By Terrance Turner
Jan. 28, 2022
She’s the queen of secrets, known for her shyness and privacy. But tonight, Janet Jackson is telling all. In a searing documentary for Lifetime and A&E, the superstar singer opens up like never before about her life, loves, and career — and her famous family.
“It’s a girl, three boys, a girl, three boys, a girl. That’s the way it works,” she says, describing the order of siblings. “Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, [then] LaToya, Marlon, Michael, Randy, myself.” Jackson remembers: “We were close: Randy, myself, and Mike. We were like The Three Amigos — The Three Stooges.”
Jackson spent her early years in the family home in Gary, Indiana. Her mother Katherine Jackson recalls: “Life in the house in Indiana wasn’t easy because it was only two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen and the kitchen was very, very tiny, and we had to all try to eat at the table.”
Katherine and Joe Jackson raised nine children in a two-bedroom house. Janet, Latoya and Rebbie all slept in the living room. The brothers had their own room; there were three to one bunk bed. Randy recalls that Jackie slept on the bottom; Marlon, Randy and Michael slept in the middle bunk bed, and Jermaine and Tito slept on the top.
“The three of you slept in one bunk bed?” Janet asks her brother in footage from the doc.
“Yes,” Randy answers. “Michael used to pee on me.”
It was a turbulent time: racial unrest was mounting in the late 1960s. Their hometown of Gary, Indiana was rocked by gang violence and poverty. But that didn’t bother the children much. “We knew we weren’t rich but we didn’t think we were poor,” one Jackson remembers in the film. Janet cites those unfavorable conditions as a way of explaining why her father Joe was so strict and forbidding: he wanted his children to live a better life.
Both Michael and LaToya alleged that Joe was abusive. Despite long-told stories of the notorious abuse allegations against Joe Jackson, Janet defends her parents in the film. She says: “Discipline without love is tyranny, and tyrants they were not. They just loved us and wanted us to be the best that we could possibly be.”
The Jacksons later moved to Encino, California. They were the first Black family to move into the neighborhood. Janet recalls that some circulated a petition asking that they not be allowed to move there. She also recalls being called the N-word by passers-by and having people rub her skin as if the color would rub off.
There was a studio in the home in Encino; one day Janet went in and recorded an idea for a song and left the reel open. When she came on from school her father Randy and Michael were there; they were listening to it. “And that’s when my father said to me, ‘I want you to sing,’ and I just said ‘No, no, no.’ I wanted to go to college and study business law. He said, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ basically,” she recalls. “What parent doesn’t want you to go to college?” she laughs. “But he said, ‘No, you’re going to sing.’ Not long after that I had a meeting at A&M and signed a recording contract.”
Jackson recorded two albums that went nowhere. Her father (who served as her manager) controlled virtually all of the production — even down to the album cover (which she didn’t like). In interviews from that time, young Janet expressed a desire to study at Pepperdine University. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, she sought independence in a different way. She explains: “I wanted to be able to stand on my own feet. And at that time I felt that there was no other way I could kinda get my own life unless I got married.”
Her choice of groom was James DeBarge, whom she’d known for years. He was from a large, musical family, like her. His brother had been interested in Janet’s older sister LaToya, which is how the two met. They started talking when they were kids. “I started dating him when I was 16. He was a sweet guy. He was a nice guy.”
After less than two years of dating, the two took the next step in their relationship. Janet reveals: “James and I decided to get married. My sister Toya said: ‘If that’s what you want to do then you should do it.’ So I did. In secret.”
“When I met James, I think Janet and James were married,” says Rebbie Jackson. “Nobody knew. Did she tell you about that part?” (No, she did not.) The family was shocked, she says.
In 1984, when she was 18, the two married. Jackson says: “I remember going to Michigan, to Grand Rapids, and his uncle — he was a pastor, and he married us. I even remember putting a ring on my finger and putting it on the wrong finger. When we got married and we came back to he hotel, he said, ‘OK, I’ll be right back.’ And I’m sitting there in the hotel, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by myself, four hours. He never came back.”
