velvet Rope (1997)

Unlike some divas whose support for the LGBT community is implicit rather than explicit, Janet has always been a staunch and vocal ally. Even when been plagued with gay rumors, Janet never betrays the kids.

“I don't mind people thinking that I'm gay or calling me gay,” she told Ebony in 2001. “I love people regardless of sexual preference, regardless of race.” She’s also spread that love with her philanthropic work with various AIDS and LGBT charities, earning the Humanitarian Award from the HRC in 2005 and the Vanguard Award from GLAAD in 2008.

6. She’s inspired a generation.

“I feel like bumping to some old school”
- “R&B Junkie,” Damita Jo (2004)

Any female pop singer working today owes a huge debt of gratitude to Janet. Anytime you see a choreographed dance troupe, a toned bare midriff, an elaborate music video, a blockbuster stage show, a film role between albums, or an ear microphone — Janet’s fingerprints are all over it.

7. She didn’t let a “malfunction” keep her down.

“Relax, it’s just sex.”
- “Sexhibition,” Damita Jo (2004)

We all remember Justin Timberlake ruining the Super Bowl, right? Nipplegate as it will be referred to for time in perpetutu, marred one of pop’s most flawless careers and though it has never truly recovered, tenacity is the hallmark of any gay icon. Little known fact, Judy Garland died in 1963, but she just ran on martini fumes and uppers till ’69.

Janet’s conduct from the bus JT threw her under is a portrait in poise and a lesson in keeping your head up. Even when everyone’s trying to drag you down. Meanwhile, Damita Jo will be looked back upon as a classic, you mark my words.

8. She defined her own eras.

“I’d make you call out my name / I’d ask who it belongs to”
- “If,” janet. (1993)

Once upon a time, a Janet Jackson release was an occasion. There was a distinct sound, message and look associated with each new release. And can we talk about the looks? Reinvention is key to every diva’s repertoire and iconic looks spawn a series of imitators, thus influencing cultural trends and becoming a part of the culture. In other words, was I the only baby gay who hung a scarf out the back of a baseball cap while hitting and quitting it to the “Rhythm Nation” video?

9. She has the receipts.

“I had a few hits before now didn’t I?”
- “Truth”, All for You (2001)

Janet is one of the most successful artists in pop history, having sold and broken records with nothing more than a pop of her shoulder, a toss of a lacefront wig and the flash of that billion watt smile. Let’s take a quick scan of the receipts: 6 Grammys, an Emmy, an Oscar nomination, over 140 million records sold, 10 number one singles…and yet where’s the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction? Ms. Jackson was eligible in 2007, the same year as Madonna — who was inducted the following year by, guess who, Justin Timberlake. Naturally.

10. She managed to find her queenly light in a king-sized shadow.

“Now I see I’ve got to take control.”
- “Control,” Control (1986)

Solange, take a note: just because your sibling is more talented, more successful and more famous doesn’t mean you can’t shut shit down in your own right. Michael Jackson is the biggest popstar ever. Period. Janet could’ve followed her siblings into obscurity, ruminating under the shade of the mighty King of Pop’s branches. But Janet struck out on her own, and in some instances, she even outshone her legendary brother. It’s that kind of ballsy, brash, badassery that becomes a gay icon most.

Tags: Popnography
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