The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘Janet Jackson,’ a star famous for her privacy lives up to her reputation

Janet Jackson's famous sense of control gets in the way of revelation in her new docuseries. (A+E Networks)
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At the start of the new year, few documentaries were as widely anticipated as “Janet Jackson,” the two-night, four-hour docuseries about the famously private pop star. In recent years, a cultural zeal to correct the record on the scandals of yore and redistribute blame accordingly has refocused the spotlight on the 55-year-old singer and her storied family. Last year, FX and Hulu revisited the 2004 Super Bowl debacle that derailed her career in the New York Times Presents documentary “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” which offered little new insight. And in 2019, HBO offered a platform to two of her brother Michael’s alleged molestation victims with “Leaving Neverland,” which led to a lawsuit from the King of Pop’s estate.

Janet Jackson, who spent her late adolescence fighting for autonomy over her life and career — a struggle chronicled in her 1986 album “Control,” which launched her into the musical stratosphere — is understandably vexed that her public image has been shaped, once again, by others. Lifetime and A&E, the sister networks that will air “Janet,” have sold the docuseries as a reclamation of authorship by Jackson; in the trailer, she declares, “This is my story, told by me.”

The selling point, then, is one that’s theoretically easy to root for: that a long underestimated and misunderstood Black female artist, whose voice was garbled if not silenced by White male gatekeepers and intermediaries, is finally speaking her truth. In the third and fourth hours of the docuseries, which were not shared with critics, Jackson will reportedly discuss her relationship with Michael, whose success eclipsed hers (along with pretty much everyone else’s), as well as that disastrous Super Bowl half-time performance with Justin Timberlake. (If unnamed sources in the New York Post are to be believed, Timberlake, who shares a publicist with Jackson, will appear in the latter half.)

In an era of oversharing, Janet Jackson remains unknowable

But in practice, Jackson’s iron grip on “Janet Jackson” has produced an initial two chapters that are feather-light on revelations. That first half is an authorized autobiography in the worst way: empty, glossy, bloated and wholly indifferent to what other people might find interesting about its subject. In one of her talking-head outfits, Jackson sports long curls, a beret, a thick scarf and a sweater — all in dark colors against a dark backdrop. The ensemble is a visual metonym for the project’s opacity: She reveals so little that it’s the lack of disclosure that becomes most conspicuous.

Born the youngest of nine children, Jackson, who grew up watching her brothers become pop acts, started performing herself at the age of 7, doing two shows a night in Las Vegas. “I don’t ever remember being asked,” she says about her entrance into show business, just “put into it.”

Her childhood and teen years are full of incident: moving from Gary, Ind., to Los Angeles, when the Jackson 5 hit it big; being cast on two hit shows; watching her brothers break away from their father-cum-manager Joe; and eloping at the age of 18 with singer James DeBarge (of the family band DeBarge). She discovered her new husband’s struggles with drug addiction on their wedding night.

But viewers expecting details, emotional reactions, motivations or coming-of-age contexts surrounding these events will be disappointed. Jackson presents her younger self as a sheltered naif, which is convincing enough, but she never really lets us in on how she feels about these formative incidents or how they shaped her into the woman she is today.

What we get aren’t answers but gaps. The creative independence she wrestled from her father as a teenager, for instance, combined with her lifelong immersion in the entertainment industry, led her to decide things for herself when it came to her music, costumes and choreography. But there’s shockingly little description, let alone analysis, of what she wanted to look or sound like, what she was inspired by or reacting to.

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The longer “Janet Jackson” goes on, then, the harder it is not to wonder what’s the point of sitting down for a tell-nothing confessional. Reputational clean-up is one possible motivation for this extensive performance of authenticity. She denies the long-swirling rumors that she had a “secret baby” with DeBarge that she then gave up. She also defends her father, whom her brothers have previously accused of physical and emotional abuse, as “a good-hearted guy.”

Perhaps Jackson will surprise fans with the second half of her special, which will ostensibly deal with far more difficult topics. But the omissions and walled-off-ness that define the docuseries’ first half doesn’t inspire faith that the reclusive star will be much more forthcoming.

Jackson is, of course, entitled to the self-protective seclusion with which she’s dealt with the spotlight’s harsh glare. But the minimal divulgences here can’t help underscoring “Janet’s” faux intimacy. And if that second night’s offerings are as meager as the first’s, we might have to make peace with the fact that the story we’ve wanted from Jackson for so long is one she’s not interested in telling.

Janet Jackson (four hours) airs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime and A&E.

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