Why Janet Jackson is pop’s most underrated legend

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With a Glastonbury show and a Las Vegas residency, the singer is back in the limelight – which is good reason to celebrate her as the pioneer she has been

Janet Jackson’s upcoming appearance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival has already made headlines. When the singer tweeted the poster for the internationally-renowned British weekender in March, fans spotted that she’d doctored the original image to promote herself from fifth on the bill to first, leapfrogging headline acts The Killers, The Cure and Stormzy, plus Kylie Minogue, who’s playing the Sunday afternoon ‘legends’ slot.

It was a brazen and amusing bit of self-aggrandizement from the US star, who is back in the limelight this summer, with her new Las Vegas residency being hailed as a return to “top form” when it began last month. But many fans felt it was more than justified. For, despite a glittering career that includes 10 US number one hits, estimated global record sales totalling 100 million, and a recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Janet remains a strangely underrated pop icon.

Janet’s iconic career is especially impressive because it’s involved having to emerge from the shadow of a wildly successful older sibling. When she dropped her eponymous debut album in September 1982, Michael Jackson was just months away from unleashing Thriller, the pop culture phenomenon that became the best-selling album of all time.

Performing as the Jackson Five, Janet’s brothers had been a popular act since the early ’70s, and being a Jackson surely gave Janet a head start in the highly competitive music industry. But it didn’t guarantee her a hit: neither 1982’s forgettable Janet Jackson album nor 1984’s slightly stronger follow-up Dream Street,which includes an almost-quaint duet with British pop legend Cliff Richard, sold very well. Their largely characterless blend of contemporary pop sounds offered few clues that by the mid-90s, Janet would be the highest-paid recording artist in history.

Janet’s creative and commercial breakthrough came in 1986, when she teamed up with Minneapolis-based producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to make Control, a game-changing dance-pop-R&B album that paved the way for the new jack swing sound of the late-’80s. When Janet declared “this time, I’m gonna do it my way,” on the title track, she meant it: Jam and Lewis’s sleek, teak-tough beats gave her a state-of-the-art platform to establish her own powerful pop persona – that of a strong, self-assured young woman who had no time for “nasty boys”. Then, with 1989’s formidableJanet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album, she became more overtly political. “Join voices in protest to social injustice,” she sang on the title track. “A generation full of courage, come forth with me.”

“Long before Beyoncé was flashing the word ‘feminist’ in the background while performing on stage, Janet was exploring how navigating the world as a black woman is never not political,” says Dr Kirsty Fairclough from the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford. “Her music and image melded to explicitly address racism and sexism with songs about trying to flourish as a person in an environment ruled by both. In a 1987 interview following the release of Control, Jackson responded to a question about being a feminist by saying, ‘If it’s someone, a woman, who’s taking control of her life as well as her career, then I say that I am a feminist.'”

These two albums contain some of Janet’s most enduring songs, including What Have You Done for Me Lately?, Escapade and Nasty, on which she delivers an iconic rebuke to disrespectful males: “No, my first name ain’t baby – it’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” They also established her as one of the most dynamic music video creators of all time. When I Think of You is a joyous homage to old-school Hollywood musicals directed by Absolute Beginners’ Julien Temple; The Pleasure Principle contains a dazzling dance performance from Janet that peaks with a famous chair sequence that Britney Spears referenced in her 2000 video for Stronger.

A sexually-liberated trailblazer

Subsequent albums such as 1993’s janet and 1997’s The Velvet Rope found her fully embracing her sexuality in a way that still feels groundbreaking today. Her 1993 single If is a heady sexual fantasy whose video has been praised for portraying interracial lust. “There are songs on The Velvet Rope that would make Beyoncé in [sexually-charged] Partition mode blush,” BBC Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo tells BBC Culture. “Her unashamed sexual liberation, especially for black women, is something that’s still so taboo.”

At the same time, musically, she began to shift into seductive, slow-burn R&B – see brilliant ’90s singles such as the Grammy-winning That’s the Way Love Goes and Joni Mitchell-sampling Got ‘til It’s Gone. But even then, she never abandoned the dancefloor. Two of her biggest mid-career hits were 1997’s Together Again, a poignant house-pop track inspired by a friend she lost to Aids, which cemented her status as an LGBT icon, and 2001’s All for You, an irresistible neo-disco song that spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Janet collaborated almost exclusively with Jam and Lewis until 2004’s Damita Jo album, which also included contributions from several other producers including Kanye West. Amfo notes that “her consistency in working with the same producers allowed her to hone a sound that is so distinctively her”. Damita Jo became Janet’s first commercial disappointment since 1984, failing to top the Billboard 200 chart or to yield a sizeable hit single.

