Reassessing Janet Jackson's 'Control' and legacy : It's Been a Minute On the 35th anniversary of Janet Jackson's first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, we look back at Control, her career-defining album that changed the trajectory of pop music in the late '80s and '90s. In the second episode of a three-part series exploring crossover in pop music, we look at Jackson's musical and cultural legacy over the years. We also reconsider how Jackson was vilified after her Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance, and why. You can follow us on Twitter at @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

Janet Jackson Once Had 'Control' of the Charts. We Don't Give Her Enough Credit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1040886138/1199267472" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

What is your first Janet Jackson memory?

DANYEL SMITH: It's a wild thing to ask me my first Janet Jackson memory because Janet and I are, like, the same age.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: This is music journalist Danyel Smith.

SMITH: You know, it's a wonderful memory. So for my eighth birthday, my mother got me tickets to see the Jackson 5 live in concert at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, Calif. And when we got to the Circle Star Theater, there was an opening act. And that opening act was Randy Jackson and Janet Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here is Janet and Randy or Randy and Janet, whichever you want (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Wow. And she's at this point around your age, which is around 8.

SMITH: Yeah. She was like 7 or 8 - yep.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

SMITH: Absolutely.

SANDERS: How was she in that opening act performance?

SMITH: Oh, well, the thing is, they weren't even singing. They were, like, doing skits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDY JACKSON: OK, Janet, now that you're up here, what do you want to do?

SMITH: Like vaudeville...

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: They were doing - they had jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R JACKSON: You can't do that. Everybody works in this family.

JANET JACKSON: Then let's play TV like we're at home.

SMITH: And one of the jokes was - and Janet is kind of known for this. You can find the shots of her dressed up kind of like Mae West and doing Mae West impressions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J JACKSON: (Imitating Mae West) I say.

(LAUGHTER)

J JACKSON: (Imitating Mae West) Come here, lover boy.

SANDERS: That's the one - 'cause she has those two little buns on her head and the feather boa.

SMITH: Yes. Yes.

SANDERS: And she's swinging those hips and sassing everybody...

SMITH: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...At, like, 8, 9, 10 years old (laughter).

SMITH: Yes. Yes. And so picture me in the audience screaming and yelling like a fool...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: ...Because my thought was - you have to understand there was no social media. There weren't that many, like, fan magazines or Black magazines for me to know that there even was a little sister to the Jackson 5. So I was screaming and hollering. I was so happy to know about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders.

In this episode, Janet - Miss Jackson. It is hard to describe how much Janet Jackson means to me. I can recall the exact place I was the first time I saw several of her music videos. I remember her trying to teach myself the choreography from her "Pleasure Principle" video and almost being seriously injured in the process. I remember thinking that I would never hear a better song in my entire life than "Love Will Never Do Without You." I was right.

And, you know, when it comes to the Janet fandom, I am not alone. Janet Jackson means a lot to a lot of people. So much of what she did in the '80s and the '90s and beyond, it laid the groundwork for so much that we see and hear now. Britney and Beyonce and even Taylor Swift - their styles and their approaches to the industry itself, it was all influenced by Janet Jackson. There is not a successful artist in pop today who isn't a descendent of the legacy of Janet.

As we've heard already. She began early with the Jackson 5. From there, Janet had a starring role on the sitcom "Good Times"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

J JACKSON: (As Penny) Willona...

JA'NET DUBOIS: (As Willona) Penny.

J JACKSON: (As Penny) ...I'm here to stay.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: ...A recurring role on "Diff'rent Strokes."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIFF'RENT STROKES")

J JACKSON: (As Charlene) He sort of forbid me to see you anymore.

TODD BRIDGES: (As Willis) What did he say?

J JACKSON: (As Charlene) I forbid you to see him anymore.

SANDERS: She was cast in the TV show "Fame."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAME")

J JACKSON: (As Cleo) Someday you gon' come running after me.

SANDERS: And then she also had a music career. Janet released two albums - the self-titled "Janet Jackson" and "Dream Street" - all by the time she was 18.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY YOU DO")

J JACKSON: (Singing) If you love me...

