Black Americans didn’t turn their backs on Janet Jackson, White America did

OPINION: "In the separate nation called Black America, throughout the Super Bowl fallout, Janet Jackson has remained a beloved superstar in good standing," writes theGrio's Touré.

Super Bowl XXXVIII: Panthers v Patriots
Singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium on February 1, 2004 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images) The Patriots won 32-29 to claim their second Super Bowl in three years. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images) ()

A new documentary about Janet Jackson reopens the discussion into what the hell happened at the Super Bowl halftime show and I would like to have some clarity about that. There is no such thing as a “wardrobe malfunction” and her clothes did not rip but I refuse to believe that Janet Jackson, who was then in her late 30s, and who was always very careful about her public image and was never wild and racy, suddenly decided that at the Super Bowl she was going to reveal her body in a very provocative way and none of the people around her, her high-powered managers, said ‘no, do not do that.’

If it was Madonna I’d believe it, but Janet? There’s no way that what happened onstage is what she wanted to happen. But her stylist was at the tailor for hours the day before and … I don’t know. The doc, Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, tries to get us an answer as to what really happened but Janet’s not in this and no one from her professional inner circle is talking so how can we really know anything?

Part of me is curious but a larger part of me doesn’t care. What I really remember and what really triggers me from that moment is this: a large part of America decided to make Janet the enemy as if Janet was the leader of some indecency movement that was constantly pushing the envelope and they tried to end her career for it. But when I say “a part of America decided to make Janet the enemy” I mean, a lot of White America.

Within Black America, it was a different story. In the separate nation called Black America, throughout all of this Janet Jackson has remained a beloved superstar in good standing. We are not mad at Janet. 

Jimmy Jam, Janet Jackson & Terry Lewis during MTV Icon Tribute to Janet Jackson in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

I’m not saying every single Black person continued to love her but the majority of Black people who cared about any of this strongly supported Janet and continue to do so to this day and most of us look at the Super Bowl and don’t think I wonder what happened onstage? We think why was our girl Janet so wronged? That moment stands as proof that White America is unfair to us. 

It’s amazing that Janet became so racially polarizing after a career spent making music that tried to be for everyone. Janet is a daughter of Motown, her brothers were among the label’s biggest stars, and Motown’s aesthetic was all about Black music that would crossover and be loved by White people, too. Janet has lived by that code throughout her career — she has always made pop music that had an R&B base but was leavened enough to work on Black and White radio and to be played at a Black BBQ and a bat mitzvah. And yet, somehow, Janet has become a racial Rorschach test.

White people may see someone controversial but Black people see someone we’ve loved for a very long time, someone who was music royalty before and after this incident, and someone who was treated wrongly by White people which makes us stand by her even more. We are there for our stars who get mistreated by White people and we are loyal to people we love, especially performers and athletes. It’s like once we start loving you we’re not going to stop. It makes perfect sense to me that we created #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay, because she deserves it and she needs it and we need it to shade White America and call out the hypocrisy of the post-Super Bowl unequal fallout.

But how could we ever stop loving Janet? She’s been with us Gen Xers since we were little — I feel like I grew up with Janet. I watched her be a kid on Good Times when I was a kid. I’ll never forget her showing the iron-shaped burn on her back in the episode about child abuse. I had nightmares that night. I watched her explode with Control, an album about coming of age that was released at a time when I was coming of age and having the same struggles over independence with my parents. I watched her get even bigger with Rhythm Nation, an album that gave us Janet’s vision of the world at a time when I was forming my political vision of the world.

Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson during 1990 Billboard Music Awards at Santa Monica Hangar in Santa Monica, California, United States. (Photo by Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

When I was a young writer at Rolling Stone, my review of her next album, Janet, propelled me to the next level in my career — because I really understood Janet, I really understood that album and my review of that album told the senior editors that I was able to do really smart work. What I’m saying is Janet Jackson has been more than an artist that I’ve been a fan of for a long time. She’s been like a big sister who was going through things at the same time as me, and our bond is closer than fan and star. So I could no more disown Janet when a controversy comes than I could turn my back on my blood sister. 

If family constitutes the people who must take you in no matter what, then Janet is a bedrock part of the national Black family and she has earned the right to expect to be taken in and protected by the Black community after she hit a professional rock bottom. Among us, she cannot be cancelled. She will always be loved. We may be confused about the who, what, and why of the Super Bowl but we still love Janet unconditionally.


Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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