The Janet Jackson documentary… what the critics are getting wrong

(January 31, 2022).  I’ve read several reviews of the Janet Jackson documentary that aired simultaneously on Lifetime and A&E over the past weekend.  None of them were flattering.

For the unenlightened, the doc, “Janet Jackson.” (with the period included), premiered Friday (Jan. 28) and featured the pop icon in a candid conversation about things that have affected her the most throughout her career: from growing up a Jackson in the shadow of her uber-famous brother Michael, to finding her freedom from father Joe in the 1980s, to her issues with weight, to her much-tabloided (and very secretive) marriages to her first two husbands, and finally—of course—Nipplegate.

The documentary culminated with the event that now likely means more to the pop music icon than anything else—her pregnancy at age 50 and the birth of her now-5-year-old son Eissa.

Janet Jackson photo from the “Janet Jackson.” documentary (2022, courtesy Lifetime)

But the critics were not impressed, particularly with the show’s production and its “lack of revealing details.”  The more critical headlines read: it “promises more than it delivers” (NPR), she pulls back the curtain “a little, but not quite enough” (CNN), and she “lives up to her (private) reputation” and it “lacked fresh insight” (Washington Post).

More specifically, some of the critics wondered why she spent so much time on her failed relationships and not enough on the creative processes behind her iconic music catalog (starting with the making of Control, the album that made her a superstar), knowing full well that—in this gossip-driven, reality TV-heavy era—had it been the other way around, the documentary would’ve been blasted for not covering the personal relationships that clearly affected her tremendously. 

The critics complained that “JJ.” didn’t dive deeper into Nipplegate—from the singer’s own perspective—as if the infamous 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction hadn’t already been dissected in every way possible by the unforgiving media (who had as much a role in the fallout that upended her career as CBS, MTV, Justin Timberlake and others).

They wondered why she gave two men in particular—Timberlake and her father Joseph—a pass.  Near the end of the doc she showed a smartphone video of herself telling the world that she and Justin were great friends who spoke often and that it was time for the world to move on from the Super Bowl 38 incident, as she had already done.

The critics’ point?  Jackson wasn’t looking at the bigger picture of how misogyny has negatively impacted her and her female peers in the industry, particularly after Timberlake’s career took off in the wake of SB38.

Regarding her father, Janet was accused of disregarding the years of alleged abuse and dictatorial control that they say ruined his nine children, specifically Michael and to a lesser degree, Janet.  

But here’s what they don’t get.

This was Janet’s documentary, not theirs.  Janet appears to now be in a place where she has evolved in her relationships with both Timberlake and Joseph, going as far as to thank the latter for his role in making all of this success possible for his family of nine kids born to a working-class father in Gary, IN. Regardless of the emotional or psychological toll it may have had on them, this doc was about where Janet is in her life, not where we are in our assessment of it. 

Jackson and her brother/producer Randy were likely not trying to win any awards with this two-part, 4-hour program that has already aired multiple times and is now available for streaming on Hulu for those who haven’t yet seen it.  

Instead, she was more likely just trying to just tell her story, the way she wanted to tell it, whether we approved of its narrative or not.

Besides, we were treated to far more inside information about the secretive superstar than we ever had been before.

For instance, who among us knew that Janet was just days from signing a lucrative promotional contract with Coca-Cola in the 1990s before news of Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual misconduct tanked it?

How many of us knew that Stevie Wonder was a cousin of Janet’s (and her siblings) as was captioned in one of the pieces of footage showing her and Stevie at a birthday celebration?  Either my head has been buried in the sand for several decades or that was a totally new familial revelation.

But more importantly, we got a glimpse into Janet’s disposition over the past five years of the documentary’s filming, as well as 10 years worth of exclusive footage courtesy of her ex-husband René and his obsessive hobby of filming her every move during their 10-year relationship.

We were able to see how incredibly sad the present-day Janet seemed to be throughout the film when recalling her relationships with the men in her life, from her deceased brother and father, to her first two ex-husbands and the drug addictions that ultimately ended both of those marriages.  

I saw an evolving Janet Jackson who, at a younger age, longed to find her place among her incredibly talented and popular older siblings, and then when she was older sought to break free from them (and the Jackson name), as many of us who grew up in the shadows of older siblings or a domineering parent might do.  

I saw a conflicted Janet Jackson who, like her brother Michael, didn’t experience the “normal” childhood that other kids do, but then express gratitude for the life that her late father Joseph Jackson provided for her and the rest of the Jacksons.

Regarding that father, I saw with intrigue how her interviewer, who happened to be her next-older brother Randy, referred to Joe as “your dad” when recalling to his sister the things their father did to provide a better life for them, almost as if he were describing someone Janet didn’t know.  That in itself was telling of a relationship between father and daughter that even Janet herself admitted later in the film wasn’t the kind of relationship she wished she’d experienced. 

I saw a Janet Jackson who relished the newfound control she had over her own life at age 19 as she broke free from her father’s grasp and teamed up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to release her third album Control, only to relinquish that control to the other men in her life, namely ex-husband René Elizondo and others in the music industry.

