You ever heard that demeaning phrase “She’s pretty _____ for an older woman”? Ever said it yourself? Post-40, ladies are generally understood to be incapable of having fun, being attractive, doing anything worth noticing, not being fat. You know, the things women are measured by.
I’ve got approximately 9 months until I’m 40. Convention tells me I should get it on tonight so as to fill that time gap with a child, since babies on the brain are probably the only reason I can’t remember basic things like the name of Exile on Main Street at a moment when it matters. Truth is, I never think about 40 anymore. The last couple of years have sent me careening towards it in ways I didn’t anticipate, so I finally just let my hair go grey and said fuck it. I’m looking forward to being less visible; expectations going down. Maybe I can start doing whatever the hell I want instead of pleasing someone else.
Of particular relevance at this moment is – no, not that I can almost do the splits still – I’m going to stop shutting up. I’m going to get louder, and more opinionated, and more annoying, because I no longer care about pleasing people. I’ll stop hiding the secrets I’ve been keeping the way I thought I was supposed to. I’ll stop pretending I don’t have to do anything because all is fine with me when I’m in position to fight for others.
I’m going to be like Janet Jackson.
As I taught Janet a couple weeks ago, I was informed by a student who couldn’t contain her excitement that she was coming to town. WTF, I said. I need to go, I said. Convinced the boyfriend in short order, and we showed up a few minutes into the opening act, waited in a line constituting groups of decked out ladies in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, rejected the free makeup samples handed to us, got two extra-large teas at Tim Horton’s and sat in our seats. It was our first date there since the romantic Rush concert of 2015.
Palpable excitement. The ladies were out in full force. The last time I saw a crowd like that was for the Dixie Chicks post-“I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.”
And then Janet emerged.
For nearly two hours, that woman danced like our lives depended on it. I mean come.on. Even the fittest three-year-old hopped up on smarties can’t dance that long. Janet did it with attitude, pleasure, commitment. She was mad, sweet, friendly, determined. She was not going to put up with anyone’s shit.
Control opens with the following lines:
“This is a story about control.
Control of what I say.
Control of what I do.
And this time I’m gonna do it my way.
I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I do.
Are we ready?
‘Cause it’s all about control.
And I’ve got lots of it.”
In a move that’s apparently now standard, she went through pretty much every hit in medley form. One verse of “Escapade,” a chorus, on to “Miss You Much.” Finish it off with a section of “Nasty.” About eight dancers surrounded her, dressed head to toe in white outfits. Janet, meanwhile, replicated all the moves of thirty years prior, geared up in long sleeves, turtleneck, boots. Danced as hard as her dancers.
Even the “Miss You Much” sequence was the same.
Did I mention this woman is 51?
We hear so much about Madonna aging before us, grasping at partial dance moves while her backup team shoulder most of the labour. We witness other supposedly deteriorating pop stars, bestowed with compliments like “hardly any work done” or “still has a great body” and Janet is never mentioned in these comments. Meanwhile, she’s dancing better than any 20-year-old could in their wildest dreams. And meanwhile, in the midst of us not talking about her, we’re anticipating Justin Timberlake’s epic return to the Super Bowl halftime stage, after the “wardrobe malfunction” wherein he revealed Janet’s nipple got her expelled from the NFL for life.
You know why, right? Because he’s a white dude and she’s a black woman. Therefore it’s her fault. Naturally.
I cried during “Rhythm Nation.” And I don’t mean teared up, I mean wet face. My boyfriend laughed. “Are you overcome?” he asked. I told him to leave me alone, assuming he thought it was a funny moment.
Actually, Janet was giving me exactly what I needed. In the stripped-down stage – just her and her dancers – no spectacle, the show was all about community, working together. It wasn’t about the star who still “has a great bod” at 50, or has enough stamina to dance through a show. No, instead Janet, who has been misunderstood and maligned through her career, was showing us that while white, middle-class, educated women are turning on each other and fighting out the trivial tenets of feminism, accosting and accusing from comfortable places, there’s still a load of work to do. Most women cannot sit ensconced in warm spots, berating each other from the safety of their keyboards, hidden from true threats. Janet is one of those uncomfortable women. And more than 30 years into her career, she’s telling us we have to come together and turn our attention on the outside world, on the forces still keeping us down. Nothing has changed since she released Control, or Rhythm Nation 1814; in fact, it’s largely gotten worse.
Why is she dancing so hard? Because at 51, she still has to work her ass off to get even a portion of the recognition of her privileged counterparts. Because at 51, even at the superstardom peak, her life as a black woman is hard.
Janet does far more for me than any woman with a PhD or a tortured song about heartbreak did. She’s telling me to bring people together, to keep trying.
She’s telling me now's not the time to shut up.