Janet Jackson: The Joy of Sex

These days she’s looking good, feeling good and sounding good. The singer finds peace, inspiration and chart success through sexual liberation

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I want to talk about sex. It would seem like a simple thing to do after listening to Janet Jackson‘s new album and looking at her new videos. Sex is the theme. Sex is obviously on her mind, on my mind, on the minds of her fans who are consuming her record in mass quantities. Yet when Janet arrives at her dressing room, when she’s standing before me in leather and suede form-fitting pants and tight halter top, when she slides into an easy chair next to me, I find myself backing off. What gives?

“We’re all sensitive people,” Marvin Gaye sings in “Let’s Get It On,” a song that has undoubtedly influenced the current direction of Jackson’s career. Her sensitivity is as apparent as the body she has worked so hard to perfect. I work hard not to stare. But here is what I see: soft shy smile, tiny waist, snappy booty – among her dancers, the troupe she calls the Kids, Janet’s nickname is Booty – high cheekbones, copper coloring to her hair, luminous skin. She’s petite in stature and whisper quiet when speaking. I lean in to listen as she tells me she’s a little tired after a tough video shoot for the song “If,” from her latest album, janet. I think about the shoot itself, a video Janet has just described as a “female fantasy.”

Well, female fantasy or not, I can relate. There are tantalizing bodies inches from my eyes. There is choreographed mock-cunnilingus. There is the phenomenon of Janet, off camera, watching herself being watched in this video of watchers, while another film crew makes a video on the making of the video. Reality is scrambled. Voyeurism is rampant. The music is pumping, the message obvious as an orgasm. I’m stimulated.

Yet, here with Janet, I’m reluctant to bring up sex. As silly as it sounds, I sense myself protecting her from the brashness of my own balls-out approach. What is it? Wholesomeness – that’s what it is. Femininity. Up close, in the flesh, she’s being so damn sincere, I question my own sincerity; Janet Jackson gives off a good-girl vibe that only a cad would challenge. Despite this new album and its preoccupation with carnal knowledge, despite this battery of sizzling videos, Janet silently demands decorum on the part of an interviewer. Decorously, then, I introduce the subject of sex. Why such an abundance of sex on her new record? Is it simply a selling ploy?

“No, no, no,” Janet protests. “I can’t fake it. I can’t do it if I don’t feel it. It’s genuine. You could say I’ve entered a happy phase of sexuality.”

I urge her to be more specific. She pauses, her sensual mouth breaking into a small smile.

“Look,” she continues, “sex has been an important part of me for several years. But it just hasn’t blossomed publicly until now. I’ve had to go through some changes and shed some old attitudes before feeling completely comfortable with my body. Listening to my new record, people intuitively understand the change in me.”

She then tells me about something Camille Paglia, the sociosexual pop scholar, recently wrote about janet: ” ‘Janet’s unique persona combines bold, brash power with quiet sensitivity and womanly mystery. Her latest music is lightning and moonglow.’

“You see,” Janet continues, “sex isn’t just fire and heat, it’s natural beauty. Doing what comes naturally. It’s letting go, giving and getting what you need. In the age of AIDS, it certainly requires being responsible. On a psychological level, though, good sex, satisfying sex, is also linked with losing yourself, releasing, using your body to get out of your body. Well, for the first time, I’m feeling free. I love feeling deeply sexual – and don’t mind letting the world know. For me, sex has become a celebration, a joyful part of the creative process.”

Janet is intrigued with the process – writing, dancing, developing concepts. Clearly, she’s in full control. “Every aspect of my recording or performance is vital,” she states adamantly. “Nothing happens without my approval.

“It began with Control,” she says, referring to her first hit album, made eight years ago when she was 19. “But it wasn’t easy. 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.”

All this is said sweetly, though underneath her words I feel steel. 