SANDERS: And I'm going to be honest here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY YOU DO")

J JACKSON: (Singing) Say you do.

SANDERS: Those two albums, they were flops. It wasn't until Janet's third album that the world finally turned its head and took notice...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

J JACKSON: This is a story about control...

SANDERS: ...When everything changed with "Control."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

J JACKSON: ...Control of what I say, control of what I do.

SANDERS: So 35 years ago this year, Janet blessed us with this iconic album.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANET JACKSON SONG, "CONTROL")

SANDERS: Today, we're talking about the legacy of Janet Jackson and how that album, "Control," it didn't just redefine her career; it really redefined all of pop music that came after it. For me, "Control" was one of those albums that you get maybe once in a generation, singularly focused and so cohesive, and yet every song has a personality of its own. It had songwriting that pushed the envelope but also felt immediately familiar. It was music that critics and mainstream radio alike had to love. It also gave a big lesson in crossover success. And that is a topic that we've been discussing in this music series we're doing.

You know, "Control" was insanely popular with both white and Black audiences in all different kinds of radio formats. Of course, Janet Jackson did not make "Control" by herself. In 1985, she met up with two producers who would help her shape the sound of contemporary R&B for years to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY LEWIS: And then we were supposed to start working with another artist. And the artist decided that she didn't want to work with us.

SANDERS: This is Terry Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEWIS: So John McClain called us and said - he was the A&R person - he said, you know, who do you guys want to produce on our roster? And he sent the roster because at that time there was no fax machine, and there was no email (laughter). So we got a roster in the mail. We both looked at and said, Janet. So we called him and said, we'd like to produce Janet.

SANDERS: Coming up, producers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and how they helped make one of the better pop albums of our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SODA'S "MORNINGS IN ZOMBIE TOWN")

SANDERS: Before "Control," Janet Jackson was doing mostly bubblegum pop. But producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis - they saw something more.

JIMMY JAM: We've always kind of gone off people that inspire you. Like, certain people can be talented, but they don't necessarily inspire you to want to write songs for them.

SANDERS: This is Jimmy Jam.

JIMMY JAM: And in Janet's case, it was a simple thing for us. We both felt we could write really great songs for her. She inspired that. We thought she had a beautiful voice, first of all. But what we thought was we missed - when she was young, she had all this attitude. She was, like, Miss Attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J JACKSON: Why don't you come up and see me sometime?

R JACKSON: What's wrong with now?

SANDERS: Remember the buns in her hair, the feather boa, the Mae West impressions? Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remembered all of that.

JIMMY JAM: We felt the records that she had done - they were quality records with quality producers. But the thing that we were missing on those records was where was that attitude? And so our thought was if we could work with her, we could bring a little bit of that attitude out.

SANDERS: So at 19 years old, Janet moved to Minneapolis to begin working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. She was finally taking control of her career.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Take me back to the first studio session y'all have with Janet in Minneapolis. What's it like? What is her vibe? What is the vibe? What do you recall from that first session?

JIMMY JAM: Well, really, the first sessions were not recording sessions. They were more therapy sessions, I guess I would call them. We spent a lot of time just hanging out together. You know, we would go to movies. We would hang out at clubs. We would ride around the lakes and just kind of hang out. And then we'd have discussions. And our discussions were - not that we were trying to analyze her, but we were just trying to get to know her better and know what was important to her and what she wanted to talk about, what she wanted to sing about. And after about a week of just kind of hanging out doing that, Janet said, well, when are we going to start working?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JIMMY JAM: And we said, oh, we're working.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JIMMY JAM: And we showed her the lyrics to "Control."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

J JACKSON: (Singing) When I was 17, I did what people told me. I did what my father said and let my mother mold me. But that was long ago.

SANDERS: Wait. Stop it. Stop. Pause. So y'all - while you're just chilling with Janet, going to the movies and driving around the lakes, you're actually, like, studying her and writing your first song for her in the process.