When a minor crack was revealed in the veneer of the perfect relationship we all naively envisioned between Jackson and her longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis during the recording of her landmark album Rhythm Nation 1814, that was more insight than we’d ever been given into the making of a Janet Jackson album or how the artist and producers really got along during such a grueling process.

I saw a blossoming Janet whose sexual awakening during the 1990s was captured in never-before-seen footage by husband René.  Sure, we all knew how that was manifested in her records, but little details like behind-the-scenes footage of the making of her very sensual video for the No. 1 song “Again” (from her Janet. album and the Poetic Justice film), or how random guys were picked out of the crowd at her concerts (by husband René) for her onstage chair dances were welcome new insights.

Most compelling was how she tried to help her brother during the recording of their 1995 “Scream” duet, even as her own career was being affected by the allegations against him, and even as his record company tried to keep them separated during the filming of his parts of the song’s video. Upon watching this, if you weren’t wondering why two of the most powerful pop stars at the time couldn’t overcome those corporate hurdles to have the kind of sibling collaboration they both deserved and she clearly wanted, you weren’t alone.

Despite these new insights, the critics wanted her to further explain how “Nipplegate” happened.  They wanted a detailed accounting of how the wardrobe malfunctioned, whether she switched the costume at the last minute unbeknownst to Justin or others, or at least answers to why she quickly exited the stage without a word of apology or sign of remorse.  

They wanted to know why she didn’t take a stronger stance in the documentary about the event that essentially torpedoed her career and added a permanent asterisk to all that she’d spent decades building beforehand.

Did Nipplegate accelerate her career’s demise?  Certainly.  There’s no debate about that.  

But Janet had also entered her late 30s by then, and few, if any, artists—and certainly female ones—have been able to sustain the same level of astronomical record sales into their late 30s and beyond that they enjoyed decades earlier, especially acts whose marks were made at a very early age, as Janet’s had been.  It’s an unfair gender double standard that Janet certainly could’ve lamented, but to what avail?  It’s been a well-documented reality with little change for eons. 

Janet didn’t spend time blasting CBS’ Les Moonves, the executive accused of blackballing her in the wake of Nipplegate.  Instead, she simply recalled to brother Randy that “we have a history with CBS” when recalling why she rejected Timberlake’s invite to appear onstage with him in Super Bowl LII  in 2018.  Perhaps she felt that Moonves forced resignation from CBS that same year due to allegations of sexual harassment was enough of a statement.  It’s  the kind of peace and enlightenment (and satisfaction from redemption) we all might benefit from in this day and age.

The critics blasted Jackson for not taking advantage of the current free Britney Spears movement as a way of showcasing the control that powerful men still have over seemingly vulnerable women even decades after Jackson’s own emancipation from her dad. They essentially wanted JJ to borrow a card from Madonna’s playbook.  They wanted to see Janet’s “f*ck-you” moment.

Admittedly, so did I—at first.  But after watching this documentary, I viewed it as mission accomplished.  I saw a saddened but proud, accomplished Janet Jackson at peace with where she was in life with no regrets about the decisions she’d made throughout it.

I saw a Janet who has had two No. 1 albums since Nipplegate and who has also now been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a Janet who is certainly happy with her latest calling in life: that of being a mother to young son Eissa.

Was she saddened about certain events?  Of course…who wouldn’t be?  She lost a brother seemingly before his time and for reasons that she was all too familiar with, based on the substance abuse issues that ultimately doomed her earlier relationships.  

She clearly hadn’t made peace with Michael before his death, something many of us speculated about but never knew for sure. 

To me that was far more revelatory than anything we’d seen before about the relationship between the most famous brother-sister tandem in popular music history.

So, while the media critics say Janet was too close-lipped and secretive in “Janet Jackson.,” I say we got far more than we’ve ever seen before, especially from a superstar as guarded as Janet has been throughout her career. 

So kudos to Janet for pulling this off, for keeping it in the family with brother Randy as producer, and for not compromising herself or her family’s values in the process.

Janet Jackson photo credit: Lifetime

DJRob

DJRob (2022)

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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4 Replies to “The Janet Jackson documentary… what the critics are getting wrong”

  1. Haven’t seen the doc yet, but I am curious if there will be any mention that this was one of the last Pre-Social-Media celebrity scandals. You wonder how reactions might have changed were we all able to opine 24/7 via Facebook, Twitter, etc.

  2. I enjoyed every bit of it. For an extremely private person, I felt like she opened up alot. That couldn’t have been easy for her. And It’s not in her nature to blast Les Mooves or Justin ( pubically atleast) or anyone else. That’s part of what makes her so great. She told the story her way, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day!

  3. Some things are better left unsaid…I forget who made that quote. I feel as though she chose to tell HERstory. Her relationship with Michael was telling. I truly enjoyed the opening with brother Randy at the family home in Gary Indiana. I truly felt this documentary was a huge thank you to her dad Joseph Jackson. It was a recurring statement throughout the series. Thank you J for giving your true fans a rare peek into your world. What did I miss? Let us meet your son. C’mon!!

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