Janet Jackson: The Joy of Sex

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The day trip turns out to be an exploration of the twin forces of Janet Jackson's childhood, the elements that seem to have fixed her fascination on both the insulated world of show business and the uncharted territory beyond. We start out where Janet started out, in Encino, Calif., an affluent white-bread section of the suburban San Fernando Valley. Dressed in baggy denim overalls, Janet is behind the wheel of her Defender, a safari-style jeep, as we pull into the famous Hayvenhurst Avenue mansion, the compound seen by a million fans in the pages of a million fan mags as the fairyland hideaway where the Jackson kids came of age.

I've been here before. I've written about the brothers. I've seen that they're exceedingly warm, well mannered but locked in a peculiar kind of loneliness. They space out in a strangely endearing manner, making you want to befriend them and become their confidant. The same is true of Janet, although her moments of distraction seem far less prolonged than her brothers'. She appears the most focused.

As we walk into the mock-Tudor mansion and settle into the tearoom, with its Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs under-glass figurines, the Disneyland demeanor falls over us. "I was raised here," says Janet, "with peacocks and llamas and giraffes in the back yard." She has come today to pick up mail. Her parents are out of town, and except for the staff, the house is deserted. The feeling is eerie, sterile, as though the ghosts have been cleaned out by a maintenance crew. For a short while, Janet settles into a formal chair, her mind projected on her past.

"Was I lonely as a child?" she repeats my question. "At times, yes. Other times, no. On certain days, I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. Not only was my own mother great, but we had a surrogate mother, Mrs. Fine. She was our tutor. Our Jewish mother. She taught all of us when we were on the road. That started when I was 7. My father put everyone in the act, and my brother Randy and I were doing impressions of everyone from Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy to Mickey and Sylvia. We sang 'Love Is Strange,' and I was dancing my little butt off, throwing my hips to the beat of the drum. Mrs. Fine would travel with us and hold class in her hotel room. You can't realize how comforting, how wonderful it was to go to school with all my brothers and sisters. When we had a problem we wouldn't want our mother to know about, we went to Mrs. Fine. We played Vegas and did a summer TV special. That's where the producer Norman Lear saw me. He might have seen my impression of Edith Bunker. He cast me on Good Times as Penny Gordon, an abused child, because I could cry easily. There was a pain deep inside I could get to quickly, even as a little girl.

"I was 10," she remembers, "when Michael went off to make The Wiz. That was traumatic. He was my best friend, and I couldn't stand the thought of his leaving. I cried my eyes out and begged Mother to take me to visit him in New York. He was living with LaToya in a beautiful apartment. I remember, when we arrived, he took me over to the stereo and put on 'How Deep Is Your Love,' by the Bee Gees. Funny how you remember moments like that. I was entranced. That same night, I went to my first nightclub, Studio 54, and I was down for all the dancing."

For the next several minutes, Janet talks about her brother. In mentioning him, her eyes light up as she rattles off praise like a publicist, reminding me of this year's Grammys, when she presented Michael with the Legend Award, a move that seemed both caring and calculated to boost the careers of both siblings. Still gushing, Janet calls Dangerous "a work of absolute genius." As a performer and careerist, Michael is clearly her role model, the ultimate measure of success. At the same time, she acknowledges a keen sense of rivalry. "When we were kids and played games like Scrabble," says Janet, "it was our mother – not our father – who gave us all that sharp edge of competition. We were taught to win. Michael and I aren't very happy with anything less than first place."

Janet then continues with her narrative. "After visiting Michael in New York on the set of The Wiz," she says, "it was back to reality and the Valley when I started junior high. There I saw that a large number of kids were being bused over from South Central. At lunch time, the black kids would stick together and dance like crazy. The music was superbad – Parliament-Funkadelic, 'One Nation Under a Groove.' I gravitated over to the black kids. I enjoyed being in the middle of the action. I felt at home. I'd have my mother drive me over the hill so I could visit my friends. That's where I want to take you. I thought we'd have lunch at Leo's Barbecue on Crenshaw."

