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MTV Icon: Janet Jackson — 20 years later, still iconic

Janet Jackson at MTV Icon, 2001

Justin Timberlake and Chris Kirkpatrick swagger on stage to introduce NSYNC’s cover of ‘That’s the Way Love Goes,’ Justin, with a huge grin on his face, keeps shouting out that Janet is fine.

Aaliyah, wearing a one shouldered belly top, hair shiny and bouncy, talks about the importance of Janet’s dancing and how it inspired her.

Destiny’s Child perform ‘Let’s Wait Awhile.’ Beyoncé stands in the center with a belly chain hanging around her waist, blonde braids pulled up in a high ponytail.

Pink, Usher and Mya do an incredible dance tribute choreographed by Wade Robson.

Michael Jackson appears in a video message.

It’s 2001 — Janet Jackson is the biggest artist in the world and the most popular artists in music come together to honour her.

2001 was twenty years ago. Let that sink in for a moment.

In 2001 I was a fifteen year old high school student that lost my grandmother and was dealing with my mother and grandfather getting sick. I consider 2001 as the year my childhood ended. However, for pop culture, music and TV, 2001 was a great year. And for me, pop culture was something I clung to in order to get through each day, a way to sink in to something outside of my own pain.

Even now, I find myself at my crappy job searching YouTube for shows and music from that time. It’s familiar and comforting. One of the shows I found on one of my nostalgia binges was 2001’s MTV Icon — Janet Jackson special. Originally aired in March 2001, I taped the entire show on VHS and watched it constantly. It is a perfect time capsule of early 2000’s music and culture.

Watching it now, twenty years later, it’s refreshing and sort of sad to see Janet getting the love she deserved, knowing what was coming. This special was three years before the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show — an incident that still feels unresolved. Black Twitter continuously brings up the unfair treatment Janet Jackson received at that time. More and more information has come out about how Janet was blacklisted, her music videos banned from MTV and even that the stunt was planned by Justin to one up the Britney/Madonna kiss at the VMA’s. In my opinion, it feels unresolved because if there was social media back then, Black Twitter would have had her back. We’ve seen the power of Black Twitter — it could have saved Janet’s career. Since we couldn’t, we’re not letting it go, we’re not letting Justin Timberlake off the hook for the way he abandoned her. So every Super Bowl weekend we have Janet Jackson Appreciation Day on Twitter, clips of her old videos and performances randomly go viral. If the pandemic didn’t stop the world, Janet was going to release a new album and tour in 2020 — I had tickets. I think Black Twitter doesn’t want Janet’s legacy and work and impact to be erased, because they tried.

Janet thee Jackson, everything she’s done and been through — they tried to erase her.

While there have been deep dive looks in to iconic TV specials from the early 2000’s — Oprah’s Legends Ball, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, Britney’s entire career — MTV’s special on Janet is not in the conversation when we talk about music specials from that time.

So I’m going to change that. MTV Icon — Janet Jackson is on YouTube in its entirety. Let’s talk about it.

In 2001, twenty years ago, Janet was already a legend. She was getting ready to release All For You, the highly anticipated follow up to the timeless Velvet Rope album. As she says in the special, All For You was a happy album, at a point in Janet’s life where she was in a good place. She had just got out of a long secret marriage, she was dating again. People were excited to see what she was going to do next.

Janet entered the event on the arms of OutKast while they performed ‘Ms. Jackson’ (the only non-Janet song performed that night) and she took a seat in between Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, legendary producers that helped to elevate her career. Through video clips each era of Janet’s career up to that point was examined. For me, a 15 year old high school kid, it was a crash course in Janet’s career. I knew things about her but it’s because of Icon that I know as much as I do. It was like I was being introduced to her for the first time.

Destiny’s Child performed ‘Let’s Wait Awhile.’ It was the first time I’d heard that song and I became obsessed with that performance. I used to grab my TV remote and stand in front of the TV singing Michelle’s part (I never thought I was the Beyoncé). I remember how excited they were that Janet liked their performance. Macy Gray did a funky cover of ‘Love Will Never Do (Without You)’ and NSYNC did a video tribute of ‘That’s the Way Love Goes.’ I said on Twitter that their cover of that song was one of, if not the best thing they’ve ever done as a group. That’s why NSYNC always wins with me, they were soulful, they were R&B, they had JC Chasez. Seeing Justin drool over Janet is gross now after everything that’s happened but it’s still a highlight of the special.

In between performances there were appearances by celebrities and artists paying tribute to Janet. What jumps out at me now is how excited all of the celebrities seem, especially the younger ones like Justin, Britney, Christina, Tyrese and Destiny’s Child. All of them are a few years older than me and like me they grew up watching Janet, to her she was already an icon and they just wanted to be like her. I’m not sure if the young artists of today would feel the same way about her now, considering the way her legacy has been tarnished.

The best part of the special, for 15 year old me and 35 year old me, was the dance tribute by Pink, Usher and Mya, choreographed by Wade Robson to ‘Miss You Much’, ‘Alright’, ‘Pleasure Principal’ and ‘Rhythm Nation’. In 2001 I spent hours learning every single step of that performance. I got a little chair from our spare room to do the ‘Miss You Much’ chair choreography, the Usher part was a bit too hard and I tried to do the Mya section but it probably wasn’t that great. What I took away from it was that dance was such a huge part of Janet’s artistry. You can’t talk about Janet without talking about dance. I always knew that. I remember watching the Velvet Rope HBO Concert on Much Music, seeing her dancers on stage behind her and thinking that’s what I want to do. It was so simple. And after MTV Icon I became even more immersed in Janet’s dancing. I bought the Velvet Rope Tour DVD and learned practically the entire show. I started taping every Janet performance on TV I could find. Even when Janet took the stage at the end of MTV Icon, I’m pretty sure that was the performance I learned the ‘All For You’ routine from.

How iconic and triumphant was it for Janet to slowly be lowered from the ceiling down to the stage singing the opening lines of ‘All For You’ in an all-white outfit, all of her dancers wearing white versions of outfits she’d worn in pervious performances and videos? She spent an evening getting her flowers and then closed the show by reminding everyone that she was still a legend.

From the outfits to the hair, the show perfectly illustrates what was cool in 2001. From Christina’s box braids, Beyoncé’s Bootylicious belly chain, the tracksuits on Method Man and Redman, that was what we wanted to look like and dress like. I remember being obsessed with that Bootylicious belly chain. MTV Icon was a celebration of an artist before social media, when music videos mattered, when you had to go to the store to buy a CD and tape shows on a VHS tape to be able to watch it again. Twenty years ago that was what I did with MTV Icon and twenty years later it’s online so I can continue to celebrate Janet whenever I want to.

Janet deserved the accolades in 2001 and she still does today. Whenever the time is right, I hope she tours again, releases new music and reminds the world that she truly is an icon.

writer. feminist.