JIMMY JAM: Yeah, and that's something we - we always kind of did that with the artists...

SANDERS: Wow.

JIMMY JAM: ...But probably not quite as intense we did it with Janet because a lot of the artists we had worked with before, there was a little more - I don't know - history or things we could study. So we knew a little bit more about them. But we would always do that before we would write for an artist because we always wanted to tailor make...

SANDERS: That's kind of amazing.

JIMMY JAM: ...The songs specifically for them.

SANDERS: OK.

JIMMY JAM: So - and back in the day, we always - I always used to say, you know, if an artist likes McDonald's, I don't want to start writing a song about Burger King.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

J JACKSON: (Singing) Got my own mind. I wanna make my own decisions.

JIMMY JAM: Because what happens is the artist for the rest of their lives - if you have a hit record, the artist has to sing that for the rest of their life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

J JACKSON: (Singing) I wanna be the one in control.

JIMMY JAM: We want them to have...

SANDERS: Make it fit them.

JIMMY JAM: Yeah, make it fit. So that's the way we looked at it.

SANDERS: So then what kind of stuff was Janet sharing with y'all that made y'all want to write a song as strong and powerful as "Control?"

JIMMY JAM: Well, mainly that she was just taking control of her life. She was moving out of her house. She was, you know, ready to become - you know, to go out on her own. And also, the other piece to the puzzle here was that she was really ready to sing. The first two albums that she did she did between a lot of other things. And the idea of her singing wasn't really her idea. It was more of her dad's idea. So while she could sing, it's like when you have a talent and somebody goes, oh, you're really good at that. You should do that. And you're kind of like, yeah, but I'm - it's not really what I want to do. I think that was Janet's attitude the first couple of records. She sang because she could, not because she wanted to or that she needed to. When we got around to "Control," she was in a space where she actually wanted to be an artist.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JIMMY JAM: So the work that she was willing to put into it - and the fact that then when she got so excited when we showed her some of the "Control" lyrics, and she said, well, wait a minute. This is what we've been talking about. And we said, yeah. And she said, so whatever we talk about, that's we're going to write about. And we said, yeah. And she said, oh, then I want to talk about this, and I want to talk about this. And it totally opened her up at that point. And so then she became not only Janet the singer. She went from being Janet the reluctant singer to Janet I want to sing to now, here's what I want to sing about.

SANDERS: Nice.

JIMMY JAM: But nobody had asked her.

SANDERS: Well, I am so glad that y'all asked her what she wanted to do because the result stands the test of time (laughter). What kind of singer was Janet Jackson like in the studio?

JIMMY JAM: Fearless.

LEWIS: Yeah, it's a couple of words that describe her if I had to break it down into simple words. Like Jim said, fearless, relentless, beautiful - like, beautiful texture - and very in control.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S WAIT AWHILE")

J JACKSON: (Singing) There's something I want to tell you.

LEWIS: A lot of people say that Janet's not a great singer, but Janet is a great singer. But in order to be a great singer, you don't have to be the loudest singer. You just have to have control of what you like to do. And to me, style wins over volume.

SANDERS: There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S WAIT AWHILE")

J JACKSON: (Singing) When we get to know each other...

SANDERS: I always loved - and you'd hear it in lots of songs that she would do. She was able to convey emotion not just through the singing. There are so many Janet - classic Janet songs where, like, her laugh conveys so much or a sigh conveys so much or a little quip in the intro for a song conveys so much. Like, you hear some of that acting training in the other things she's doing on y'all's records besides the singing. She just knows how to convey emotion.

JIMMY JAM: Yeah, I totally agree. And that's - but that's the things - those little elements, the breaths, the size, the laughs, those things she would always do, and we would just leave them in there. A lot of times, it was a mistake, you know?

SANDERS: Really?

JIMMY JAM: Like, the - oh, sure. Like the laugh on - I'm trying to - oh, "When I Think Of You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

J JACKSON: (Laughter). (Singing) Feels so good.

SANDERS: Wait. Really? I love that laugh.