We leave the compound and head for the freeway. Janet fishes a couple of cassettes out of her duffel bag. The first is Stevie Wonder's The Secret Life of Plants, from 1979. As she smoothly slides onto Interstate 101 heading east, she sings along with Stevie's "Power Flower" – "I am the piper at the gates dawning . . . it's not magic, it's not madness, just the elements of style," her sensuous voice capturing all of Stevie's sweetness.

"When I'd get home from school," she says, "I'd pop this puppy on the stereo, slap on the headphones and just soak up the gorgeous melodies. This is one of my favorite Stevie albums, the one that made me feel like I was drowning in beauty. Escaping . . . "

Escaping from what? "It wasn't all pleasant," she says. "There were times, years, when I felt isolated from the world. That's why I loved going into these neighborhoods. My own home life was tense."

When I ask Janet about her father, she's hesitant to answer. In the past, she has chosen to stay out of public family frays. "These are private matters," she tells me. I push a little harder. "But hasn't the TV miniseries on the Jacksons," I argue, "and Michael's comments to Oprah turned your father into an extremely public figure?"

"You understand," she replies, "that we never called our father Father or Daddy. We called him Joseph, and we feared him. We'd be in bed with our mother, playing games, having fun, and when we saw the reflection of the lights of Joseph's car pulling up the driveway, we'd scatter to our rooms – and not because of the kind of things LaToya has claimed. That's nonsense. There was never molestation or physical abuse beyond normal spankings. But there was a coldness, a detachment about our father, that was chilling. We'd all learn from his discipline, but I believe we suffered because he wasn't there for us emotionally. Now he realizes that. He's trying to make amends."

As we exit the freeway and sail down Cahuenga Boulevard through the center of working Hollywood, she muses on her teenage years, when she not only worked in television but started recording albums of her own at age 15. Three years later, Janet eloped with James DeBarge of the DeBarge singing group. The marriage was shortlived, a painful subject she's reluctant to discuss.

"I entered the music world," says Janet, concentrating on her career, "through the portals of R&B. R&B is in my blood. Those first two albums might have been a little cutesy pie, but they had a funky kick. From the beginning, I was working with R&B artists and producers like Rene and Angela, Jesse Johnson [a former Prince sidekick and member of the Time] and my brother Marlon. I didn't quite know how to sing from my life. My marriage was rough, but it deepened my emotions, it made me think about life, and it pushed me toward independence. I remember trying to tell my father I no longer wanted him to manage me. It would have been easier to have Mother tell him for me, but that was something I had to do for myself. I couldn't say the words – I was bawling like a baby – and finally he just said: "You don't want me involved in your career. Isn't that it?' 'Yes,' I finally found the nerve to say, 'that's it.' "

In the takeout line at Leo's Barbecue, back in the black neighborhood, Janet is recognized by a few young girls whom she accommodates with autographs. She's easy with her fans. The menu doesn't offer much for a vegetarian, so Janet makes do with an order of barbecued beans. Back in the jeep, she tells me, "This is where Mom would always take me when I came to visit my friends." As we drive down side streets, the settings for Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice, kids are scampering across front yards, playing in parks. "I used to see kids like that and envy them," Janet admits. "I was a tomboy, and I guess I wanted to run a little wild, feel free, be normal. Coming over here, I got a glimpse of a world that seemed a lot more natural to me than, say, the set of Fame, the TV series I appeared on. I felt welcome here."

It is a long ride back to the beach house. The traffic's brutal as we creep along across the city streets, crawl up the freeways. Talked out, Janet slips in a Joni Mitchell tape, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. "Listen to this," she implores. "This is another song that turned me around." Mitchell sings "The Beat of Black Wings," a song about a soldier whose soul has been wiped out by the brutality of war. "Songs like this," says Janet, "made me take music seriously."

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