She's the youngest of nine children born to Joe and Katherine Jackson- including Michael, Tito, Marlon, LaToya, and Jermaine. She was always a tomboy as a child - a little chubby, and given to roughhousing. Janet became aware of the performance early on. Since the Jackson 5 were already stars by the time Janet was an adolescent, it may never have occurred to her that it was possible to fail in show business. She had an experience of life completely different from what her oldest brothers and sisters may have known as a poor Indiana family. She was perhaps the most protected child in the family, as the youngest often is.
As she grew, her interests branched in several directions- dancing, acting, singing. She was clearly a performer, but of what kind? She first appeared on stage in her brothers' show in 1973- at the age of seven. In 1977, Norman Lear offered her a job on the CBS hit as Penny Gordon Woods on "Good Times." After that, she appeared on a few shows, "Diffrent Strokes" and "A New Kind of Family" among them. She was doing sitcom acting: not terribly challenging, but highly paid, with good exposure. And as a Jackson child, how could one not draw exposure? Brother Michael was already solo and tearing up the charts with Off the Wall.
In 1982, she released her first album, Janet Jackson. It wasn't bad for a first effort, especially for a sixteen-year-old, but it played it very safe. Janet had yet to find a voice, a style, or an audience. She toured the country, performing in high schools and encouraging the kids there to stay in school. During the tour, she went with her mother to see The Time perform. Two members of the band- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis- would become major figures in her career. In 1983, she got a role on "Fame." The show, no longer on a network, remained one of the most critically praised shows on TV- and one which somehow had maintained itself as a showcase for singing and dancing, as well as acting and writing. Anachronistic though a musical format may have seemed, the show was much like the high school it portrayed: encouraging talented performers to stay a while and learn before moving on. During her time at "Fame," she remained protected (not surprising, considering she was still a minor at the start of the season) an
d her parents were often on the set. In 1984, Janet, age 18, eloped with James DeBarge and married him. Pressures from a number of different directions intervened- her record company, the demands of her schedule, her youth. By the following March, she moved back in with her parents and had the marriage annulled.
Also in 1984, Janet released her second album, Dream Street. Inflected by the dance-pop of the time (it was produced with help from Giorgio Moroder, of Flashdance fame), it was little more than a statement of musical presence on Janet's part: I'm here, I'm making music, heads up. It was not well-received.
The album peaked at #147 on the charts and Janet retreated to think about her next album. She listened to other songs, worked intensively with songwriters and producers, and cultivated a coherent sound which had been lacking the previous effort. This sound is still recognizable in Janet's music: a blending of the sharp opening phrases and commanding bass lines of funk with the melodic sense of soul, and the rhythm backing of 80s dance-pop and, later, rap.
The album that pulled these things together was 1986's Control. It was her first album with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It transformed all of their careers. It hit number one, putting six singles on various charts. Among the charts that Janet simultaneously occupied the #1 position on were dance, black and pop- which describe the meld the album achieved. It took the hard beat background and laid a funk-riff melody over it, with Janet not always so much singing as keeping a vocal rhythm.
The album was aggressive, in tone and melody. It was a clear stepping out from behind her parents'- and brothers'- coattails. "What Have You Done For Me Lately" is the voice of a woman taking control of her voice and her man, "Control" (the title track) being what the album is all about. The album was all about Janet- and who she wanted to be. It was sexier than any past album- enough to disturb her mother a bit. Janet knew it would, but weighed her need to get out of the nest against that- and that need won.The singles from the album just kept coming: five of the tracks from the album became top 5 pop hits. Janet spent most of 1986 and 1987 supporting the album and remixing the songs into dance versions. (Many of these versions were released as Control- The Remixes.)
Rolling Stone reviewer Rob Hoerburger called Control "a better album than Diana Ross has made in five years." Ms. magazine named the album one of the musical landmarks of the past 20 years. By 1989, Janet released her next album, Rhythm Nation 1814. What exactly did 1814 mean? Well, R and N are the 18th and 14th letters of the alphabet, respectively... but that wasn't quite it. If, as People reviewer Ralph Novak claimed, Janet was "making a strident declaration of independence" with Control, Rhythm Nation was a few years down the road. 1814 refers to the year that Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star Spangled Banner," and the album was about some of the troubles of this Rhythm Nation. She said at the time, "Control was about my life; Rhythm Nation is about what's going on in the world around us."
Rhythm Nation was accompanied by a long-form video project, encompassing a number of the songs from the album, in a conceptually coherent form. It's a morality play featuring two young shoeshine boys, which director Dominic Sena tried to film in the style of a vintage musical. The tour that followed was as much of a production: huge, expensive, and theatrical.
If some tracks on Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 were hard for mother Katherine to take, janet, her 1993 follow-up, should, as Michael Odell put it, "turn her to the bottle... she really puts the bedsprings through their paces." The album retains the assertiveness of Control, the political awareness of Rhythm Nation, and adds a frank sexual tone. The British publication VOX said that "Musically, she touches all bases; lyrically, she hardly gets out of the sack."
Around the same time janet was released, she starred in John Singleton's Poetic Justice. The film, about the meaning of poetry in an urban setting, gained Janet some respect for her acting. Oddly enough, she had attended the same junior high school as John Singleton- "I remember his as this little kid with 'Coke bottle glasses,' who had all these books," Janet said. "After [meeting on the set of Steven Spielberg's] Hook, we got together and it all just happened from there."
Since then, she's spent time building her acting skills, writing songs, and maintaining relationships. She remains close with Michael still- as kids they'd play piano together. She still talks to him mornings, supported him in public during his roughest times. The key she wears on an earring is a gift from him- it was to the cage of a baby deer they took care of as kids. One day, he attached it to the earring- and she has left it there. The two siblings joined forces on Michael's video (currently the most expensive music video ever made) "Scream."
With the release of her seventh album, Behind The Velvet Rope, Janet joined longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on a project that set out to tackle social issues like domestic violence and the AIDS crisis. The first single from the album, "Got "Til It's Gone," features a sample from an artist accustomed to speaking out through music - Joni Mitchell (trivia: the sample comes from Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" 1970). According to Janet, "It's kind of like therapy...In the past, I've always found a way to not have to face the pain I've experienced growing up; I would brush it aside and keep going," she says. "But I'm at a point now where self-discovery has become important, and this album is kind of like a self-examination."
And like "Got 'Til It's Gone's" recurring chorus, "Joni Mitchell never lies," Janet assimilates the statement to a new level in her own career, "I've always had this need, when I discover a truth, to share it musically," Jackson said. "A lot of times when I've felt alone, music has helped me get through it. Maybe this album will strike a chord with some people out there when they're going through difficult times."