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How Janet Jackson Became an Era-Defining Sex Symbol: ‘I Was Discovering Freedom in Physical Pleasure’

Already a dominant force in music, earning the most lucrative recording contract ever at the time, ‘janet.,’ released 25 years ago, showed a different side of the pop superstar.

Ebet Roberts/Getty

Janet Jackson was on an amazing streak in the early 1990s. Her third album, Control, turned her into one of the biggest pop stars in music back in 1986, and a wave of successful singles over the next five years—14 Top 20 hits—put Janet in the kind of rarefied air occupied by Madonna, Whitney Houston, Prince and, most obviously, her big brother, megastar Michael Jackson. Rhythm Nation 1814, released in 1989, had been a commercial juggernaut, spawning seven Top 10 hits, and a critical achievement, as Janet tackled racism and poverty alongside a varied set of love songs. Throughout 1990, she’d scorched the earth on the monumental Rhythm Nation World Tour. The nine-month excursion would become one of the highest grossing ever, with Janet Jackson and her immaculate stage show wowing audiences across North America, Japan, and Europe.

Her successes had led to major career moments. Janet was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the tender age of 23 in 1990, and she’d signed what was believed to be the most lucrative recording contract of all time in 1991 with Virgin Records after a heated bidding war. It was a deal presumed to be near $50 million for five albums, and naysayers questioned whether Janet would have the kind of staying power that warranted that kind of money—the kind her brother Michael would get when he signed a $60 million deal with Sony just days later.

There were still those who believed that the stellar five-year run for the youngest Jackson was a fluke—fueled by the production prowess of hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. And they felt her industry favor was a result of the intrigue that came with being a part of the famous Jackson family. But Janet didn’t miss a beat; her next single was another Top 10 hit, the Luther Vandross duet “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” which was featured on the Jam & Lewis-produced Mo’ Money soundtrack. It set the stage for what would be her first album under the new contract with Virgin.

Even as her career was hotter—and more demanding—than ever, Janet’s personal life had entered a new period of tranquility. As a teenager, she’d met René Elizondo while he was a backup dancer for her sister Latoya Jackson in the early 1980s; by the time of Control’s success, René was a fixture in her life, with some whispers that he was managing the singer’s career. They’d gotten married secretly in San Diego in March 1991. It was Janet’s second time around—she’d eloped with James DeBarge when she was 18 but their marriage was annulled within months. That had been an emotionally fraught time, with DeBarge battling addiction and depression, and Janet’s family vehemently opposing the union. All the while, she’d been struggling through an unremarkable early recording career guided by her father Joe Jackson, and a moderately successful career as a TV actress on shows like Fame.

Sex has been an important part of me for several years. But it just hasn’t blossomed publicly until now. I’ve had to go through some changes and shed some old attitudes before feeling completely comfortable with my body.
Janet Jackson

Conversely, with René, Janet’s career was on a high and she’d gotten some emotional and professional distance between her and the Jackson family. She was in an entirely different place, going so far as to informally shed her last name. On the new project, she would be credited solely by her first—both an indicator of singular pop status and of newfound independence of voice, image, and reputation: “Janet. Period.” She was no less devoted to her family, defending her mother and father against criticism in LaToya’s book LaToya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family, and blasting Jermaine for slamming Michael on his song “Word To the Badd.”

But Janet was professionally committed to continuing to assert herself as Janet. She entered Flyte Tyme Studios in Minneapolis with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in fall 1992, determined to take a more direct role in writing and producing. The lyrics were all born of Janet; and she decided to move past the black-and-white hardness of her fourth album Rhythm Nation to warmer textures and shades. 

In 1993, Janet was proving herself to be quite the chameleon. Her 1986 breakthrough had been defined by a young woman’s quest for independence—and she’d turned social commentator on the follow-up. Just three and a half years removed from the monumental success of Rhythm Nation, Janet had now morphed again, away from the militaristic androgyny that defined so much of that album’s imagery. The shift truly began with the music video for “Love Will Never Do Without You,” Rhythm Nation’s final No. 1 single, released in late 1990. The Herb Ritts-directed clip featured a sultry Janet on the beach, showing off a newly svelte physique and radiating sensuality. It stood in stark contrast to the other album’s videos and set the stage for Janet Jackson’s full transformation into a ’90s sex symbol. And when the video for her first single dropped in April 1993, Janet’s new persona would take center stage.

“That’s the Way Love Goes” was built around an instrumental that Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis had been working on, and which Janet was initially lukewarm to. But she finished the track while she was vacationing in Anguilla with René Elizondo—fitting considering the warmth of the song that would become her sixth No. 1 hit. The industrial feel of Rhythm Nation’s hits was gone; this was a jazzy melody over a sample of James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” and Janet’s trademark coo at its sultriest.

And the Elizondo-directed video reflected intimacy in a manner that was no less effective: It showed sexy Janet with her dancers and friends lounging together and goofing around as they listen to the track. With her sitting and laughing amongst a beatific collection of multiethnic buddies, including a then-unknown by the name of Jennifer Lopez, the video instantly made Janet seem like the relatable star-next-door—high currency in the 1990s’ “keep it real” climate that was turning grunge bands and gangsta rappers into mainstream pop stars. It set the tone for Janet’s sexy reinvention.

“For that album, that song is the anchor,” Terry Lewis told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Everything else came after that. If you get off on the bad foot, none of the other stuff happens.”

