It’s no secret that I am obsessed with Janet Jackson’s new album Unbreakable. It’s no secret that I’ve been obsessed with Janet Jackson for as long as I can remember, sitting in front of my tape deck with a cassette of Rhythm Nation 1814; begging my mother to take me to the record store so I could buy a copy of janet. on CD with my own money; spending the rest of the day (and week and year) cross-legged in front of my stereo, devouring the lyrics, singing the songs, and during daring moments even jumping up to practice dance moves. So it’s fitting that Unbreakable is actually a return to Jackson’s most classic (and I would argue perfect) albums of the 1980s & 90s, from Control to The Velvet Rope and everything in between. It feels like not a moment has passed since those stellar albums and the release of Unbreakable. Yes, it is that good.
From the mid-tempo coo of the opening title track to the high energy funk of the closer “Gon' B Alright,” this is Ms. Jackson reminding us that we are strong and, despite the dreary state of the world, things can still turn out OK. This is Jackson singing to “the beautiful people who have been ignored” and letting them/us know there is still hope out there. Don’t listen to people trying to bring you down, believe in yourself, there is power within all of us. The world needs Janet Jackson’s brand of hope now more than ever, and this is where Jackson has always excelled. Not only is Jackson’s hope and optimism unshakeable, unbreakable — it’s also decidedly unexplainable.
By most accounts, I’m a pessimist. I see the world in terms of what’s wrong often, and when I’m not careful, I can let that pessimism keep me stationary, staying too critical to actually get anything done. I’ve never responded to the schmaltzy, often corny brand of “heal the world, love will save the day” platitudes that seem to be Janet Jackson’s bread and butter. And yet, I’m convinced by every word she utters. I pump my fist with goosebumps as she cries out, “Part of a revolution / Ready for real solutions / We accept no excuses / We tolerate no abuses.” I’m convinced that love can actually change something — love for others, love of ourselves, love for the planet, just plain old motherfucking love. And that’s why Janet Jackson exists in a class all her own (despite most reviewers of her work to compare and contrast her to another famous washed-up white lady pop star of yesteryears — one Jackson never felt to be a valid comparison either). She wields love and she makes us believe, even the most hard-hearted, cynical, closed off among us. And that’s why Janet Jackson is magic; she infects us all with love. She might be the only artist alive with this unique ability (and, yes, I’m even including my other favorite, Beyoncé in this statement, as she works in different, but otherwise hugely powerful, ways).
Like with most Janet Jackson productions, Unbreakable is a selfless endeavor. Yes, the themes are personal for Jackson herself and she is working through her own shit via writing and singing about them, but ultimately she gives herself to her fans. And she tries to inspire her fans to be better people, to be the change she and we want to see in the world. Like she says at the end of the title track, “I dedicate myself to you.” Unbreakable is unabashed love letter to the fans — she’s glad we’re still here. She’s thankful we’re still listening. Jackson has never been an artist to chase trends for a quick buck. Even more telling, she’s been away from music for a significant amount of time, and by all accounts, she enjoys that privacy and her life outside the spotlight. Because of this, her music is even more of a gift, and I certainly felt like a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for the clock to hit midnight so I could hit download on my computer.
While Jackson’s gift of love and hope might be unbreakable, it’s not altogether unconditional. She lists the conditions to her dedication, and she even offers an indictment to those that are unwilling to follow. There are some things she wants us to do; some respect she asks that we show; some action she hopes we’ll take. She wants us to resist the impulse to be a critic, either professionally or colloquially. Certainly there are things about this world to criticize, but Jackson asks we celebrate the possibilities and prospects of love in at least equal measure. Instead of always tearing down, she asks that we seek to build up.
She also demands we respect her privacy, and accept the pieces she gives us as enough. She demands that we respect her boundaries. And as a black female artist, that demand is significant. However, most reviewers of Unbreakable fell short of that demand immediately. Whether comparing Jackson to others — favorably or unfavorably — or insisting on mourning the loss of an overtly sexual focus on this album, folks are not respecting the piece of work she is offering. Jackson’s sexuality on her records has always gone to investigate larger political points and stereotypes around black women’s bodies and sexual stereotypes, and perhaps Jackson realized that her point was getting lost in later years. Fans and critics alike were discussing and celebrating the sexuality of her music as raunchiness for raunchiness’ sake, rather than digging deeper. Much like Dave Chappelle’s retreat from comedy when he realized people were engaging in racism by laughing at his jokes rather than laughing at an absurd society that sanctioned racism, Jackson’s focus on other facets of life on Unbreakable has deeper implications for the ways we received her sexuality in the past than anything it says about her. The intense focus on the lack of sexuality in the album in many reviews, proves her point. It shows an overwhelming willingness to speak about the absence of something rather than the presence of the actual content of Unbreakable. Critique versus celebration remixed.
Finally, Janet Jackson simply asks that we all engage in conversation: “A brand new movement that started with a conversation in a cafe / It’s all about love and how we ain’t never gonna let words get in the way…You wanna show me love? / Let’s keep the conversation going.” Simple, right? Yet, immediate focus is everywhere but on that conversation she’s attempting to start; the same conversation she attempted to start on Rhythm Nation 1814. In possibly the most heartbreaking lyric of the entire album, Jackson fights tears to deliver the lines, “Had this great epiphany / And Rhythm Nation was the dream / Guess next time I’ll know better…” And yet, Unbreakable marks that next time, and she’s still trying to get us to participate in her brand new movement. She’s going back on her own word for the betterment of society and the world. Because she knows we can do better and she’s unwilling to give up on us. Again, Jackson’s music is never about her. It’s about us.
So talk to someone. Put down your phone, computer (after reading this article obviously - ha!) and go out into the world. Engage someone in conversation. Ask them how they’re doing. The increase in technological advancement and social media, while beneficial in many ways, also tends to turn us all into insular, solo creatures. Our tendency is to only care about ourselves, and when we do it’s through a text or a tweet. We lose context, body language, inflection — so many essential pieces of constructive conversation. We don’t look each other in the eye. We brush past one another on the street while looking at our cell phones. We avert our eyes. The real strength, hope, power of Unbreakable lies in a very simple fact: we are stronger together than separate. So talk to someone today — keep the conversation going. Whether your conversation is about Jackson’s album, political issues, or just reaching out to offer a helping hand to someone in need. Talk. Engage. Converse. Keep the conversation going. That’s how we write our own love letter back to Janet Jackson — to thank her, to celebrate her, but most of all to celebrate ourselves and our connections in this world. If we agree to do these things, if we agree to listen, Jackson promises “We gon’ be alright.” That’s how we all will truly become unbreakable.