How should a pop diva grow older in public? When your career is based not so much on virtuosic vocal ability but charisma, X factor, taste, and performance, where do you end up? What is the “age appropriate” equivalent to singing standards for the artists whose output is rooted in the dance pop of the ‘80s? How does the artist who is characterized in part by her command on culture and ability to communicate with the masses thrive when the masses stop listening? How do you make pop music when you know it has little chance of actually being popular, per the ageist standards of the music industry?
You can fight it. Madonna has been doing that, going as far as to make cultural ageism a talking point during her media tour for this year’s Rebel Heart. Her cause is at least as self-serving as it is noble, and ultimately ineffective—Madonna’s biggest hits these days are antics, not songs. Rebel Heart contains more songs than any Madonna album (23 on the U.S. release of the Super Deluxe Edition), but on it she has less to say than ever. Its clearest statement comes between the often excruciatingly trite lines—the throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks ethos is so prominent that the album’s primary aesthetic is desperation.
Another survival tactic is to just chill the fuck out and talk when you are ready. The most arresting thing about Janet Jackson’s first album in seven years, Unbreakable, is how relaxed it sounds. Produced with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the independently released Unbreakable is a sigh of comfort stretched out over 17 tracks. Jackson, who watched her last three albums flop and has had only one single in the past 10 years reach the Top 20 single of the Billboard Hot 100 (“Feedback”), has seemingly come to terms with her reduced marketability. She has, after all, had plenty of time to think about it.
“Hello,” says Jackson on Unbreakable’s opening, title track, radiating humility. “It’s been a while. Lots to talk about. I’m glad you’re still here. I hope you enjoy.” This one’s for the people—not all of them, but those who are still interested in what Jackson might have to say. The woman who was once, per her ex-boyfriend and –producer Jermaine Dupri, no longer interested in making albums because they just weren’t selling, has shifted her focus. Now it’s on the album, not the selling. (It’s not like Jackson, a millionaire who married a billionaire, needs the money at this point, anyway.) In 2010, Dupri said, “Janet is just trying to figure out her landscape.” In 2015, she has.
Solving the unsolvable problem of aging in pop, it turns out, is as easy as not treating it like a problem but an opportunity. The mellow Unbreakable is largely unconcerned with pop trends, and when it is, it’s just because they make sense when infused with Jackson’s vibe. “Dammn Baby” and “2 B Loved” both interpolate DJ Mustard’s skeletal and bouncy approach to melodic hip-hop, an unrelentingly sunny style that recalls vintage Jackson at her most ebullient. Some Unbreakable songs don’t have much by way of choruses (particularly material on the album’s second half like “Lessons Learned” and the stunning “Black Eagle”). Many more choose vibe over insistent hooks (see the first single “No Sleeep,” where Jackson sounds positively somnambulant during the verses).
And what of the “lots” that Jackson has to talk about? It certainly doesn’t involve sex—for the first time since 1993, there is not one explicit sex jam on a Janet Jackson album. Given all of the ground she has covered—from S&M to bondage to public sex to singing with a dick in her mouth—she’s perhaps run out of kinks to explore in her music. That’s reasonable. Instead, the topic most frequently discussed on Unbreakable is social justice. Its discussions are polished with the vague idealism of someone who has repeatedly sheltered herself from the world throughout her career (between projects, Janet is just not visible).
“Wish I could create a perfect place (Wouldn’t that be perfect someday) / Without jealousy, abuse or hate (And all just living off love) / And I’m never giving up / Because I wanna master love / ‘Cause the world is just so beautiful / I just wanna see it come to life,” she sings over Chi-Lites-inspired soul retroism on “Dream Maker/Euphoria.” “Just can’t feel casual about the casualties,” she sings over the percolating house beat that explodes into guitar-laden U2 grandiosity of “Shoulda Known Better.” “Because every life matters (We all need to do better) / So we all should try (We all need to do better) / A smile / A kind word / Or extending a hand / Helping someone to feel human again,” she murmurs over the minimal rumble of “Black Eagle.” Given the album’s generalities, the similarity to Black Lives Matter counter-sentiment (“All lives matter!”) is in all likelihood a coincidence.
Jackson touches on her marriage to Wissam Al Mana, whom she married in 2012 and, for a few years, disappeared with entirely in the Middle East (“If fairytales are mine, you would be the one that saved me oh baby,” she coos in “Take Me Away”). She’s a bit more pointed about her union when discussing the press’s reaction to it. “Don’t like seeing people happy / Is it jealousy or personal? / ‘Cause I don’t see why loving someone / Or what I do seem so radical to you,” she sings in the highlight “The Great Forever,” which shares a shuffle beat and disdain for gossip with her brother Michael’s 1987 single “Leave Me Alone.” What exactly she is actually referring to, though, is unclear—the only real controversy her marriage to Al Mana spawned was regarding how secretive Jackson was about it. And furthermore, those most likely to care about Jackson’s personal life at this point are the fans she still has, the ones she told just three songs earlier, “I dedicate my life to you.” “It’s never the critic that counts / ‘Cause critics only wanna talk,” she sings in “Shoulda Known Better,” seemingly unaware that there’s a rather large Venn diagram of critics and Janet Jackson fans. Jackson has been regularly acclaimed, particularly during the pre-Nipplegate period of her career.
As with Madonna’s Rebel Heart, the truly profound messages of Unbreakable are not found in its text but its subtext. Jackson’s relationship with feedback is complicated—it’s what brings her back (“I wouldn’t be here / Without the love I stand on”) and what pushes her away. Let’s not forget that whatever contradictions or self-entitlement that may strike us as odd regarding Jackson (any Jackson, for that matter) comes from the fact that she’s been famous since she was a child. Her development has been atypical, her perspective is a rare one. “It’s sad when you take such a beautiful thing / Blow it up and call it the news,” she sings, creating a binary that may initially seem off but does check out. How often, after all, is the news “beautiful?”
On Unbreakable, Jackson concentrates on being soothed by and soothing with beauty. “In every race / Every place that I’ve ever been / There is so much beauty,” she sings in “Well Traveled,” a country-tinged ballad that works shockingly well. That’s about as much insight as she allows in this song about her perpetual motion across our great planet. But her vast experience is noted, her entire public life is tattooed on this release. With her Minnie Mouse timbre and minuscule range, Janet Jackson has never been the picture of “soul,” and yet what other word can we apply to the work of someone with a rich, complicated narrative, someone who has learned lessons and integrated them into her art? Sometimes soul is a gift, and sometimes it’s earned. Janet Jackson has earned hers. Aging in pop, it turns out, is a beautiful thing.