“If someone says, ‘What’s your favorite Janet song,’ that’s the one,” echoed Jimmy Jam. “We got to share it with James Brown. James wanted to know the lyrics before he cleared the sample: ‘What’s she singing about on there?’ Love, James, just love! He blessed it.”

In the 1993 Rolling Stone cover story that infamously featured her iconic topless, Elizondo hands-assisted image, Janet explained that she’d become more comfortable than ever expressing her sexuality. After years of struggling with body image issues, she was now in a place of confidence. 

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“Sex has been an important part of me for several years. But it just hasn’t blossomed publicly until now. I’ve had to go through some changes and shed some old attitudes before feeling completely comfortable with my body. Listening to my new record, people intuitively understand the change in me.”

The transition in subject matter from Rhythm Nation to janet. was compared to the Marvin Gaye of the early ’70s, when he’d shifted from the world-weary view of What’s Going On to the bedroom opus Let’s Get It On. On janet., there’s a liberated carnality to tracks like “If,” the album’s Supremes-sampling second hit single, and the lusty poetry of the album’s spiritual centerpiece “Anytime, Anyplace.” It was Janet shaking off any inclination of the innocence that seemed to shadow her even on her more aggressive tracks; she was allowing audiences to recognize her full womanhood. She was as sweet as she was strong, she was as shy as she was sexy. This was a woman uninterested in fitting neatly into a box and an artist that wouldn’t be pigeonholed by any previous perception.

janet. would spawn six Top 10 hits throughout 1993 and 1994, including the upbeat “Because of Love,” breezy piano ballad “Again,” and MC Lyte-assisted “You Want This” remix. Musically, the album has one foot firmly planted in the last days of new jack swing and another in the kind of burgeoning hip-hop soul Mary J. Blige was making famous. Chuck D, Kathleen Battle, and Ann Nesby all make appearances, as Jam & Lewis’ sound continues to evolve. 

In summer 1993, Janet would follow the success of janet. with her first film role—the lead in John Singleton’s urban drama Poetic Justice. The choice surprised some commentators, but showed that Janet was, again, more in touch with the times than many of the other superstars who’d dominated pop music in the 1980s.

“I think life is about risks,” she told the Los Angeles Times back then. “There were certain people that said to me, ‘Don’t do a black film, especially a drama.’ They said it would be easier to do a musical or a comedy because people would accept me easier in those roles. But I wanted something that mattered to me. When I saw Boyz n the Hood, I said, ‘That’s it. I want to do something like that… something that is real.’”

The release of Poetic Justice would be hit-and-miss. The movie debuted at No. 1 in its opening week, despite some theaters’ decisions not to run the film and scathing reviews surrounding Singleton’s direction and Jackson’s performance. There was also a bit of behind-the-scenes drama surrounding a claim from Janet’s co-star Tupac Shakur that she’d demanded he get tested for HIV before they filmed love scenes.

“I did not disagree—if we were really going to make love,” 2Pac would tell MTV in 1993. “But if I’m gonna do a love scene with her just like somebody else did and they didn’t take a test, I’m not taking a test.”

Singleton would later claim that the test story was the result of an “inside joke.”

“No that was not serious,” he revealed in an interview with the popular Drink Champs podcast last year. “That was a joke that we used to have on set, because the real talk is Tupac was attracted to Janet, I was attracted to Janet. We’re on the set, we’re both trying to flirt with her and then I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should have him kissing on my actress when you’ve been fucking around, because you know Pac was just coming and going then.’ Then, I was like better yet you gonna have to do an AIDS test before y’all do this love scene [but] it was a joke.”

Janet occupied an entirely unique space in popular culture in the early 1990s. Where Madonna had used provocation and controversy to galvanize public attention and Whitney Houston’s image was centered on safe and traditionally detached glamour, Janet Jackson had successfully injected her brand of political commentary into the most mainstream dance pop while celebrating an image of black woman’s sexuality that seemed to be driven by her own vulnerability, agency, and identity. For a star with her kind of universal appeal, Janet was shaking the boat—racking up hits and accolades as she carved out a space for a bolder kind of contemporary black pop star. That she maintained an air of relatability and charm throughout is entirely distinctive considering how revolutionary her art had become.

janet. had a deeply sensual edge because that’s what I was going through in my life,” she explains in her latest interview with Billboard. “I was discovering freedom in physical pleasure and loved writing about sexuality. I tried to do it subtly and tastefully, but I also wanted to push the boundaries a bit.”

Following the success of the album and its subsequent tour, Janet would experience an emotional breakdown that would shatter the idyllic world she seemed to occupy with janet. This was an album of confident sexuality and romance, but it would morph into the anxiety and insecurity that would define 1997’s The Velvet Rope. That album found power in the expression of sex as catharsis; whereas on janet., sexuality feels like affirmation and escape. This is Janet at her most joyously in love, sure of herself and playful. If the album that followed it feels like a more engrossing look at the woman behind the image, janet. is nonetheless a potent expression of who she was when it all felt like it was new and emancipating. And it represents a time when Janet was a singular phenomenon in popular culture. As her brother battled tabloid scandal and Prince battled his label, Janet’s art and image became more grounded and relatable. janet. is still an essential document of 1990s pop and R&B: a masterwork from an icon who continuously proved herself to be one of the most engaging and ever-changing of all time.