“I was very naive, very, very shy, not worldly at all,” she says. “When it comes to relationships, somehow I’m attracted to people that use drugs.”
As she was navigating the perils of young love, Jackson’s father got her cast on a show based on an iconic 1980 movie: “Fame”. It was a great opportunity. But she didn’t want it. “I didn’t want to be on Fame. I didn’t want to do the show,” she says. “I did it for my father.” Debbie Allen remembers her as sassy but quiet. Jackson’s heart wasn’t in her work.
“There were a lot of times I was late for work. I didn’t care. ‘Cause what was more important than my work to me was James. I would wait sometimes for James to pick me up. And I mean wait — two and a half hours late. I eventually learned that he was into drugs.”
“There were a lot of nights that I would go searching the streets looking for him. Three o’clock in the morning. Four o’clock in the morning.” Jackson remembers: “I remember times when I would find the pills and I would take them and try to flush them down the toilet, and we would be rolling around on the floor, fighting for them. That’s not a life for anyone.”‘
“I cared so much for him. And I saw the good in him,” she tells the viewer. “I just wanted that to take precedence, as opposed to this ugliness. Because I knew that he needed help. But I wasn’t the help he needed.”
Jackson filed for an annulment after just a year of marriage. She broke the news to DeBarge after driving him to his brother’s house. “I locked all the doors and drove all the way to my parents’ house,” she says in the documentary.
With her marriage now over, Janet Jackson sought independence again — this time differently. “I knew that I had to take control of my own life,” she states. “The first thing I had to do, was let my father go.” She fired her father as her manager and moved out of her parents’ home. Then she began working with legendary music producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The result was an album whose title epitomized what she wanted: Control.
Released in 1986, Control marked a new phase in Janet Jackson’s career. The title track perfectly encapsulated her new mindset: “When I was 17/I did what people told me/Did what my mother said/And let my father mold me,” she sang. “But that was long ago.” Powered by five Top 5 singles — including “Control”, “Nasty”, and “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” — the album topped the charts and went multiplatinum, selling over 10 million copies.
For her next record, Jackson went in a different direction. Rhythm Nation 1814 dealt directly with subjects including racism, poverty, and substance abuse. The title track’s lyrics summed up her vision of a socially conscious message:
With music by our side“Rhythm Nation”
To break the color lines
Let’s work together
To improve our way of life
“The Knowledge” addressed illiteracy; “Black Cat” dealt with drug abuse. “Rhythm Nation was a little bit of a risk,” recalls James “Jimmy Jam” Harris. He adds that the record company would likely have been hesitant about such a topical record. “So we didn’t tell them.”
Jackson, Jam and Lewis recorded the album in isolation. In rare behind-the-scenes footage, we see the written lyrics to “Rhythm Nation” and Jackson recording in the studio booth. We also see a contentious moment in which the producers push Jackson to add “more attitude, more energy”. At one point, the two start laughing at her attempts to get it right. After doing take after take of the track, Jackson bristles at the criticism. An argument begins and escalates; Jackson gets angry and leaves the studio. “I’m sick of this s–t,” she fumes.
Things may have been contentious, but the risk paid off. Rhythm Nation was hailed by critics: Slant Magazine called it “a masterpiece”. The New York Times said: ”Rhythm Nation” isn’t just a brilliant aural confection. With its transparent ambitions, it’s also a primer on the making of a late-1980’s blockbuster.” Rolling Stone proclaimed: “Over the course of the album, the team’s formula is invigorated and refreshed. If the crunchy, upbeat message tunes combine style and substance for the strongest impact, nothing sounds slight, and everything clicks.”
The album topped the Billboard charts, her second album to do so. It became the best-selling album of 1990, eventually selling over 12 million copies. It is the only album in history to have seven singles place in the top 5, including four number ones — “Black Cat”, “Escapade”, “Miss You Much”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”.
But what happened next would be even more impressive — and explosive.
Part two of this story will be forthcoming.