wed 21/11/2018

Janet Jackson – Taking Control, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Janet Jackson – Taking Control, BBC Four

Janet Jackson – Taking Control, BBC Four

A lightweight but diverting look at the career and life of Michael’s little sister

How do you forge a pop career in the shadow of the biggest pop star on the planet? What is perhaps forgotten about Janet Jackson is that not only did she pull this off, but for a while she actually overshadowed her older brother. But this documentary doesn’t really dig deep enough, in that it never even begins to answer the question: how did she remain so - relatively speaking - level-headed and grounded while growing up in this most famous and, some would suggest, dysfunctional of families?

Maybe the answer lies in the fact that she spent most of her formative years as an observer rather than a participant in the fame game. While it could hardly be called normal to be, at five years of age, sitting down with your breakfast cereal to watch your brothers in their own Saturday-morning cartoon series, it was certainly preferable to having your childhood stolen from you in the way that Michael claimed his was.

However, we were told that Janet used music as self-therapy, putting into her lyrics whatever she was going through at the time, whether it was reaching for independence, breaking up with a lover, or just telling those nasty boys to back off. British singer Estelle best summed up the young body-popping pop star: “Still being cute and sweet but having that look in her eye that said, 'Not having it, not having it.'” Although other talking heads included brother Jackie and Fame’s Deborah Allen, it was hardly surprising that producer Jimmy Jam offered the most insightful comments on the singer, given that, as one half of the team Jam & Lewis, he worked with her on her five most successful albums.

This was, perhaps inevitably, a documentary about Janet in relation to Michael

But this was, perhaps inevitably, a documentary about Janet in relation to Michael. One moment we were being told about Janet sacking her own father, or eloping with her then drug-dependent boyfriend, pop singer Debarge, for a marriage which only lasted a year, and the next we got the oft-repeated saga of the “Thriller” video and how it changed MTV forever (yawn). OK, the historical significance of “Thriller” for future black acts cannot be understated, but occasionally it was easy to forget you were watching a documentary on Janet as, like a nervous tic, the focus kept shifting back to whatever Michael was up to at any given point in Janet’s career.

Yet she was more connected to what was going on socially, politically and musically during the 1980s and Nineties than Michael ever was - even if that isn’t saying much - and keen to respond to it all in a meaningful way. 1989’s “Rhythm Nation”, with its meaty Sly Stone guitar sample backbone and machine-tooled pile-driver beat, knocked spots off anything her brother was doing at the time, both as a game-changing groove and a piece of social commentary. The fact that, thereafter, she gradually slipped into fairly generic soft-core R&B was conveniently glossed over.

She presumably stipulated there were to be no questions about her right breast or her dead brother

Also this documentary only hinted at the idea that sibling rivalry was integral to Janet’s drive and ambition. For example, it was interesting to discover that when Janet co-wrote Michael’s track “Scream”, he was the one who instigated the project rather than her, presumably because he needed a credibility and popularity boost following a period during which child sexual abuse charges had caused his King of Pop crown to slip alarmingly. After Janet had recorded her vocal, Michael went back to redo his, fearing he'd been upstaged. If you look at the “Scream” video today (see video below) it reads as a cathartic exercise for Michael, and a bit of a laugh for Janet.

The bottom line was that Janet’s unprecedented crossover success changed the music industry just as much as Michael’s did. She even beat records that he had set (for example, by signing to Virgin for $40 million). But what did the woman herself have to say about all this? Well, although we were treated to an exclusive interview (shot earlier this year when she was in London for a Royal Albert Hall performance) in which she came across as articulate and open, she apparently stipulated there were to be no questions about her right breast or her dead brother. So, if we learned one thing from this lightweight documentary, it’s that Janet Jackson is still a woman very much in control.

 Watch Michael and Janet Jackson’s "Scream"

Comments

Where does one watch this documentary? Interesting piece on arguably the most dysfunctional yet functioning pop families in history..thanks AS

OK: this is on TV and Ch 4. You might want to add tx details on @ the end of pieces for people rushing with no time to spend looking for it..just a thought not a criticism of what is a beautifully formatted entity...

If you look under the "watch on" heading at the right-hand side of the review, there's a link to the programme on BBC iPlayer. 

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