Super Bowl sexism

The album arrived just two months after one of the most notorious moments of her career: the so-called ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during her performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, which saw her breast briefly visible on live TV. Both artists said afterwards that the idea was simply for Timberlake to rip away Janet’s leather bustier to reveal a red lace bra underneath, but that the ‘malfunction’ caused her entire breast to be exposed.

The incident caused a global furore: Michael Powell, chairman of US media regulator the Federal Communications Commission, told a Senate panel that it was “a new low for prime time television”. Though ‘Janet Jackson’ became the most searched-for person on the internet that year, her reputation was instantly tarnished. Walt Disney World even decided to remove  a life-size statue of Mickey Mouse dressed in her signature Rhythm Nation outfit.

Last year a report alleged that after the incident, Les Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS, which screened the Super Bowl, became “fixated” with derailing her career and effectively blacklisted her from Viacom channels including MTV. Moonves, who stepped down from the network in September 2018 following accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, is said to have been incensed because he believed the incident was a deliberate attempt to whip up controversy that Janet had not shown enough remorse for.

Whatever the truth behind this allegation, there’s no doubting that it affected her career in a way that Timberlake, who was equally involved in the incident, largely managed to escape. “Though her nipple was only exposed for about half a second, what the incident triggered was to bring back into popular consciousness a long-held negative trope surrounding black female sexuality,” Fairclough says. “This is essentially the idea that black women are ‘dangerous’ and ‘irrational’ sexual beings that must be controlled. Her career in the mainstream has never fully recovered since this moment.”

The Janet revival

But in recent years, Janet’s reputation has definitely enjoyed a revival. Her 2015 album Unbreakable debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and her recent tours have won appreciative reviews. “When

[acclaimed French singer-songwriter]

Christine and the Queens did a segment on my radio show called Your Song [in which guests select a song that is special to them], she chose Janet’s The Pleasure Principle and she was just so elated when she was speaking about it,” says Clara Amfo. “Janet has and continues to be a template for so many artists: Christine, Ciara, fellow Glastonbury performer Janelle Monáe, MNEK, Beyoncé, the list goes on.”

Indeed, British artist-producer MNEK tells BBC Culture enthusiastically: “Janet’s songwriting and performing has always been so sophisticated. I’ve always admired her showmanship and how she was able to wrap lyrics with her voice in such a smooth way. [Some] people say her voice is too soft or that she can’t sing, but this obviously isn’t true. Janet has actually got a beautiful voice.”

MNEK also praises Janet for “really drilling in the importance of albums to the public – that gets overshadowed because she’s the ‘baby Jackson’, but her talent is her own, outside of being a Jackson”. Amfo goes a step further, saying that a key part of Janet’s legacy lies in inspiring others by “gaining independence from a family with an overbearing history”. Sadly, it’s arguable that this family history continues to cast a shadow on Janet’s individual achievements. Dr Kirsty Fairclough says that historical sexual abuse allegations levelled at Michael Jackson in this year’s documentary Leaving Neverland “inevitably influences mainstream coverage of Janet and her family”.

Janet’s new Las Vegas show, Janet Jackson: Metamorphosis, begins with a performance of Empty, an excellent trip-hop-inflected track from The Velvet Rope. Released 22 years ago, its lyrics seem to have anticipated society’s growing reliance on online relationships. “Is this a new way to love? Never face to face, is it enough?” Janet ponders. Her revival of this very prescient song in 2019 reflects how, knockbacks notwithstanding, Janet remains supremely capable of stewarding her own legacy, and doing so smartly. This weekend’s Glastonbury set gives her a welcome opportunity to remind us that she’s one of her generation’s most thrilling and visionary performers.

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How your looks shape your personality

We tend to think of our looks as separate from who we are. But it turns out that physical traits like height or attractiveness may shape our personalities, behaviours, even politics.

The boarding school where I was a pupil in the 1990s provided the perfect microcosm for anyone interested in how “survival of the fittest” plays out among humans. In a boarding house of 50-plus rambunctious boys, all of us employed various strategies to avoid becoming isolated and bullied, from forming coalitions to gaining popularity by selling cheap batteries (my own deterrent-based approach involved cultivating a reputation as a karate fanatic).

Then there was the minority of larger-than-average boys whose sheer size meant they had little to worry about. These chaps had an understandable swagger and confidence about them – their outgoing, assertive personalities seemed to reflect their physicality.

Can your personality develop in response to your physique?

Was that correspondence between their body and character traits a chance correlation, or had their personalities developed in response to their physiques? One theory holds that it could be the latter. Known as “facultative personality calibration”, this is the idea that our personalities develop in a way that best suits the other genetic cards we’ve been dealt, including our size, strength, and attractiveness.

