After Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman” in the closing moments of the third and blessedly final debate on Wednesday night, Spotify saw a 250 percent increase in streams of Janet Jackson’s 1986 jam “Nasty.” There’s some karmic justice in the fact that Trump—a man with a long record of misogynist comments and alleged sexual assaults—reminded America of that particular track. As Jackson explained in a 1993 Rolling Stone profile, the song was inspired by an encounter with two “emotionally abusive,” “sexually threatening” men.
In that interview with journalist David Ritz, Jackson described how she came to enter “a happy phase of sexuality” that “blossomed publicly” on her then-new album Janet. Becoming comfortable with her sexuality “wasn’t easy,” Jackson said, and she was initially uneasy with the way her producing and songwriting team talked when she started working with them in the mid-1980s.
I come from a sheltered background. And then suddenly I’m off to Minneapolis, and these guys, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, are running around cursing like crazy. That made me so uncomfortable I wanted to go home—until I saw that they meant no harm or offense. They were merely talking the way they talk. They were being funny. They were being real. The problem was with my perception, not with their hearts. It’s taken me a while to realize—and rap has really helped educate me—that language is not an absolute. No word is absolutely wrong or dirty or insulting. It all depends upon context and intention. I was this little prude. I was uptight. I knew I wanted control—I still believe in creative control—but I soon saw that I’d have to give in order to get: give myself over to a creative environment that was different and even a little dangerous from anything I’d ever known.
The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” were born, out of a sense of self-defense. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude.
Jackson’s observation that words mean different things depending on “context and intention” is a useful reminder in this election. Trump’s surrogates have pretended that the only problem with his “grab ’em by the pussy” comment was the “crude language,” but the language pales in comparison to the implied intention to assault women.
It’s a feminist axiom that it’s not women’s responsibility to stop men from assaulting and harassing them; it’s men’s responsibility not to assault and harass women. But the fact remains that men do assault and harass women. And the “sense of self-defense” epitomized in one of Jackson’s most famous singles is empowering in an age when some men feel emboldened by Trump to demean and assault women. Trump is just one of the many nasty boys who get off on mistreating women, and some days the only thing you can do in the face of widespread misogyny is to sing along with Janet when she says, “I just want some respect.”