Marvin Gaye & Janet Jackson (Part 1): The Story of How They Rebelled and Became Artists
Marvin Gaye and Janet Jackson. Two performers most wouldn’t think to examine side by side, despite being two of the most daring black artists of all time. Especially where “pop stars” are concerned.
The only critic to consider the parallels between them is David Ritz. For Rolling Stone, he wrote “Just as Gaye moved from What’s Going On to Let’s Get It On, from the austere to the ecstatic, Janet, every bit as serious-minded as Marvin, moved from Rhythm Nation to janet., her statement of sexual liberation.” But this is where his analysis reached its apex. A detailed look at the resemblance between their artistic trajectories has remained at an undeveloped level.
As Marvin had already passed away by the time Janet broke through with ‘Control’ in 1986, some would say this is understandable. However, it is also the disrespect that Janet’s legacy has continued to weather post-Superbowl that explains why joint evaluations of their music are lacking.
Despite thriving in different generations and making very different music, the release of ground-breaking records like ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘The Velvet Rope’ saw Marvin and Janet making bold statements while remaining regular fixtures on Billboard. Creating blueprints for not only their contemporaries to follow but several generations of later artists.
Something that would not have been possible had Marvin and Janet continued to submit to the will and watchful eyes of their respective bosses; Berry Gordy and Joe Jackson. Domineering and controlling, these were two men endeavouring to ensure their artists remained compliant extensions of their empires. The catalysts that saw Marvin and Janet transition from puppets without perspective to artists with singular voices arose similar circumstances.
This two-part essay will tell the story of how Marvin Gaye and Janet Jackson rebelled against the pre-determined paths laid out for them and evaded artistic subjugation.
By 1971, Marvin Gaye was one of Motown’s most lucrative cash cows. The reigning prince of Motown, he would one up himself and all his labelmates by releasing ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. A worldwide smash that up until that point, was the most successful track in Motown’s history. Adding to his series of wins, Gaye had also formed a booming collaborative partnership with Tammi Terrell, regularly producing hit after hit with duets ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ and ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’.
Behind the scenes however, Marvin and Motown’s head honcho Berry Gordy had a very turbulent relationship. Often butting heads over the direction of his music and image. A long-time admirer of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, Marvin wanted to make music that leaned more towards traditional jazz standards and adult contemporary sounds. He had no interest in R&B music. Initially Gordy complied with his wishes and allowed him to record his debut album ‘The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye’ in this vein. Unfortunately, the album failed to captivate audiences and Gaye was forced to acquiesce and record music that would become emblematic of the legendary ‘Motown Sound’. The success of Marvin Gaye, alongside that of The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and several other acts helped Motown Records become one of the 1960s most thriving record labels. Berry Gordy was ecstatic with the musical empire he was building. Marvin, on the other hand was grossly unsatisfied with the management of his career and yearning for more creative control.
Compounding this artistic hunger was heavy personal turmoil. On a micro-level he had descended into a deep depression resulting from the premature death of his close friend and duet partner Tammi Terrell. With his marriage to Anna Gordy rapidly deteriorating around the same time, a mounting dependence on cocaine developed as his way of coping. On a macro-level, Marvin was dejected over many societal ills taking place such as the ongoing fallout from the 1965 Watts riots and the Vietnam War. A war that his younger brother Frankie was serving in.
Inundated with so much hopelessness, Marvin was not up to the challenge of churning out another album of love songs and turning a blind eye to his surroundings. He wanted to create music that reflected the times. Gaye sought to record a concept album that would serve as a ‘protest record’. Consequently, more tensions arose between Gaye and Gordy. Hearing that one of his biggest artists wanted to create a ‘protest record’ was not news that Berry wanted to hear.
As ground-breaking as Motown was, it would be remiss to not mention that in order for the label to reach the great heights they did, there was a pressure and need for their aesthetic and sound to be mass-appealing as possible to white audiences. The classic ‘Motown Sound’ was a brand of soul music with distinct pop undertones. Accompanying this sound, was a clean-cut and polished look that saw Motown artists suited and booted, looking very ‘respectable’. Berry Gordy had a vision to cultivate a black label with artists that all had crossover potential. A stark contrast to fellow soul music labels like Stax and Philadelphia International, home to acts like Otis Redding, Issac Hayes, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and O’Jays. All successful artists in their own rights. Nonetheless, the disparity between the levels of commercial success these artists were greeted with in comparison to the acts on Motown was glaring.
