Once upon a time, there were two girls.
One was a good girl. The other was a bad girl. A very bad girl.
Like all good girls, Janet was sweet and shy, terribly polite, and very soft-spoken, but she did show a tough side that demanded respect and independence.
Madonna, on the other hand, was raunchy and rude, and over-the-top.
Although there were many bad girls, she didn’t let any criticism stop her. She fought back. And consequently, she gained a lot of attention, and learned how to manipulate that attention.
This was the situation in the ’80s when Janet Jackson and Madonna—both of whom recently played in Vancouver (see previous links)—appeared on the burgeoning music video scene. The two pop princesses, whether they realized it or not, reflected two divergent streams of feminism. They also reflected the classic virgin versus whore dichotomy prevalent throughout much of Western culture.
Janet Jackson started out with the “Let’s Wait Awhile” approach: respect first before sex (and her name “ain’t baby”), and covered up every inch of her body head to toe (even wearing gloves). She thwarted the male gaze by exerting “Control” over her image, which many female pop stars did not have.
Janet Jackson's approach also tended to fall in with much of the prevailing school of ’80s feminist thought, which challenged male-dominance and systemic sexism embedded in contemporary cultural forms like pop images. At its furthest man-hating extremes, however, this movement failed to provide a practical resolution for female-to-male sexual relations, and was verging on providing lesbian sex as the only route for sexual pleasure. This was an Achilles' Heel, which Madonna managed to tap into.
Remember that this was the era in which masculine female stars rose to prominence, including the bald-headed Sinead O’Connor, androgynous and later out-lesbian k.d. lang, and female rappers like Salt-N-Pepa.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s ideology had a rapidly approaching best-before date: at some point, you either have to have sex or become a nun.
What’s more, she was immersed in the commercial music industry, and needless to say, sex sells. Jackson was in the business of selling, and virtue has never been a strong selling point when it comes to mass markets and quick bucks.
While Madonna embraced the whore archetype as legions of lesser female pop stars did (and continue to do), such as Samantha Fox and Mitsou, she went far further with it than anyone else did or ever has. She used her in-your-face aggression to break down numerous boundaries, including sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, and culture.
In contrast to Janet Jackson, Madonna became part of a cultural phenomenon. At times, it was less really her the individual than it was her as a vehicle for the zeitgeist. She was at her most influential whenever she relied on her instincts, and her weakest when she resorted to her intellect. When she was thinking too much, such as her forays into acting or dumb song lyrics like “You’ll See”, it showed. When she blindly clashed against powerful social structures like religion (“Like a Prayer”), homophobia, or female dominance (“Express Yourself”), she tapped into deeply rooted conflicts.
What a lot of Madonna imitators like Britney Spears and the Spice Girls seem to miss or overlook is that key to Madonna's success was that her active fighting against restrictions underscored her sexual and sexy image. She wasn't just sexy for the sake of being sexy, like so many others have been. There was aggression, rebellion, and power embedded in her image at the same time.
Underscoring Madonna’s influence, Janet Jackson soon became a softer knock-off of Madonna after her fleshy “coming out” with “Love Will Never Do Without You”. She has since been rehashing antics and visual iconography in Madonna’s wake, including S&M gear, lesbian allusions, masturbation, and overt sexuality.
What reinforced Madonna’s strength was her personality. In person, Madonna was outspoken, brash, abrasive, and ballsy. What greatly weakened Jackson’s impact was her shyness. She was timid, almost fragile, in interviews, and tended to become reclusive between albums. In her videos, she also alternated between sex vixen (“If”, “Twenty Foreplay”) and an innocent, goody-goody two-shoes (“Runaway”, “Doesn’t Really Matter”). Her tendency to retreat back to her virginal roots undermined her sexual side, exposing her image as posturing.
This insecurity was most evident in her Nipplegate incident, which almost totaled her career. While Madonna has survived numerous scandals and outrageous incidents, Jackson had not staged any major controversies. Also unlike Madonna, Jackson apologized for the incident afterwards, reaffirming her polite persona and her obedience to authority, rather than a truly rebellious, defiant, or independent one that became an type of authority in itself.
However, as a product, Jackson has always been more dependent on appealing to a more conservative crowd, and thus, she has been far more careful in ensuring her relations to that demographic are somewhat sustained.
It is unfortunate that Jackson has not been as influential as Madonna. She did aspire to be a positive role model and did provide an alternative to the over-sexed images of women in pop culture. Her tomboy side (which reached its apex with the military-themed “Rhythm Nation”) was a rarity in pop music. But as Sporty Spice proved, it’s not one of the most popular images.
Madonna may have won out, but in light of her imitators from Britney Spears to the Pussycat Dolls, it remains to be seen if we are really the better for it.