Early this month, when the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were announced, Mike Litherland's cell phone starting going bananas. By the time he woke up, he had 150 new messages.
Three years after he launched his campaign to #InductJanet into the hall of fame, he learned that Janet Jackson had made the cut.
"The #InductJanet campaign became a reality that night when they announced it," said Litherland, 44 of Midtown. "I think her chances are pretty strong. It is a solid field and there are quite a few artists that haven’t been nominated before."
Jackson, 49, an artist with strong ties to Atlanta, has been eligible for a hall of fame nomination since 2007, but this is her first time earning one. She is in the company of several other first time nominees including Chaka Khan, Los Lobos, the J.B.s, as well as bands that have been nominated previously such as N.W.A. , Nine Inch Nails, The Smiths, and Cheap Trick.
The final inductees, to be announced in December, are determined by the votes of more than 800 artists, historians and music industry members around the world. Fans also have a share in the votes. When they cast a vote at www.rockhall.com before Dec. 9, the top five artists, as selected by the public, will comprise a 'fans' ballot.
Jackson's nomination coincides with the release of Unbreakable, her first album in seven years. For the effort, she worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her partners on the Control album in 1986. Unbreakable is the first album on her independent label Rhythm Nation Records and it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
In Dec. 2012, when Litherland started his #InductJanet page on Facebook he had about 1,000 members and an idol who had all but disappeared from the public eye.
Jackson was coping with Michael Jackson's death in 2009 and a breakup with Atlanta hip-hop mogul Jermaine Dupri. She took a break from music and appeared in two Tyler Perry movies even as rumors swirled that she was planning a new album. After a secret 2012 wedding to Qatari billionaire Wissam al Mana, surfaced the following year, Jackson began to slowly move back into the spotlight.
Litherland has been a lifelong fan of Jackson's. His first introduction to her was during the Jackson 5 years when she would appear with her brothers as their sassy little sister who sings. But it wasn't until he saw her as a solo act that his devotion was solidified. "I remember hearing the first single "Young Love." She was on American Bandstand. I begged my mom to get the album and I got it on cassette," he said. (See video below -- same song, different show. AB version had bad audio):
Four years later Jackson rocketed to fame with her Control album. "From then on I have been a supporter and pretty big fan," said Litherland. When he started his Induct Janet campaign, he just wanted to be sure her accomplishments were not forgotten.
"My goal was to remind the committee of Janet's legacy and why she was worthy. Other campaigns tend to skew negative and bash the campaign committee. I think it worked this time along with her resurfacing in the public eye," he said.
Of course, hall of fame committee members are tight-lipped about what factors can result in a nomination. So Litherland can't be sure how much his efforts helped, but he got a boost when one of his tweets to get Jackson nominated was picked up by The Roots drummer, Questlove, "He tweeted back and said, 'I’m on it.' I didn’t know if he was talking about the committee or the case but I was excited," Litherland said.
Litherland had also crafted an open letter to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation president, Joel Peresman, which he posted on Facebook. In it, Litherland displayed his extensive knowledge of Jackson's achievements and laid out a compelling case for her nomination. He watched as Facebook page likes grew -- currently to more than 78,000 -- and more people became engaged in his campaign.
Other fan groups began contacting him to ask about best practices, he said. It became something like a part-time job and Litherland invested a lot more time and money than anyone would know. But none of it was ever done in conjunction with Jackson or her handlers.
"This isn’t in any official capacity. Her camp has never consulted me. This is all a passion project," he said. In fact, he has only had two near meetings with Jackson including once when he attended a concert in Chicago and was selected by Jackson's then husband Rene Elizondo, to appear onstage as Jackson sang.
Litherland's devotion to Jackson is easy for him to explain. "When I think about Janet and her music, it has literally been a soundtrack to my life. There are very pivotal moments in my own life where I can go back to her music and her lyrics. I can see myself on the same journey," he said.
"She was exploring depression, abuse and homophobia. She has been pretty heavy all along. I don’t think a lot of folks give her credit. They think about the top 40 hits and the pop stuff, but she has always had a lot to say and that tends to get overlooked."
Litherland also likes that she seems very real and appreciative of her fans, so he is kind when talking about her time in Atlanta which was marked with some of her least successful efforts musically.
"If you are a Janet Jackson fan and you listen to [the Discipline album], you can tell it doesn’t have her stamp on it," Litherland said. "Now she’s back with Unbreakable and I think it is the best album since Velvet Rope. As a fan I am so happy we have our Janet back."
And in December, with any luck, he'll see his favorite artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.