That night, as I view old videos from her 1986 breakthrough album, Control, Janet’s determination is clear, her dancing razor sharp, though her chubbiness makes her cute rather than sexy, girlish rather than womanly. In Rhythm Nation 1814, her multiplatinum post-Control statement, she’s a soldier in an army of reformers, covered from head to foot in a dark, buttoned-to-the-neck uniform. There are a couple of love songs, but the record centers on social ills. Her singing is stronger – especially her self-styled harmonies, her way of shadowing herself. Back in 1989, when I compared Rhythm Nation to What’s Going On, some soul-music purists chided me, but I like the analogy. Just as Gaye moved from What’s Going On to Let’s Get It On, from the austere to the ecstatic, Janet, every bit as serious-minded as Marvin, moved from Rhythm Nation to janet., her statement of sexual liberation. For Jackson, there has been a stop in between, Poetic Justice, a film whose heat emanates almost entirely from libidinous frustration. Written and directed by John Singleton, who also did Boyz n the Hood, the movie is a story of sexual suppression, and a few days later, sitting on the balcony outside Janet’s cozy beach house, I see it as a way of directing our dialogue back to sex.

Janet’s wearing a long, linen earth-toned dress, sleeveless and scooped low in front. No shoes, no makeup, no jewelry. It’s an ocean-fresh sea-breeze-in-your-face morning. She looks even better than she did in yesterday’s video gear. Natural. Open. The orange juice is freshly squeezed, the wheat bread unbuttered. Sunshine dances over the blue sea, her voice barely audible above the sounds of crashing surf and squawking gulls.

“I trust John Singleton,” she says about the film’s director. “He’s one of the few people out here who’s absolutely true to his art. He showed me the script of Poetic Justice, and I immediately loved it. Later, he said the part of Justice was written with me in mind, and I was flattered. I was warned by powerful forces in Hollywood that an all-black movie was the wrong move. Conventional wisdom said I should make a musical. Go for the mainstream white market. Play it safe. John had the same feelings I did – do something different. Then when I accepted the role, other voices started asking, ‘How can a rich girl from the burbs play a homegirl from the hood?’ My reaction was ‘Well, watch me.’ Besides, isn’t acting about entering the soul of someone else?”

When Janet Jackson speaks to you, she often employs the direct address, adding intimacy to the conversation. She starts her sentences by invoking your name. When I ask her to talk more about the sexual content of Poetic Justice and its influence on her new album, she replies: “David, Justice is real to me. I feel her pain. And, no, she’s not ready for sex, not in the time frame of this movie. She’s lost too much. And trusts too little. John had originally written in some lovemaking scenes between me and Tupac Shakar, and I was willing to get under the sheets with him. I was not willing, though, to show my short and curlies. None of that happened, not even the lovemaking scene, because the story just wouldn’t allow it. The story is really about two people – both wounded by tragedy – learning to touch and be touched all over again. John could have heated up the thing with some steamy bumping, but he was more interested in incorporating the poetry of Maya Angelou. Rather than sensationalize, he wanted to give the work substance.

“When the movie was complete,” she continues, sipping her orange juice, “I suppose I did want to shed some of Justice’s physical frustration. Rhythm Nation was a heavy record, and Poetic Justice was a heavy movie. I wanted to do something lighter but also daring. Mostly, though, I wanted to do something that corresponded to my life. My concepts are never bright ideas; they’re never notions I think will sell or be trendy or attract new fans. I don’t think that way. All I can do is sing from my life. When I wrote the album, I was still in a poetic frame of mind, inspired by Maya’s beautiful language. You can hear that inspiration on the interludes and especially on the song ‘New Agenda’ This time I felt much freer expressing myself.”

Her first album under a new, highly publicized $30 million deal with Virgin Records, janet., is very Janet, undoubtedly the most Janet of any Janet record to date. She’s all over the project – physically, emotionally, vocally. These words come from “If”: “Take your time, we’ve got all night/You on the rise as you’re touchin’ my thighs/And let me know what you like/If you like, I’ll go down/Da down down down/Da down down down.” I ask if she’s comfortable singing such suggestive lyrics.

“I should be,” she says confidently. “I wrote them. All my records are personal, and janet. is the most personal of them all. That’s why this time around it was important for me to write all the lyrics and half of the melodies.”

The results are both subtle and bold. She took chances. She asked Kathleen Battle and Public Enemy‘s Chuck D to contribute – an opera diva and a hardcore rapper, two artists one would not associate with Janet – and somehow pulled it off. Beyond Jam and Lewis, there’s now a recognizable Janet Jackson production style that’s gutsy and, in some cases, even eccentric. I’m interested, for example, in her inclusion of the album’s only cover tune, “What’ll I Do,” a Steve Cropper song from the ’60s.