JIMMY JAM: Yeah, but that's just, like - it's, like, a - for most people, I think that would've been an outtake. And for us, all the things that were outtakes were always the pieces that we've always tried to make sure was in there because that was the personality of her. You know, and if it was a happy song and she was laughing about it, then we wanted people to feel that when they were listening to the song. And even in our production technique, we would say to her - if she was singing a song like that, a lot of times we wouldn't be looking at her because the lights would all be out in the studio. But I would say, are you smiling? Because this is a happy song. You got to smile when you sing this song. And she goes, oh, OK, OK. And you could tell the difference because when you're smiling, even when you're talking to somebody - when you're smiling as you're talking to them, it's a different thing. So little things like that, little nuances like that, we thought, was really important. And also about her sighs and her breaths that she takes, one of the things she shared with Michael was that rhythmic breathing, I call it...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

J JACKSON: (Singing) Ooh, baby.

JIMMY JAM: ...Where her breath before she starts singing is on a beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

J JACKSON: (Singing) All I have to do to calm it...

JIMMY JAM: And when she sings, even the way she ends her sentences when she sang, it wasn't like she would hit the last word. She'd hit the last word, but then there'd be, like, a little (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I THINK OF YOU")

J JACKSON: (Singing) It's when I think of you, baby. All I think about is our love.

JIMMY JAM: Those are the things that we loved because those became literally part of the funkiness of the songs. And so we were very aware of that, and we loved that about her.

SANDERS: Wow. Y'all can't see me right now, but I'm geeking out so hard getting this inside baseball. It's just incredible to me. Incredible. All right. So I want to talk more about "When I Think Of You," because that is the song from "Control" that becomes, I believe, her first No. 1 hit on the Billboard 100. And I have replayed that video so much. I was watching again yesterday a few times. And what I notice most about that song and that video besides the video, being done in almost just one single shot, it's very much a bubblegum pop song with bubblegum pop visuals. And it sounds, and it looks like it is supposed to be a crossover, like it's supposed to be played on white radio and black radio just the same. And I'm wondering, with that song, and even with the album "Control," we're y'all thinking of that as you were making it - success in different formats in - with folks from all kinds of backgrounds? Because this song - it really seems like it was made for that.

JIMMY JAM: I would say no, we weren't thinking about that. What we were thinking about - I'll tell you what we were thinking about...

SANDERS: OK.

JIMMY JAM: ...Was we wanted the album - OK, so when we when we were living in LA, we were living in a neighborhood that - you know, we will say that it's not, like, the - well, most people would say not the best neighborhood. And what we loved about that area - because growing up in Minneapolis, first of all, we grew up in a very white town. And so we were very aware - I mean, I grew up listening to nothing but pop music, pretty much, growing up. So I guess we had the sensibility about what it was. But with Janet's record, we were trying to make the record that when we would walk down the streets of that neighborhood, there would be music blasting out of everybody's house.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANET JACKSON SONG, "NASTY")

JIMMY JAM: And with "Control," we said, we want our album to be that album that everybody's blasting out their house in that neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASTY")

J JACKSON: (Singing) Sittin' in the movie show, thinkin' nasty thoughts.

JIMMY JAM: So we were going for the Blackest, funkiest album we could make without any consideration of trying to cross over or anything like that.

SANDERS: Despite not intending for "Control" to cross over, it did and then some. "Control" was Janet's first commercial hit. Five of the songs on that album became top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. And "When I Think Of You" - it hit No. 1.

JIMMY JAM: Terry mentioned his name earlier. I'll mention his name again - John McClain, who was the A&R person, who was the one that hooked up with Janet - he was the one that sent us the list of...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JIMMY JAM: ...Who do you want to work with at A&M? And I remember he was the person as we - when he heard "Control" when we were done with it, he was the one that said, this is double platinum. And we're, like, going, mmm, no. I mean, we're thinking, yeah, maybe we'll go gold with it. That'd be great.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JIMMY JAM: He said it's double platinum. And then he went back to A&M and told everybody that. Really? Like, I mean, the stories were, he would literally jump on people's desks - like, literally...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JIMMY JAM: ...And go, you don't know what this is. This is a double platinum record. He had everybody so...

