In today’s modern cycle of constant controversy, it may be hard to remember the sheer magnitude of scandal and unprecedented backlash Janet Jackson received after her 2004 Super Bowl performance. Janet ultimately survived the sensationalized hoopla, but the brilliant album she released that year, Damita Jo, was unfairly muffled by an organized revenge blacklisting from media outlets.
It was February 2004.
As a country, we were still reeling from 9/11 PTSD and immersed in a new war, so pop culture was keeping it light. Jessica Simpson-light. It was a pre-Kardashian world before we were used to seeing commonly leaked sex tapes of our celebrities. Long before Trump the politician, the smallest things could spark massive public outrage and nuke a career, like the Dixie Chicks simply saying they didn’t like George W. Bush.
But in February 2004, Janet Jackson was in a fabulous position. Ms. Jackson was fresh off the massive success over her album All For You and its accompanying arena tour. The era opened with the smash hit single “All For You,” which spent 7 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the album itself opened at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 605,128 in first week sales, Jackson’s best ever first week numbers. She wrapped the era with a memorable HBO concert special from Hawaii, which was watched live by 12 million people.
Janet Jackson would launch her new album era by headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show with a medley of hits. But all know what happened. At the end of the performance, Justin Timberlake ripped off her bra and revealed her boob. The country was appalled, horrified, outraged, and offended. By a boob.
By now, we’ve discussed how infuriating it was that Timberlake suffered zero consequences, while Janet faced a backlash never-before-seen all for what was, at worst, a dopey live television moment. But scandal erupted immediately.
Janet was to release the first single from her new album, Damita Jo, to coincide with the Super Bowl appearance. The song was “Just A Little While,” a pop/rock-tinged uptempo produced by Dallas Austin. Following the massive pop success of All For You, it was a natural follow-up; a slam-dunk, down the middle, pop radio hit. Upon release, it was met with great reviews and took off at radio, positioned to be a smash.
That is until the FCC fined Viacom and CBS over Jackson’s performance, and as punishment, they blacklisted her across all of their subsidiaries, including MTV, VH1, and radio stations across the country. Oh, just, all the tools an artist needs to promote a new album.
At the time, Rolling Stone reported:
“CBS and MTV’s parent company Viacom, angered that an unannounced addition to the Super Bowl performance has now cost them all future halftime shows, hits back at Janet by essentially blacklisting her, keeping her music videos off their properties MTV, VH1, and radio stations under their umbrella. The blacklist spreads to include non-Viacom media entities as well. […]Thanks to the radio and music television blacklist, the LP underperforms compared to Janet’s previous releases.”
Viacom’s Janet blacklisting was intended to intentionally sabotage Damita Jo. “Just A Little While” made it to #45 on the Hot 100 before programmers were forced to take the song off the air
Luckily, this album was stacked with potential hit single choices. The second release felt like a fresh burst of springtime air. It was a Motown-inspired R&B groove produced by Kanye with incredible passionate, soulful vocals from Janet. The song was originally called “Have Your Way With Me,” but following the Super Bowl sex controversy, had to be renamed a more bland “I Want You.”
Where pop radio had turned their backs on Janet, rhythm and urban radio had her back. Although “I Want You” only peaked at #57 on the Hot 100, it was actually quite an accomplishment in the thick of backlash when radio stations weren’t allowed to play her music and streaming had not yet democratized the industry. But people loved the song. It went platinum due to exceptional sales, was nominated for a Grammy, and critics like Glenn Gamboa of Newsweek noted it would’ve been “an across the board smash” had the blacklisting not occurred.
Janet was fighting back. Despite an organized media campaign against the project, Damita Jo sold 381,000 copies in its first week, landing at #2 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and marking Janet’s second best opening numbers ever. These were better numbers than most artists who were receiving full support and exposure. How did she do it?
Well, it turns out the album was fantastic. Jackson, then 37, had all of the confidence and swagger of a woman who knew herself as a person and an artist, and wanted to make a grown ass record about sex and love. While Jackson maybe known for her pulsating uptempo dance jams, she’s been equally successful as a sweet singing seductress of baby-makin grooves. Highlights included the Kanye-west assisted “My Baby,” the 80s euphoria of “R&B Junkie,” and the pure sex of “Spending Time With You.”
And the critics noticed. Blender writer Ann Powers called Damita Jo “artfully structured, unapologetically explicit” and “erotica at its friendliest and most well-balanced.” Jesse Washington from the Associated Press called the album “sinfully appealing” and “infectious”, saying “relaxation is the last thing on her agenda with this sinfully appealing concoction of infectious beats and scandalous lyrics.”
Langston Wertz Jr. of the Charlotte Observer noted Jackson has suddenly become one of the “most vilified female artists of all time” and that “radio wouldn’t play it and MTV wouldn’t play her videos for “I Want You” and “All Nite,” two songs that would’ve been out-of-the-park hits at any other point in Jackson’s career.
“All Nite (Don’t Stop)” had been released as the third single as Janet charged on with promotion. This sexy, ultra-uptempo dance record made you feel like you were in the basement of a foggy, dingy dance club making out with someone beautiful. The music video featured classic Janet choreography, which she displayed effortlessly across numerous talk show appearances to promote the record. And yes, it would’ve been a pop radio summer smash had it been released at any other time. Yet another hit not allowed to be great!
Damita Jo went on to sell over 1 million copies, earning it a platinum certification and cementing its place as an undeniable commercial success. It was also nominated for two Grammy Awards the following year. Of course, at the time it was negatively compared to Janet’s previous numbers, as if it had ever been given a fair shot. But even over a decade later, the album still sounds like a fresh, sexy, springtime masterpiece and deserves a second look. It’s one of Janet’s best.
By Rory Arnold, Contributing Writer
Image Credit: Virgin Records