Gen Xers and millennials had it good. We were the last to routinely enjoy new music releases and events as a collective and synchronous sound experience. Take the premiere of movies like Purple Rain and Flashdance, or music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I still feel the adrenaline rush when I think of all the times I’d count down to the day and hour of witnessing a pop culture milestone. I remember this specifically with Beyoncé's Lemonade era: the Super Bowl performance where she delivered a debut performance of “Formation,” followed by the release of the visual album. This wasn’t music on demand. It was a singular moment. But nobody, nobody, created these moments quite like Janet Jackson.
Janet, thank you for the joy, the anticipation and the thrill that music is supposed to bring. Thank you for making music our moment.
Where do I even begin? Every era of Jackson’s career has spawned a body of work that’s authentic, substantial and memorable. It’s hardly surprising that she’s earned five Grammy Awards, 10 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and a much-deserved induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF). Jackson’s presence alone prompts a standing ovation — and rightfully so. But the 57-year-old icon doesn’t need the accolades, and she surely doesn’t need to make an appearance to remind us of her remarkable impact. The cutting-edge music videos, dope dance breaks and socially-charged records of today can be traced back to her influence. And to this day, her style isn’t just being emulated—it’s the foundation of the ultra-trendy Y2K look. The waist-length braids she rocked in Poetic Justice? The cropped tops? Baggy jeans and a wide black belt? Today’s young people make her legendary style their own.
You see, Jackson wasn’t just good for the moment; she was always *the* moment. A 7-year-old “Damita Jo” might’ve manifested her own star power when she once famously laid down the law to her older siblings: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until I say go.” As the youngest member of my family, I can easily relate to Jackson’s quest for control and individuality. But frankly, I’ve always seen her as just Janet Jackson — not the “youngest Jackson” or “Michael Jackson’s little sister.” And I think we owe that to her; to not only recognize her as the undeniable icon that she is, but as an independent woman with a mind and vision of her own. “I witnessed, along with the rest of the world, my family’s extraordinary impact on popular culture, not just in America, but all around the globe … and as the youngest in the family, I was determined to make it on my own. I wanted to stand on my own two feet,” Jackson said in her RRHOF acceptance speech in 2019.
For many of us, Jackson is like family. She’s been part of our lives since debuting as Penny on Good Times, and eventually landing roles in A New Kind of Family, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame. Though the beginning of her career saw success in television, a music career was inevitable. In 1982, she released her debut studio album Janet Jackson and Dream Street a couple years later. But we knew she was on to something with her third studio album Control, which introduced us to the newfound sound she’d been honing with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who would become her longtime collaborators. But little did they know they would cause a sonic shift in the industry: “It was going in and just creating. Being thankful and excited about creating. Ideas flowing left and right,” Jackson told Essence in 2022.
Much more than an era, Control was a catalyst for Jackson’s evolution, as she sought more creative freedom at the time. It also acted as a catalyst for her very own revolution: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. As the only album in history to score No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in three different calendar years (“Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” Rhythm Nation 1814 didn’t just boast Jackson’s creative prowess; it revealed her social consciousness, but with a touch of coolness. Making music with a message, that also makes you want to move, is an art form. Jackson mastered it three decades ago.
Jackson continued to churn out groundbreaking albums in the ‘90s: janet. (1993) and The Velvet Rope (1997). She proved her staying power once again with 2001’s All for You, all the way to 2015’s Unbreakable, her most recent studio effort. Throughout the decades, Jackson’s music has never shied away from relevant issues like injustice, poverty, drugs, domestic violence, sexual freedom and mental health. It’s what the world needed to hear then, and what it certainly needs to hear now — which is why Jackson is still the moment in my book.
Amid a massive music career, Jackson continued to pursue acting, this time on the big screen: Poetic Justice (1993), Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Why Did I Get Married? (2007) and For Colored Girls (2010). Just last year, we were given an intimate look at her story in the Lifetime documentary special Janet Jackson, which was filmed over a span of three years. Earlier this year, she embarked on the “Together Again” tour, a celebration of the icon’s 50th anniversary in show business.
Janet, thank you for your grace, gratitude and humility. Thank you for using music as a means to make a difference. Thank you for keeping us entertained. Thank you for giving us something to look forward to, something to talk about, something to give a damn about. Thank you for the joy, the anticipation and the thrill that music is supposed to bring. Thank you for making music our moment.