The records coming out of those labels had a firm foot in ‘blacker’ sounds. The music was grittier and more authentic. The black communities’ longstanding relationships with blues and gospel music was unapologetically embraced and weaved into the music. And just accordingly, the combination of all these components was reflected in the consumption of those records and the heights its performers were able to reach. There was a limit on its reach. Which is why Motown enforced a strict level of quality control. Every song that came out of Hitsville U.S.A. needed to be a potential number one single.
This was still the case even towards the end of the 60s when flagship artists like The Temptations and The Supremes started releasing psychedelic-sounding music with lyrical content that skewed more political. Songs like ‘Ball of Confusion’, ‘Cloud Nine‘, ‘Love Child’ and ‘I’m Livin’ in Shame’ saw Motown for the first time dabbling in provocative waters. Topical and urgent songs that thematically spanned white flight, gun control, segregation and child illegitimacy. Breaking new ground for what mainstream pop music could provide commentary on. Yet, these singles still had the hallmarks of a Motown radio-ready hit. They were catchy and straight-forward with undemanding cadences. Making it easier for listeners to sidestep the lyrical content. Furthermore, these were just singles, standalone tracks that stood out on albums that were otherwise standard fare.
Marvin had previously experimented with politically-minded music when he recorded ‘Abraham, Martin & John’ but he was now proposing an entire body of work in this manner. Creatively stifled and restricted for many years, this time was Marvin was determined to create the music he wanted. By refusing to compromise, Motown was going to have to distribute their most radical project to date. An outcome Gordy initially couldn’t co-operate with. Ever the pragmatist, he was concerned about the potential to alienate Marvin’s fanbase and not sell any records. Gordy wasn’t about to risk Marvin’s reputation as a reliable hitmaker for an experimental excursion. Marvin was one of Motown’s biggest stars, a pivotal reason as to why the label had status as a music industry force. Unlike Edwin Starr, who by the time he had topped the charts with the ‘War’ was widely considered one of the label’s second tier acts. Ironically, this song was originally recorded by The Temptations, but was barred from being released a single to avoid offending their conservative fans. The risk was instead levied onto Starr as he wasn’t a priority.
Yet unbeknownst to many, Berry Gordy had quietly been amplifying the voices of black activists like Stokley Carmichael, Amiri Baraka and Martin Luther King via Black Forum, Motown’s forgotten subsidiary label. Active between 1970 and 1973, Black Forum functioned as a label increasing the profile of the voices behind the civil rights movement. Gordy’s willingness to put forth his influence and dollars towards launching Black Forum, showed like Marvin he too wanted to foster change but he wanted it filtered through figures who already were associated with the black struggle. People he had no real personal or financial investment in, unlike the artists he signed.
When Berry Gordy heard a demo version of ‘What’s Going On’, he was quoted as calling it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life” and refused to release it. A call to eradicate war and police brutality. It wasn’t a militant anthem, it was a song petitioning for peace and equality. Yet with its heavy jazz-influence, it was a further display of everything that had no place in popular music at the time. Which in turn went against Motown’s entire ethos. The existence of Motown itself and its artists could be read as a form of black escapism. The labels songs and the presentation of its artists were a curation of a black community uninterrupted by the vast weapons of white supremacy. They were the black version of the American Dream. They were aspirational. Marvin was now proving to be a threat to this innocuous brand of blackness.
Persistent and stubborn, Marvin went on a self-imposed protest refusing to record any more music until Gordy relented. However, Gordy proved equally stubborn. It took the help of Motown executive Barney Ales going behind Gordy’s back and releasing 100,000 copies of the song to the public to start an initial grassroots buzz. To both Gaye and Gordy’s surprise, the song ended up becoming a huge smash and Motown’s fastest-selling song. Finally, seeing the potential for a profitable album cycle, Gordy gave Marvin the free reign he desired by allowing him to write the album he wanted.
