Chad Batka/The New York Times

February 6, 2022

Janet Jackson Never Had Control

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Legendary singer and performer Janet Jackson released her documentary Janet on Lifetime and A&E on Jan. 28. The documentary explores her romances, her relationship with her iconic brother Michael and, of course, the Super Bowl Incident. However, all these aspects of her life tie back to one central theme: control. 

The first sign of this theme in the documentary is Jackson’s relationship with her father and family patriarch, Joe Jackson. Her late parent has been notoriously publicized for his strict discipline, and his dominant nature distanced himself from the rest of the family. 

The youngest of nine children, Janet was exposed to the entertainment industry at seven years old, performing at variety shows in Vegas with her siblings under the instruction of her father, with no say in the matter. Her father recognized Jackson’s talent for singing, ultimately becoming her first manager and overseeing the release of two albums that flopped on the charts. 

Throughout this, Janet was still a teenager, and she wanted to go to college to become a lawyer. Although the documentary paints Jackson’s father in a positive light, it’s easy to argue that if he never forced his daughter into the spotlight, she would not have suffered a lack of privacy during the height of her career. 

Ultimately, Jackson fired her father to work with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, creating her groundbreaking album Control. The album pioneered the “good girl gone bad” pipeline in music. 

Jackson encouraged other women around the world to take control of their lives. Her assertiveness and fierce attitude resonated with many fans across racial and gender lines. She changed the way artists choreographed music videos; the production from collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would create a new genre, but most of all Janet found her voice. 

However, her relationship with Renée Elizondo Jr proved that she still didn’t have control over her life. Elizondo, a music director and dancer, was Jackson’s first relationship after her annulment with James DeBarge. He and Jackson were married for almost a decade. 

The documentary argues that Elizondo had a great impact on Jackson’s image and artistic vision, as he would direct her movements and style in videos and stage. It showcases how Jackson and Elizondo were a powerful couple, with Elizondo encouraging his love to succeed, but it also accounts for Elizondo’s controlling nature. He would never stop recording Jackson, even during very intimate moments with her close family and friends. His addiction to painkillers ultimately led their relationship to spiral. 

Although Janet thought she gained control over her life after removing her father as her manager, she was trapped in a relationship with a controlling man who saw himself as the pure genius behind her career. This assumption led Elizondo to sue Jackson for $25 million in spousal support, arguing that he needed it due to the contribution he made to Jackson’s career in songwriting. 

The aftermath of her divorce led Jackson to dive deeper into her femininity and maturity with her next album All For You, which explored prevalent issues in romance: heartbreak, new love and dating. The album saw great critical success, featuring Jackson’s last number one hit with the lead single. Everything seemed to be going well: Jackson released a successful album, found new love with producer Jermaine Dupri and was praised by MTV with a special episode on MTV Icon. What could possibly go wrong?

In 2004, Jackson performed at the Super Bowl with Nelly, Kid Rock and a surprise guest, Justin Timberlake. The show went smoothly until a wardrobe malfunction occurred. Timberlake ripped a piece of her clothing, revealing her breasts for 9/16ths of a second on national television.  

The Super Bowl Incident, also known as “Nipplegate,” led the entertainment industry of the 2000s to blackball Jackson. It took her agency away in the sense that the media reframed her sexuality against her will, correlating her sexual agency with promiscuity and subjecting her to the Jezebel Trope. 

It was a shocking scene. According to the documentary, Jackson started crying as soon as she left the stage. The cameras kept rolling as chaos surged from the crowd. 

Outrage ensued. MTV and other media outlets refused to support Jackson’s upcoming album, Damita Jo. Former CBS Chairman Les Moonves ordered Viacom properties not to support her music videos. The Grammy Awards rescinded Jackson’s invitation, and the conservative right used this incident to condemn the hypersexuality of women in the media. 

As a Black woman who has embraced her sexuality from a young age as a response to childhood body image issues, I feel that these arguments decentralize the importance of a figure who has empowered other women to be comfortable with their sexualities. Because of the Super Bowl incident, Jackson’s legacy and accomplishments have been tarnished, and all the work she built up to gain control over her career and success went down the drain. 

Jackson still released albums after the incident, but they didn’t have the same mainstream appeal as all of her other albums before the incident. Although she still received support from black media, specifically BET, her work went under the radar for many radar audiences, to the point where Gen Z still doesn’t understand the impact of Jackson on the new pop girls Britney Spears, Aaliyah and more — until now. 

Continued discussions about Jackson are one step toward keeping her legacy alive; although Jackson could not retain control over her media image, the truth of her impact in the industry is indisputable. We should celebrate that. 

Adesuwa Carlton is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]