Ayanna Dozier on Janet Jackson and Black women’s sexuality
In the infamous Rolling Stone interview that accompanied the promotion of 1993 album, janet., Janet got “real” about sex. In conversation with interviewer David Ritz, Janet discussed the confusion that some of her fans might have about the way in which she addresses her sexual liberation on that album, especially as this was the same woman who infamously suggested “to wait awhile, before we go too far.” She states in that interview that at the age of twenty-seven the album was the documentation of a woman who “finally feels good enough about her sexuality.” Neither Janet nor the interviewer followed upon that statement and thus they did not probe further to what it means to navigate sexuality as a Black woman, but specifically under the confines of respectability politics that govern so much of Black life in the twentieth century. And while many contemporary pop critics have labeled that respectability politics have been thrown out the window with the sexually and creative music, visuals, and performances by artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna, it is important to make sense of that previous era by which the threat of not performing the role of a respectable Black woman still governed many women’s lives and had real effects on their psyches and physical beings. Janet’s career following janet., specifically her staged performances alongside her taboo and elicit songs, have been instruments in freeing the representative image of Black women from the confines of respectability, specifically its limitations on Black women’s sexuality.
When speaking about sex and Janet, it is paramount that we center Janet’s authorial hand as writer and producer, alongside her work as singer and entertainer, for it demonstrates the extent in which Janet uses the craft of music-making to aurally translate her desires to an audience. In this way, the erotic content of the songs is not limited to the lyrics of the song but the production of it as well. Although Janet began to incorporate moaning as a backing track in the closing full track to Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), “Someday is Tonight,” it was janet. where she begin to explore the full sonic dimensions of erotic vocality as heard in the soft coos and whispers in “The Body that Loves You” and “Anytime, Anyplace,” to the moans and pants in “If” and “Throb.” While many were stunned by Janet’s frank exploration of sex on janet., her early sexual work almost pails in comparison to the work heard on The Velvet Rope’s follow up album, All for You (2001).
All for You features a newly single Janet who was, for the first time in her adult life, experiencing the thrills and lows of dating, which included a lot of sex. The title track “All for You,” masterfully captures the album’s jamboree of sexual tension, release, and fun as encapsulated in the lyric “All my girls as the party/Look at his body/Shakin’ that thing/Like I never did see/Got a nice package alright/Guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight.” Further in the album though, songs like “Love Scene (Ooh Baby)” and the infamous “Would you Mind,” cement Janet’s status as leading sexual icon for Black women performers.
Black women’s sexuality has historically, in the West, been constructed as a site of both labor and promiscuity. Colonial discourse has negatively affected Black female sexuality so much so that its absence—be that both within the Black woman or through its encounter with another individual—is symbolized as being morally chaste, as scholar Evelynn Hammonds argues in “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence.” Silence, in Hammond’s argument, becomes a deployment of power and class control by structures of patriarchy and colonialization (1999, 98). Participants of colonial discourse (anthropologist, artists, etc.) have defined sexual behaviors for Black women, thus removing the agency in which Black women can self-determine their sexualities and bodies for themselves.
There is great power in Janet using her status as a Black popular artist to openly trouble our social interpretation of Black women’s sexuality and the respectable images that informed what images of Black womanhood were acceptable in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For her 2004 appearance On-Air With Ryan Seacrest, Janet met superfan Dawn Gullett who expressed to the singer that her love songs inspired her how to love herself and how to ‘get love’ in return. Although a seemingly passing anecdote, I appreciate this media encounter for the ‘real’ impact Janet’s model of sexuality and sexual loving has had on Black women. This example demonstrates how much of our historical images and examples on Black women’s sexuality have been produced outside of our control and through structures of colonialization. My turn to popular media icons like Janet Jackson is to demonstrate how media can potentially create counter-documents to dominant narratives and ideologies, thus constituting as a form of knowledge production that is just as valuable as the ‘textbook’.
Read more about how Janet Jackson challenged normative ideals of Black womanhood, buy your copy of The Velvet Rope today!