No artist on Motown Records until that point had been afforded that level of creative control. In addition to writing the album, Marvin was also heavily involved in its production. Nothing was cloaked in euphemisms nor were these strategically placed side by side songs that would be deemed ‘safer’. The title track’s messages of community and reconciliation are reprised in ‘Wholy Holy’ and ‘God is Love’. God and the bible are explicity referenced as necessary tools imperative to the world’s healing. Assertively sings “He left us a book to believe in, in it, we’ve got a lot to learn”. ‘What’s Happening Brother’ has come to be remembered as an anecdotal account of a soldier returning home from war to find disharmony in his own community. But most piercingly, it dealt with feelings of displacement and worthlessness. An implicit critique of the US government, who after pocketing heaps of men to serve, fail to provide them with tangible means needed to re-integrate into society. Leaving many war-veterans to self-medicate both their physical and emotional ailments with drugs, a grave sentiment that serves as the focus of ‘Flyin’ High in the Friendly Sky’.
For Marvin’s brother Frankie, the original inspiration behind the album, his experience as a black soldier illuminated an experience shared by many black men in the army. Permitted to risk his life in war for a country with no care or concern for his needs. Amidst mounting feelings of resentment for the asinine system that awaits him on home soil, he must will himself to participate for the sake of survival. Peak double consciousness. ‘Inner City Blues’ saw Marvin be a mouthpiece for millions of African-American men. Tethering his own trials to theirs, despite his privileges as a black man who became an exception. A visceral lamenting of pain, hopelessness and economic hardships, it was Motown’s most profound analysis on racial politics and class inequality. It was unavoidable who the song was about and who the song was meant to capture. Long before Erykah Badu’s ‘New Amerkyah: 4th World War, Solange’s ‘A Seat at the Table’, Raheem DeVaughn’s The Love & War Masterpiece and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ songs like ‘Inner City Blues’ were bold renderings of the black experience doubling as ‘popular music’.
The audaciousness attached to ‘What’s Going On’ extended far beyond the lyrical content. Sonically, it was Motown’s most niche and avant-garde work up until that point. The album’s 9 tracks staunchly resisted against the formulaic nature of songs cluttering radio at the time. A sum of many parts, this was an album that had the intentions of being experienced as a cohesive unit, as opposed to a collection of indispensable singles. Borrowing from the free form nature of jazz, long instrumental breaks and songs without a clear ‘hook’ were not shied away from.
Marvin’s artistic transformation also manifested itself in his aesthetic and overall presentation. Marvin decided to sidestep the uniform look that had become customary of all Motown’s male artists. Instead, deciding to grow out his beard, pierce his ear and wear more leisurely clothing. Resulting in an image that was less ‘presentable’ and more rugged. The album’s artwork represented the final phase in Marvin’s evolution.
‘What’s Going On’ saw Marvin unleash his inner genius to the world, moving away from cookie-cutter popstar to an artist with substance. Marvin was not the first to release an album of this kind. Sly & The Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield had already laid down templates for politically-charged soul/funk music with seminal projects ‘Curtis’ and ‘Stand!’ Marvin, however was the first to do so on Motown which was revolutionary in of itself. With the entire album featuring no tracks with radio-friendly messaging, it was the first time Berry Gordy approved the release of an album that from the outset had a significant chance of producing no major hits. It was extremely remarkable at the time to have a mass-appealing artist like Marvin take such a risk.
Subsequently this sparked a shift in black music where socially-conscious music from black artists began clamouring Billboard more than ever. The success of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’, ‘Respect Yourself’ by The Staple Singers and Donny Hathaway’s ‘Little Ghetto Boy’ among other songs were very telling of an industry-wide change to the way such songs were being received. Perhaps the most notable example of Marvin’s direct impact on his contemporaries was ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’ by Sly & The Family Stone which was titled in response to ‘What’s Going On’. A striking departure from the idealistic & optimistic themes of unity and integration on their earlier works, its lyrical themes and instrumentation were markedly darker and more militant.
Marvin’s need for artistic metamorphosis would also prove to be fruitful for Motown, much to Berry Gordy’s pleasure (and relief). With this album, Marvin would reach charting feats on Billboard that had never been seen with a solo artist. It became the first album to notch 3 top 10 singles on the Billbaord Hot 100 and three number one singles on the ranking’s adjoining R&B chart. Later pushing the album to sales of over 3 million copies. A first for a Motown release.
15 years later, Janet Jackson would find herself in a similar predicament where she would have to decide between following the path laid out by her father or take everything into her own hands.