SANDERS: Really?

JIMMY JAM: ...Hyped and - but intimidated at the same time. Like, oh, shoot.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JIMMY JAM: We better go get this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: "Control" went on to sell 5 million copies in the U.S. and millions more globally. It spent more than 90 weeks on the Billboard charts. This album also earned multiple Grammy nominations, including one for album of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "29TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS")

UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: "Control" - Janet Jackson, album producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

SANDERS: And we cannot forget the music videos - "Pleasure Principle," "Nasty," "When I Think Of You." They are all peak Culture with a capital C. If you go back and watch those videos right now, you can see that some of those moves - the kids are still doing them today, in their music videos today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM NATION")

SANDERS: So after "Control," Janet released another hit album - "Rhythm Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM NATION")

J JACKSON: (Singing) We are a part of the rhythm nation. People of the world unite...

SANDERS: That album went platinum six times. When the "Rhythm Nation" tour was announced, it sold out arenas in minutes. In 1991, Ebony magazine named Janet and Michael, quote, "the biggest brother-sister stars in show business history."

JIMMY JAM: I think those albums ended up changing the way that music sounded because it changed the way the radio sounded. And so I think the influence later on with the - not only the album, but the visuals that went with the albums, affected the way pop music - what pop music became.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JIMMY JAM: I mean, all the great pop music came out of Sweden at a certain point. You know, you had Max Martin. You had from - everywhere from Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears to all of those records. And they were all, to me, based on what "Control" and what "Rhythm Nation" was. And if you talk to them, they will tell you. I mean, Max Martin - we went into the Songwriters Hall of Fame the same year he did. And he said, hey, man, when we were making those records, we were just basically trying to do what you guys were doing.

SANDERS: In the '90s, Janet Jackson just kept going. In '93, she had another hit with a song that seemed to be everywhere for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES")

J JACKSON: (Singing) Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire.

SANDERS: It was the lead single from her self-titled album...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES")

J JACKSON: (Singing) My love is blind...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES")

SANDERS: ...A little ditty called "That's The Way Love Goes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES")

J JACKSON: (Singing) That's the way love goes. That's the way love goes.

SANDERS: "That's The Way Love Goes" was No. 1 on the Billboard charts for eight weeks. But Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis - they told me at first, Janet didn't like the song. Her dancers had to convince her that it could be a hit.

JIMMY JAM: And what happened was is very much what happened to the video, which was, she put the cassette on of the tracks we were working on. And when that track came on, she was with all her dancers and all her, you know, friends.

SANDERS: And in the video, one of them is J.Lo.

JIMMY JAM: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But she was with all her friends on vacation. They were in Anguilla, as a matter of fact. And she said when that song came on, everybody was just like, oh, what is that? That's the one right there. And so it made her hear it differently because of the way her friends and dancers were hearing it. And when she got back, that was the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES")

J JACKSON: (Singing) That's the way love goes. That's the way love goes.

SMITH: I think we all realized, one, that she was here to stay...

SANDERS: Again, music journalist Danyel Smith.

SMITH: ...That there was no flash-in-the-pan thing happening with her, that she was committed to the look. She was committed to the music. She was committed to the work, to the choreography, to everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: So Janet was now in the same league as her brother, Michael, and Madonna and, in some ways, Tina Turner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVIII")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Please come forward.

SANDERS: But then...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVIII")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Congratulations, and welcome to Super Bowl XXXVIII.

SANDERS: The Super Bowl happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVIII")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Carolina has been designated the visiting team today, so they will...

SMITH: I mean, to me, the way I remember it is, it was violent.

SANDERS: Coming up, we go back to that moment in 2004 and why it looks and feels so different in today's rearview mirror. Justice for Janet after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVAN'S "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I think it's hard to, like, talk about her omnipresence. Like, I remember that video for "That's The Way Love Goes." I felt like it was played on MTV every five minutes. You could not turn on your radio on any kind of station and not hear that song. She was on the cover of all the magazines. Like, when you compare what she was doing in that moment and how everywhere she was to, I don't know, a Taylor Swift or a Beyonce today, how does it compare - the level?

