Janet Jackson Up Against the Ropes

Despite soft sales, Ms. Nasty isn't about to throw in the towel

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When one of your brothers is Michael ('nuff said), your sister is psychicpitch woman LaToya, and your family has lived under a microscope for thirty-odd years, it's understandable if you wonder what people think of you.

But Janet Jackson knows. "They call me the normal one," she says flatly. "Theysay 'the normal one' as if everyone else in my family is crazy."

Well, let's leave the rest of the Jackson clan alone for now. Regardless ofnormalcy, perceived or otherwise, Janet is currently the reigning commercialchampion of the family, having sold forty million albums and racked up twenty-three Top 40 singles since 1986. Her latest release, The Velvet Rope,is her fifth consecutive multi-platinum album.

And she's done all that largely sans controversy-at least not the kind ofembarrassing, career-crippling controversies that have dogged Michael andLaToya. About as bad as it gets for Janet Jackson are rumors that she has achild (she doesn't) or that she and longtime boyfriend and collaborator ReneElizondo have married (they haven't). Her recent multimillion dollar purchaseof Founder's National Bank, as part of a venture group with former NBA starMagic Johnson, was barely noted outside of business press circles.

The most heat Jackson is taking these days is over her commercial potency.Ticket sales for her North American tour are lagging and The VelvetRope has sold about four million copies worldwide, a failing only forsomeone who happened to sell more than twice that on her last studio album-which Jackson did with 1993's janet.

"I have no control over how many people are going to buy this album or see myshows. That's in God's hands," says Jackson, 32. "And if the record companyisn't doing their job from the gate the way they should be, it can reallyaffect an album in the worst way. But the album is still there; it hasn'tfallen off the way I think people thought ... To me, I've succeeded, 'cos Imade the album I wanted to make."

And The Velvet Rope is certainly a departure. Jackson's prior albumswove serious themes about her creative life (Control) and social issues(Rhythm Nation 1814) between the granite grooves of producers TerryLewis and Jimmy "Jam" Harris. The Velvet Rope is all about Janet andthe profoundly life-altering experiences she's gone through since finishingher last tour in early 1995 and finding she herself inexplicably depressed.

"Things started resurfacing, and they wouldn't go down," Jackson says. "Andthat's when the crying started. And sometimes I didn't know if I was goingcrazy or not. I just wanted it to end and find out what the hell is going onwith me."

Jackson and Elizondo wound up seeing "this guy in the desert," whom Jacksondescribes as a combination psychiatrist, faith healer and shaman. He helpedher get inside issues she had previous suppressed-including her childhoodand an abusive romantic relationship that she had walked away from physicallybut not emotionally.

"I would do anything to make people happy," Jackson explains, "even if it wassacrificing my own needs. As long as I brought a smile upon someone else'sface, that made me feel good." But the therapy changed all that.

"Now I like who I am," she says. "And I'm working on loving myself." TheVelvet Rope, in turn, became a chance to explore the revelations of thepast few years.

"Unleash this sacred child you've grown into," Jackson sings to herself in thesong "You," and, once unleashed, that child addresses everything frominterpersonal relationships to ferocious sexuality to-in the high point"Together Again"-friends lost to AIDS-related diseases.

"I always write about what's in my life," says Jackson. "I did that onControl, and I did the same thing with this album. It's kind of likecutting yourself open and exposing yourself to the world, which is really avulnerable thing. But this is who I am, and I needed to express who I was andwhat I'd learned. I found out who I really was ... If that can inspire peoplewho hear this album to do the same, I'd rather have that than the biggestselling album in the world. I really would."

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