Evidence supporting facultative personality calibration is growing – not only in terms of how one’s looks influence our personality traits, but even our approaches to finding romantic partners and our political beliefs. (It’s worth noting that the theory remains tentative thanks to a dependence so far on mostly correlational and inconsistent data, and because there are alternative explanations for the findings, such as that our personality traits can shape our bodies).

How extroverted we are may have to do with our physiques

Consider trait extroversion, which involves not only being more sociable, but also more adventurous and willing to take risks. In evolution, it would make strategic sense if stronger, more physically capable people exploited their bodily advantages by being more extroverted.

That’s exactly what some research has found. One study out of Germany’s University of Göttingen recently reported that of more than 200 men, those who were physically stronger and who had more “macho” bodies – including larger chests and biceps – also tended to be more extroverted, especially in the sense of being more assertive and physically active. The same strength-extroversion association was not found among the women in the study.

Other research has found that physically more formidable men also tend to be more prone to aggression and less neurotic (as in, less fearful and worrisome). Again, this makes sense if you see personality as an adaptive strategy. If you are physically weak, then being cautious and wary of danger is likely to lengthen your lifespan. But if you are physically formidable, you can afford to be more of a risk-taker.

There are intriguing parallels to these ideas among behavioural ecology scholars studying animals. These researchers have noticed how, in many species, the animal’s “personality” (their tendency toward boldness or timidity) varies adaptively in response to their bodily state – for instance, one study showed that larger jumping spiders were bolder in the face of a potential predator than their smaller counterparts.

It’s noticeable that a lot of the human research on the association between physical strength and extroversion and aggressiveness has focused on men. This is because, according to evolutionary theory, physical strength and fighting ability is more of an asset to men who must compete with each other for mates. One study out of the University of California, Santa Barbara looked at both men and women and found the usual association between physical strength and trait extraversion, but the link was noticeably more robust among men.

The same study measured participants’ attractiveness, another physical attribute that could, in theory, make it advantageous to develop an extroverted personality style. Results showed that for women as much as for men, greater attractiveness tended to go hand in hand with being more extroverted – thus suggesting that some of these body–personality trait dynamics can play out for women too.

“The present findings demonstrate that a surprisingly large fraction of the between-person variance in extraversion can be predicted from physical strength and physical attractiveness,” the researchers wrote.

What’s more, their findings could not be explained entirely by differences in a key gene related to androgen function (likely to influence strength, attractiveness and aspects of personality). That bolstered the idea that physical attributes increase extroversion, rather than the body-personality associations merely reflecting shared genetic effects.

It’s not just people’s extroversion and neuroticism that are associated with their physical attributes. Other research has suggested that your approach to hooking up with relationship partners may also be a strategic adaptation influenced by your bodily and facial features, especially if you are male. For instance, in their research involving hundreds of undergrads, Aaron Lukaszewsk at Loyola Marymount University and colleagues, including Christina Larson and Kelly Gildersleeve at the University of California, found that the men (but not the women) who were stronger – based on a weight-training test – and more attractive were more likely to say that sex without love is okay, and that they could happily have sex with someone without being close to them.

This pattern of findings is consistent with the idea that among our male ancestors, those in better physical shape had more reproductive success by engaging in lots of casual sex and that such a sexual strategy has since evolved as a response to being physically capable. “The current findings support the hypothesis that stronger and more attractive men have more sex partners in part because these men are calibrated toward the pursuit of uncommitted mating opportunities,” the researchers wrote.

Just how far-reaching are the ties between how you look and who you are? For men, even political views could be implicated. In a study published this year, a pair of political scientists reported evidence from 12 countries, including the US, Denmark and Venezuela, suggesting that stronger, more muscular men were more likely to be against political egalitarianism. The rationale is that in our ancestral past, such men were more likely to thrive in a society where it was everyone for themselves. The findings for women were mixed, with some studies finding strength correlated with a greater endorsement of egalitarianism and others showing the opposite pattern.

Even our opinions and values may be shaped by our physical features

“Just as physical strength shapes the conflict behavior of other animals in the domains that are important to them (e.g., mating and territorial contests), physical strength appears to shape the behavior of the political animal in this key conflict domain,” the researchers wrote.

We often think of our personalities and beliefs as reflecting the essence of who we are – whether shy or outgoing, commitment-phobic flirt or devoted partner, left-wing or right-wing. And we like to think that these traits derive from cerebral, moral or even spiritual sources.

The idea that these aspects of ourselves might instead, at least in part, reflect a strategic adaptation to our physical size and appearance remains for now a controversial theory. But it’s one that, like a boarding house full of boisterous children, provides a humbling reminder of our animalistic roots.

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