SMITH: I mean, you can compare it. But then my thing is, can you? Because the thing is - there's something that I - because I've interviewed Janet any number of times. And in one of our conversations, you know, she just acknowledged the fact that she kind of created herself. Like, I think that Beyonce would be the first person to say that without the influence of, yes, definitely Tina Turner - and I always want to add Donna Summer when I think about Beyonce. But if there was not a Janet Jackson, especially with regard to singing and dancing at the same time - you know, Beyonce pulls from all of that.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

SMITH: And then Taylor, with regard to just being everywhere and singing the feelings of youth at that moment - like, when I think about my niece's relationship to Taylor Swift and how my niece had to tell me - again, like, at the age of nine or 10, that if I was going to understand my job - excuse you, Parker Drew Williams (ph)...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: ...That I needed to listen to Taylor to understand her generation.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: I mean, there are just many of us that say, if you want to understand especially Black women and really just women, to understand what it felt like to be in love, to come into your own as a 20-year-old, a 25-year-old. Because Janet takes us on all the beats.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

SMITH: So you know, so - but Janet has sung our life to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: In the runup to the Super Bowl halftime show, Janet was still on top. Her last album before that performance, "All For You" - it had come out in 2001 with another No. 1 single called "All For You." So of course Janet was asked to headline the Super Bowl. Because what kind of musicians do you ask to headline the Super Bowl halftime show? The heavy hitters.

SMITH: She's, like, the biggest star in the world, and even in 2004, like, from a royal musical family. So OK, Super Bowl performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVI")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We have come to the end of the first half of Super Bowl XXXVI. There's our score.

SANDERS: It was Sunday, February 1, 2004. The Carolina Panthers were taking on the New England Patriots in Houston, Texas. At halftime, it was Janet singing "Rhythm Nation" and "All For You."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVI")

J JACKSON: (Singing) All my girls at the party, look at that body, shakin' that thing like you never did see. Got a nice package, alright.

SANDERS: The other performers were P. Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock. Talk about a moment in time. And then, to close out the show, it was Janet again. But this time, she was joined by Justin Timberlake on his song "Rock Your Body."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVI")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Guy time, but I don't mind...

SMITH: I was in the kitchen in Los Angeles. It's Super Bowl Sunday. Who cares about the game? I'm here for the food.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: So I'm literally doing something in the kitchen, and I hear - there's a bunch of people at my parents' house. And I hear gasps and screams.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

SMITH: And I walk in, and I promise you, I feel like everybody that was over, male and female, had their hand over their mouth. And then of course, I'm like, what happened? And then somebody said, you know, somebody snatched off Janet's top.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER BOWL XXXVI")

JANET JACKSON AND JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) 'Cause I gotta have you naked by the end of this song.

SMITH: And then, you know, everything unfolds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tonight, Janet Jackson is apologizing for her flash dance. The singer calls the bodice-ripping move by fellow entertainer Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl halftime show a last-minute stunt that went too far. Viewers watched as Timberlake grabbed Jackson's outfit and ripped it open during a live broadcast on CBS. Timberlake called it a wardrobe malfunction.

TIMBERLAKE: It was a lot of fun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You guys were getting pretty hot and steamy up there.

TIMBERLAKE: Hey, man. We love giving y'all something to talk about (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: But Janet Jackson says, it was not my intention that it go as far as it did.

SANDERS: We could do a whole other episode on the phrase wardrobe malfunction. This phrase eventually became so ubiquitous that it was nominated by the American Dialect Society as 2004's Word of the Year. It also got a nomination for most euphemistic. The phrase wardrobe malfunction was defined as, quote, "an unanticipated exposure of bodily parts." This phrase lost on both counts - a true snub, if you ask me.