It is not unwarranted to say that the genesis of Janet Jackson’s music career was nothing more than another attempt by her totalitarian father Joe Jackson to further cash in on the omnipresence of the Jackson family. Joe had successfully masterminded the rise of The Jackson 5 and eventually broke Michael as a solo juggernaut. Attempts to replicate this success with his other sons were proving to be difficult. Meanwhile releases from his daughters Rebbie and LaToya garnered so-so reception. For all intents and purposes, Janet; the baby of the family, was his last chance. Janet had passions geared towards academia with aspirations to become an entertainment lawyer. Still, Janet had become somewhat of a television staple towards the end of the 70s and early 80s with recurring roles in ‘Good Times’, ‘Different Strokes and ‘Fame’. Though auxiliary career paths were tolerable, the Jackson family brand was still predicated on music. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before Janet was lured into a recording studio like her 8 siblings before her.
Landing a record deal with A&M records at the age of 16, her inaugural albums 1982’s ‘Janet Jackson’ and 1984’s ‘Dreamstreet’ were indistinguishable from the post-disco sounds pervading the pop marketplace at the time. The music had no point of view or personality. Joe thought that easily serviceable music coupled with her TV visibility would be the right recipe for the beginning of a lengthy music career. What should have been a sure thing by his standards was in reality was a different story. Both albums sold abysmally and charted well below expectations. Despite songs like ‘Young Love’ and ‘Don’t Stand Another Chance’ becoming moderate hits on the R&B charts, critics incessantly wrote off Janet as another pawn in Joe’s plan to spearhead another superstar child akin to Michael. In the wake of Michael yielding continued blockbuster success without his professional guidance (Michael fired Joe and hired Frank Dileo in 1984), Joe wanted to ensure he had his own megastar. Rolling Stone Magazine coldly remarked that “Perhaps she’d give brother Jermaine a run for his money someday, but Michael’s hallowed level success seemed well below Janet’s grasp”.
The heavy blow of two back to back flop albums arguably impacted Joe more than Janet. In the infancy of her music career, Janet clearly wasn’t invested. Her detachment was palpable in the output. Unsurprisingly, she was numb to the fact that her music career was destined to be short-lived because behind the scenes the sheltered nature of her life and upbringing was starting to give way into disorder. At 19 years old, Janet was experiencing a delayed sense of independence. The first manifestation of this newfound liberation? A controversial marriage to fellow teen idol James DeBarge. With highly publicised substance abuse problems and generally erratic behaviour, this union was gravely admonished by the Jackson family. Though Janet refused to initially yield, she would later have the marriage annulled. Janet then sought a drastic reconstruction of her musical career. With renewed vigour and a specific vision for her next phase, she unceremoniously fired her father as manager and hired John McClain. McClain subsequently introduced Janet to a duo closely associated with Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. And right then in that first meeting, one of the most formidable and longstanding musical partnerships was born.
From the outset, the creative goals for what would eventually be ‘Control’ were dramatically different from the previous objectives overseen by Joe. Similarly to Berry Gordy, Joe was pining for success that would position Janet as more than just a “black artist”. Meanwhile, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ vision for the album was one that had the black community solely in mind. Jimmy Jam would recall in an interview with Rolling Stone “We wanted to do an album that would be in every black home in America … we were going for the black album of all time”. She opted to record the album in Minneapolis away from the supervision and overbearing gawk of her father. With Janet’s recent personal woes behind her, she was now for the first time inspired. Rather than just being an obligation, Janet was now seeing music as a blank canvas to air out her innermost thoughts. The end result became collection of tracks that became Janet’s most purgative work while doubling as a commentary on a new wave of black feminism.
‘What Have You Done for Lately’ personified female empowerment. Janet flipped the script on the one-sided nature of gender politics in relationships, urging women to put themselves first. A pre-cursory anthem to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, ‘Nasty’ tackled an issue women have constantly battled; sexual harassment. Inspired by her own real-life, Janet fired back instead of surrendering to silence. Not asking but demanding to be seen as a human being as opposed to a sexual object. The scolding but iconic lyric “No, my first name ain’t baby. it’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty” exemplified that this stance was non-negotiable. A direct pronouncement to her family, the title track ‘Control’ is where Janet signs a new decree to herself. It is Janet at her most insistent and uncompromising.
