Janet Jackson's Billboard Awards message about sexism, abuse, and racism was a new path for her

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Janet Jackson accepts the Icon Award at 2018 Billboard Awards. (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Performing on TV for the first time in almost a decade, Janet Jackson was at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday night to accept the magazine’s Icon Award — the first African-American woman, as presenter Bruno Mars noted, to receive this award. Jackson’s speech was short and to the point. “For all our challenges, we live at a glorious moment in history,” she said. “Women have made it clear that we will no longer be controlled, manipulated, or abused. I stand with those women, and with men who support us, against discrimination.”

Janet, and the Jackson family in general, have not had much of a history of explicitly aligning themselves with social or political causes. (Both Janet and her brother Michael Jackson have, in a more symbolic way — through their art — been beacons of creative freedom.) Yet here was Janet making clear she understood and supported current efforts to end workplace discrimination, unequal treatment, and institutional racism, with a #MeToo approach to the subject.

Jackson didn’t press this point too hard. Instead, she pivoted heavenward. “This is also a moment when our public discourse is loud and harsh.” Was this an acknowledgment of Trump-era crudeness and hostility? She continued: “My prayer is that, weary of such noise, we turn back to the source of all calmness. That source is God… Everything we lack, God has in abundance.” She spoke about “God’s love.” The Jackson family members were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their spiritual line runs deep. Janet in particular has endured challenges that would test anyone’s faith in her fellow man: Just consider how marginalized she’s been ever since the notorious “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, and how her career has suffered since, while the career of her duet partner, Justin Timberlake, has flourished.

It was great to see Jackson in public and performing again. At 52, she’s not about to do the superstrenuous dance moves she pulled off one, two, or three decades ago, and her place in the current music scene is unclear. If I were advising her, I’d suggest that she not bother to try to insert hip-hop rhythms into her new music if she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. Instead, two other avenues are open to her. Look at the person who gave her the award: Bruno Mars has shown a way to make the kind of pop R&B that the Jacksons pioneered into vital contemporary music — that’s one path. Another could be found in Jackson’s faith. Judging by her passionate speech, making a gospel album might be a beautiful thing for her to embark on.

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