And yes, in this moment, a big, loud part of America was definitely offended - or at least pretending to be offended - by that, quote, "unanticipated exposure of bodily parts." Following the halftime show in 2004, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it had received a record 540,000 complaints about the incident. And they fined CBS a little more than half a million dollars on an indecency violation. If you were too young to recall all of this, trust me when I say there was a whole lot of pearl-clutching going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEATHER WILSON: My son seemed to think that they should sue Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake because they were the ones who did it, and it was really nasty. If the fourth-grade boys at a public elementary school can tell right from wrong, we need to ask ourselves where you corporate CEOs lost your way.

SANDERS: But here's the thing. When I was watching the halftime show back in 2004, when it happened, I didn't notice. For me, it wasn't till the next day in my music theory class that all my classmates were talking about it and watching clips of what happened over and over again. At the time, TiVo announced that it was the most replayed moment in the company's history. And one of the co-founders of YouTube, he has cited this exact moment and the difficulty in finding that video as inspiration for the creation of YouTube.

SMITH: Also, if you really think about it, it's - and maybe that's why to me it just reminds me of violence - it's a similar thing to me of how we have to keep seeing the Black people getting beat up by the cops over and over again or seeing the child get shot by the law enforcement. And we have to keep seeing it over and over again. It does two things. It, one, grinds it into your brain. But it also can be numbing, right? But in either case, it's almost like, why?

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: Why is this violent moment, this - being shown to us over and over and over again. And also, of course, the main question then is, why did it do so much damage to Janet's reputation without doing similar damage to Justin's?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: It was as if that piece of fabric that was ripped from her clothing was replaced with some big scarlet letter. It was just as if the world said, we're done with you now because of this.

SANDERS: This was a moment that lasted all but a second. And yet it essentially stopped a 30-plus-year career in its tracks. After that halftime show, Janet was blacklisted. MTV refused to play her music videos. Stations stopped playing her songs. And Janet didn't appear at the Grammy Awards just a few days later. Her invitation was conditional on her apology. But Justin went and apologized. And he took home two awards that night - one for best male pop vocal performance and another for best pop vocal album.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "2004 GRAMMY AWARDS")

TIMBERLAKE: Listen, I know it's been a rough week on everybody. And what occurred was unintentional - completely regrettable. And I apologize if you guys were offended.

(YELLING)

TIMBERLAKE: This has been a dream of mine (laughter) - don't - I already got enough - don't.

SANDERS: In 2006, Janet sat down with Oprah Winfrey for what she said at the time was the final word on the issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

OPRAH WINFREY: Do you think in any way that Justin Timberlake left you hanging out there?

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Yeah.

J JACKSON: (Laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #3: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #4: Yes.

WINFREY: I am speaking to Miss Jackson.

(LAUGHTER)

WINFREY: Do you?

J JACKSON: Well, all the emphasis was put on me, not on Justin, and...

SANDERS: That same year, Justin told MTV that if you considered what happened back then 50-50, he only got 10% of the blame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIMBERLAKE: I think that says something about society. You know, I think that America's harsher on women. And I think that America's, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.

SANDERS: We reached out to Janet's publicity team, and we were told that she has no comment. Justin Timberlake also had no comment. But earlier this year, Justin did post an apology on Instagram to both Janet and Britney Spears. He said, quote, "I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn or did not speak up for what was right."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: The fact is, after the halftime show, Janet's career suffered, while Justin's thrived - so much so that in 2018, Justin was invited back to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show - this time solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: I use the word criminal a lot when I talk about Black people in music and specifically - you know me - always talking about Black women in music not receiving the credit that they're due. I really think that it's criminal that we - as you started this conversation - that we forget the impact that Janet Jackson has had on music. It's bloody...

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: ...And it's criminal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: What do you think is the biggest lesson or takeaway about the music industry, about American celebrity culture, about the way Black women are treated in music? What's the biggest takeaway for any of those things from the Super Bowl incident?

SMITH: I mean, the biggest takeaway from Janet not receiving the credit that is due to her in this world of culture that we all live in...