The songs from ‘Control’ alongside Tina Turner’s ‘Better Be Good to Me’, Donna Summer’s ‘She Works Hard For The Money’ and Patti Labelle’s ‘New Attitude’ became the earliest entries in a canon of work that witnessed the music industry’s adoption of black feminist rhetoric. Something that would continue in the years ensuing with the rise of artists like Queen Latifah, Salt N Pepa, TLC and Destiny’s Child. Not since Aretha Franklin’s landmark hits ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and ‘Respect’ had subversion on this level been witnessed. Trailblazing firecrackers Nina Simone and Millie Jackson were early forbearers of this movement but their musical contributions were not commercially received in the manner of an Aretha or Janet. Millie herself once said “I was the poor people’s queen. I didn’t sell records to bougies. The women who bought Diana Ross did not buy Millie Jackson.” An indication that black pop culture at large wasn’t ready for an artist like Millie and even she knew that.
Historical rendering of women but black women in particular required them to be passive and docile. ‘Control’ made it apparent that Janet was actively shunning these ideas, fashioning her own path regardless of potential reproach. ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ was a weighty extension of this evolution. Championing safe sex and abstinence, Janet’s control was broadened to encompass ownership of her body. At a time when public discourse around sexual practices was extremely conservative, this was ground-breaking. Marking Janet’s first foray into commentary on social issues. ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ drove the point even further that even though the ‘Control’ album was a statement of her own self-actualisation, the messages pervading the album were not singular to her. They were in fact widespread, speaking against the culture of women being coerced into sex due to societal pressures. Elsewhere, the song’s adoption by the LGBT population at the height of the AIDS crisis speaks volumes to the vast pockets of community who found strength and representation through her music.
Just like Marvin before her, the concentrated shift in Janet’s music required a corresponding change in her image. The covers for her previous albums had Janet beaming ear to ear with bright coloured clothing, designed to maintain the family-friendly connotations of the Jackson brand. ‘Control’s artwork eradicated once and for all that Janet was no more than the baby of her squeaky-clean family. Donning nothing but a black suit, Janet’s physical and facial expressions were emblematic of the Janet that was about to be introduced to the world. Assertive and defiant.
The reaction to the album by the time its promotional campaign was underway established to detractors that an artist like Janet Jackson was necessary in pop music. After being bombarded with less than stellar attempts by all her siblings sans Michael to gain prominence, it was understandable why the world was either sceptical or completely unbothered by the prospect of another Janet Jackson album. Yet as Kristin Corry in a piece for VICE stated “Though nepotism got her in the door, she would prove it wasn’t what would make her stay”. Indeed, it appeared that Janet’s decision to service the tastes of the black community resonated deeply with record buyers looking for a black female pop star who didn’t hinge herself on trying too hard to crossover. At a time when young black women singers fell on a strict dichotomy that positioned them as either quiet storm songstresses in the vein of Sade and Anita Baker or pop princesses in a la Whitney Houston, Janet shattered these categorisations. ‘Control’ featured production that was hard, edgy and decidedly ‘urban’. A stark contrast to her previous efforts, the album would end up being a prototype and the earliest example of what would come to be New Jack Swing before it was further developed and conceptualised by Teddy Riley.
Make no mistake however, Janet did crossover. But her crossing over came with the construction of a new archetype for what a black female superstar could look and sound like. Looking back at the dawn of then-new R&B divas such as Jody Watley, Vanessa Williams, Karyn White and Pebbles, it was undeniable that they were Janet Jackson clones.
The album would go on to top the Billboard 200 for 6 weeks, spawn 5 top 10 hits on the Hot 100 and sell an excess of over 15 million copies worldwide. In an unprecedented triumph, 5 of its 6 singles topped the US R&B chart. A feat that is still yet to be matched. Of all its charting accomplishments, this is the most remarkable as it implies that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ goal of having the album in every black home in America had arguably come to fruition. Between 1986 and 1987, no other album had a hold on the black community the way Control did. Musically, culturally and socially the album was a phenomenon.
With the release of ‘What’s Going On’, Marvin Gaye became the radical of Motown and with ‘Control’ Janet Jackson became the radical of the Jackson family. Successfully relinquishing governance from their respective industry oppressors Berry Gordy and Joe Jackson. The albums were an exercise in discovering their abilities as artists who could comfortably sit at the helm of their own content. Playing pivotal parts in both the creative process and how the final product would be presented to the world. It might not seem so cutting-edge today, but in the years of 1971 and 1986, ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Control’ housed tracks not only too progressive for radio but for the fanbases they had acquired with their earlier works. Yet, it paid off handsomely. Providing them with the credence and legitimacy to continue asserting themselves musically. Control’ and ‘What’s Going On’ were only the tip of the iceberg for what Marvin and Janet were capable of.