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Janet Jackson – R&B Junkie

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Can a single performance destroy a carefully constructed, years-in-the-making pop music career? In the case of Janet Jackson, the answer is most definitely yes. By now everyone now knows the story of Nipplegate, the infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show where, during a performance of Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body, Timberlake ripped off one-half of Jackson’s leather top, exposing her metal-plate covered right breast (with nipple still visible) and immediately provoked nation-wide outrage, protests from conservative commentators, widespread radio bans of Jackson’s music, and eventually FCC fines. But no matter how well-known this event remains, it’s worth revisiting it in the context of Jackson’s career, and the impact it had (and still has) on her subsequent chart performances, including that of the great R&B Junkie.

At the beginning of 2004, Jackson was at a pivotal stage in her musical evolution. Her imperial phase – which started in 1986 with What Have You Done For Me Lately from Control and remained arguably uninterrupted through 2001 – was probably over, although her previous album All for You had sold well and yielded two huge smashes, the US no.1 title track and top ten Someone to Call My Lover. Anticipation was high for Damita Jo, the three-years in the making follow-up to All For You, which was scheduled to be released in March 2004. Thinking it would be the perfect launching pad, Jackson signed on to perform at Super Bowl XXXVIIII, which would feature a medley of her greatest hits and a special guest duet with Timberlake, who Jackson had allegedly been dating the previous year. The beginning of the performance went off without a hitch, and featured the highly synchronized and stylized dance routines for which Jackson is famous. Towards the end of the performance, Timberlake joined her onstage to sing a sexy version of Rock Your Body. As Timberlake sang the final lyrics of the song – “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song” – he reached over her shoulder and tore open her top, exposing her right breast and the metal/nipple-exposing breast plate to 140 million worldwide viewers (at 4:05 in the following video):

The negative reaction to this event – which Timberlake called a “wardrobe malfunction”– was immediate and widespread. CBS, the NFL and MTV (which produced the halftime show) all denied responsibility for the incident, but all three companies were fined heavily by the FCC for the allegedly indecent content. As for Timberlake and Jackson? Both issued public apologies, but the impact on both artists’ careers could not have been more different. Timberlake – who actually performed the assault-like action that caused the breast exposure – got away relatively scot-free, with little, if any impact on his subsequent career or releases. For Jackson, however, the results were devastating. CBS banned Jackson from the Grammy awards (while allowing Timberlake to appear), and the major radio networks in the US started a blacklist of Jackson’s music. This boycott started just as Damita Jo was released and allegedly continued through the course of Jackson’s next two albums. In an instant, Jackson’s almost twenty-year reign as the Queen of Pop and Soul Radio in America was over.

The impact this had on Damita Jo was startling – the album sold far less than her previous releases and while not an outright bomb, it was certainly not a hit. The initial single, the funky guitar-based popper Just a Little While – which, at the time of the wardrobe malfunction, had been one of the most-added tracks at radio and had cruised into the US airplay top 20 – suddenly fell off the charts, and became her lowest-charting official US single since 1983, failing to make the top 40 and peaking at no.45. (It did better, but not great, in the UK, where it peaked at no.15). The album’s subsequent two singles – I Want You and All Night (Don’t Stop) were outright bombs in the US (and barely scraped the UK top 20 as a double-A side). All of this meant that the album’s best track, R&B Junkie, – which prior to Nipplegate would almost certainly have been a shoo-in for the top ten – was never released in the UK and was released only as a promo single in the US.

Featuring a generous sample of the Evelyn “Champagne” King classic I’m in Love, R&B Junkie is a supremely happy dance-floor filler. It grooves along at a finger-snapping pace, reveling in both its old-school soul references and its modern production. Had it ever reached the chart heights it deserved, R&B Junkie would have become a classic at both the roller skating rink and the disco, two principalities where Jackson reigned supreme. And it features one of Janet’s catchiest lines ever (right up there with “Miss Jackson if you’re nasty”): “I feel like bumpin’ to some old school.” And she’s right: who doesn’t?

Alas, of course, history – and an exposed breast – had other, less fortunate plans for the song and the rest of Jackson’s career. Damita Jo signaled the beginning of Jackson’s slide into chart irrelevancy. While she has released some ace albums and singles since 2004 – FeedbackMake Me and Burnitup being notable examples – she has not returned to the US or UK top tens since Nipplegate. Timberlake, of course, has seen his career go from triumph to triumph since the event, which left him with nary a scratch on his reputation. Sexism? Most definitely yes. Surprising? Sadly no. Especially because – as R&B Junkie show – Jackson is still one of the greats and hasn’t stopped creating amazing music.

Janet_Jackson_-_R&B_JunkieEntered chart: was not released

Who could sing this today and have a hit? Bruno Mars. His best songs both reference and modernize classic R&B songs, just like this one. Plus his dance moves are almost as superfly as Janet’s.

1 Comment »

  1. There’s a PhD to be written on why Ms. Jackson’s physical exposure had such a devastating effect on her musical one.

    Sexism, yes, but I wonder if context (the Superbowl, I imagine, is a ‘family show’) or her received persona (her protestations that she was ‘Nasty’ were always charmingly unconvincing) were contributory factors.

    Would a Madonna or an Aguilera have suffered such a backlash?

    Like

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