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Is, to me, how little has changed since the days when, like, Ma Rainey and stuff were making music, the days when people like Leontyne Price were having to fight, you know, to be on stage at some of the best opera houses around the world, when Marian Anderson can't sleep in hotels, you know, in the cities where she's playing to packed houses of Black and non-Black audiences, when you think about how hard Motown had to fight to get Black music played on pop stations, the same battle that artists like Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton - the fights they still had to fight to get played on pop radio. And this is when pop radio mattered in the prestreaming era. These were real fights. And then we have to be in this situation where Janet is, to me, victimized on Super Bowl Sunday.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: And she takes the blame for it.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

SMITH: Like, the takeaway is wow, it hasn't changed that much. That's the takeaway. The times change, and maybe there's more magazine covers, and maybe there's more sales and more streaming, but it hasn't changed that much.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You know, in the last year, there has been a new kind of conversation around the way women in pop music are treated. And a lot of that conversation was started by what's happening with Britney Spears. You know, she's been in this conservatorship for years. She's had very public mental health issues. And as she has been arguing to get out of that conservatorship, there's a new conversation about whether or not our society is nice enough to women like Britney or Janet or Beyonce and whether the machine of celebrity chews them up and then spits them out. And when those conversations began, I said, OK, this is good. But I began to notice over time that the conversation seems to focus - and correct me here if I'm wrong - it seemed to focus more on white women in pop than on black women in pop.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Because you think about Janet and Britney. There's a direct throughline there. You know, Janet did so much of what we see in Britney's work first. And both of them were connected for a while to Justin Timberlake. And yet this conversation around the way we treated Britney and the way that Justin treated Britney - it felt like it didn't extend to the way that Justin treated Janet or the way that the industry treated Janet. One, do you think that's correct to say? And two, what's up with that?

SMITH: I mean, yeah. I mean, it's like - a thing about being a black woman, of which I am one, you know, I think that people so often think that whatever it is, we can manage it, that somehow, you know, we're just, like, stronger in particular than white ladies, white girls, that we just can take it emotionally. We can take it physically. You know, we can just plow through because, you know, we're strong. We're a strong black woman, as the saying goes. You know, we're so strong. You know, we can just push it, pull it, lift it, deal with it, manage it. Well, you know what? That's lies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: I think that is the important conversation that's come out of it, for our part - is that, no, I don't think that black women are being extended as much grace, you know, as is being extended to Britney. And I think it should all be extended to Britney, but the Black girls need that same generosity of spirit coming from people.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: Let me go on ahead and quote Karen White. She said, "I'm not your superwoman. I'm not your superwoman. I'm not the kind of girl that you can let down and think that everything is OK. Boy, I am only human."

I mean, let's go.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: Let's go. Let's let that be. Let's bring that anthem back. Can we?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to journalist and podcaster Danyel Smith. All of you, right now, go check out her podcast. It's called "Black Girl Songbook." And thanks, of course, to the legendary producing and songwriting duo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. This episode was produced by Jinae West, with help from Liam McBain and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Thanks also to Kimberly Sullivan and Sarah Knight. Our editor for this one was Jordana Hochman, who - fun fact - revealed to me in the taping of this episode that at one point, she learned some choreography to the Janet Jackson song "If."

All right, listeners. There is one more episode in this special music series all about crossover. Next week, we examine the so-called Latin explosion of the late '90s - you know, Ricky Martin and Shakira and J.Lo and Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. We'll ask whether it worked, who it was for and why, if you look back on it now 20 years later, it all feels kind of offensive. All right. Until next time, I'm Sam Sanders. Be good to yourselves. Go play some Janet. Dance it out. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Well, I hope that all of us give Janet her flowers and keep doing so because the body of work - it just keeps on giving. It just keeps on giving. So to anyone listening...

SMITH: And doesn't it feel good, though, to be, like, a Janet Jackson fan?

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: Like, it just feels good.

SANDERS: It does. It does.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Listeners, if you aren't already on board, get on board. Get on this Janet bandwagon. It's not too late. She's still here. The music is still here.

SMITH: Forever.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.