If Janet Jackson is voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next month, it will be — at least in some small part — due to the efforts of mega fan Mike Litherland.
Jackson, who ranks #7 on Billboard’s new list of biggest acts of all time, has been passed over for the Rock Hall honor since she was first eligible in 2007. But after a decade in the musical wilderness following her infamous Super Bowl performance, Jackson is back in a big way with a No. 1 album “Unbreakable” (her seventh, making her only the third artist after Springsteen and Streisand to score No. 1 albums in each of the past four decades), a sold-out world tour and her first Rock Hall nomination.
Litherland has worked since 2012 to get Jackson into the Hall. He started a Facebook page that year titled, “Induct Janet Jackson into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” which has more than 80,000 followers.
“People are really behind Janet again,” Litherland told the Blade. “It was the cool thing to do to bash Janet Jackson after the Super Bowl and her fans took a beating. But it’s all changed and everybody wants to see her succeed again. This induction would be the icing on the cake.”
There’s been a lot of speculation about the perceived Jackson snub, with many assuming the Super Bowl fallout ruined her chances for Rock Hall induction. But Litherland says her long absence from the music scene is likely to blame and the critical and commercial success of “Unbreakable” reminded Rock Hall voters that she’s still a force in the industry.
“She hadn’t had a new album in quite a while,” Litherland said, adding that her close association with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis led some to question her contributions. “She doesn’t get the credit she’s due but Janet is no puppet. If you look at Janet and Madonna’s careers, they are very similar; if Madonna’s in, Janet should be too.”
Litherland, 44, lives with his partner of nearly 20 years in Atlanta and works as a digital marketing manager for AT&T. He’s attended each of Jackson’s world tours, usually multiple times, and says her 1989 “Rhythm Nation” album changed his life. He was a senior in high school.
“My friends were into the punk/alt music but, for me, Janet was an escape,” he recalls. “She was just empowering and powerful and the message was so strong that you couldn’t ignore it. … It was so different and it blew me away and I was obsessed. Once I saw her live, I was mesmerized.”
Jackson even pulled Litherland from the audience to dance on stage with her during her 1994 “janet.” tour stop in Chicago. “I like to think she recognizes me; my partner and I follow her around on tour and she makes eye contact and waves but who knows?”
Litherland says Jackson’s diva persona and club hits made her popular with gay fans but that the messages in her lyrics are what really appeal to him. He cites her No. 1 single “Together Again” as among his favorites; the song raised money for AIDS research and was dedicated to friends she lost to the disease.
“It wasn’t a downer song, it’s very uplifting, a love song to those no longer with us,” he said. “It still resonates today.”
Those uplifting messages draw fans from all walks of life.
“What I love about her audience — it’s everyone from young kids to grandparents, white, black, straight, gay — it says a lot about her name and brand, she attracts everybody,” Litherland says.
Apart from his stint on stage with her years ago, Litherland has never met Jackson. And what would he say to her if he could?
“I would just thank her for providing a soundtrack to my life,” he says. “She’s been there through every major point of my life, from childhood to adolescence to college to adulthood. I can relate to just about every album. I would definitely thank her for that and for loving her fans. And I’d try not to gush too much.”
He’s already seen the new tour a few times, including opening night in August and raves about the “Unbreakable” album. “I like every track,” he says. “It’s mellower, she’s 49 but she has a lot to say. Unbreakable is dedicated to her fans and she truly feels the bond with us is unbreakable.”
With all her new success, critics and fans alike are confident that this is Jackson’s year to enter the Rock Hall. And don’t just take Litherland’s word for it; Jackson has some high-profile supporters this time around, including Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris.
“One could say if Madonna is in, Janet Jackson should be in,” Harris told Cleveland.com. “She dominated that era and has been such an inspiration to today’s stars.”
Jackson is among 15 nominees to the Hall this year, including Chic, the Smiths and N.W.A. Five are expected to win induction after a vote by roughly 700 members. The Rock Hall allows fans to vote for their favorites at rockhall.org, through Dec. 9. The top five win a mostly symbolic single extra vote added to their final totals. Voting ends Dec. 9 and an announcement on the winners is expected in mid-December.