“I got hold of the Stax material,” Janet explains, referring to the recent, exhaustive nine-CD box of Stax-Volt singles from 1959-1968. “I listened to it for days, knowing this was a gold mine of some of the smoothest soul songs of all time. I ran across a song I fell in love with and just had to record. It was called ‘What’ll I Do for Satisfaction,’ sung by Johnny Daye, a huge talent. In fact, Otis Redding was getting ready to produce Johnny just before Otis died. I reworked the words, and Jellybean Johnson and I worked up the groove. It fit right in with my overall theme.”

Which is . . . ?

“A woman who finally feels good enough about her sexuality,” says Janet, “to demand a man’s respect. It’s insulting to be seen as some object; he must call her by name. It’s not a brazen demand – I didn’t want to be obnoxious – but I wanted to be clear. Women want satisfaction. And so do men. But to get it, you must ask for it. Know what you need. Say what you want. Sexual communication is the name of the game. Intimacy.”

The man most intimate with Janet Jackson is Rene Elizondo. He’s been her boyfriend for years now and also her chief creative cohort. She calls him her soul mate. As we’ve been talking, Rene’s been riding the waves on a yellow kayak. Fresh from the ocean, dripping wet, he pulls up a chair and jumps into the conversation. He’s 30, wiry, bright and charismatic – smooth without being slick, handsome in a low-key way. His demeanor bespeaks a certain Latin aristocracy, even though in Poetic Justice he plays the bit part of a hotheaded Hispanic postal worker. Rene’s style is California cool: loose jeans, quiet golf shirts, nifty sunglasses.

In social situations with Janet, Rene plays the boisterous extrovert to her introvert, dominating the dinner-table conversation without displaying an overbearing ego. He also shares her sense of playfulness. There’s an easy rapport between them. Brimming with ideas and passionately enthusiastic about Janet’s creative capabilities, Rene is her staunchest booster. “Janet. is so hot,” he says, “it should have come with a condom.” A passionate film buff, he’s the director of two janet. videos, “Again” and “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

“There was pressure to kick off the album with a more spectacular song,” Janet says of “That’s the Way Love Goes.” “But I wanted to go the other way. I didn’t want to break down the door, just slip in through the side. We thought this easy-to-get-with groove – real gentle but real sexy – would be a warm way of kicking things off. That’s why Rene suggested I surround myself with the kids in the dance troupe and let me relax, just be myself.”

Tish Oliver comes running out to the patio to wish everyone good morning. She’s one of the Kids, a dancer who, at age 21, has become something of a baby sister to Janet, who is herself the baby of a nine-sibling family. Janet thrives on being around lots of friends. Members of her dance troupe, who are often domiciled in one of her two Los Angeles houses, remind her of her youth, when kids were everywhere. Tish is irrepressible, loose-limbed, bouncing off the walls with happy energy. She’s the one whom Janet castigates at the end of the “That’s the Way Love Goes” video for looking at the camera. She’s from South Central, and this morning, Janet is driving her over to the junior college, where Tish is taking an English course.

Afterward, loyal chum Janet is having lunch with two longtime pals from her school days. She describes one as “a lovable Jewish American Princess” and the other as “a sista who knew more about sex education than the sex-education teacher.” I suggest that the subject of Janet’s sexual education needs to be further explored. She smiles and asks me to meet her in a couple of days. “We’ll take a little trip together” is all she says.

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.”

There is the serious artist Janet, The Sociopolitical Janet, the Sensual Janet, the Silly Janet. Today’s dance rehearsal on a Santa Monica, Calif., soundstage brings out the Silly Janet. Today, she’s begun to prepare her live show, soon to be seen in countries large and small throughout the world. Her friend and choreographer Tina Landon is in charge, and Janet, along with the other seven dancers, turns into a conscientious student dead set on mastering the meticulous routines. She seems happy being just one of the Kids, giggling at a miscue, going along with jokes about her shapely backside, kidding her partners about their love lives. In black sweatpants, baggy Mickey Mouse T-shirt and baseball cap with Funky Essentials scrawled across the crown, she looks 17, not 27.

At lunch break, the Kids run off, leaving Janet and me alone, seated on facing folding chairs in the middle of the enormous parquet floor. She’s still in a breezy mood, reminding me of the last song on janet., a postcoital, almost preadolescent moment that doesn’t come until the album is over and minutes of silence pass, the distance perhaps between the adult Janet and the little-girl Janet. The tune “Woops Now” – which appears as an unlisted footnote on the CD – is preceded by “Any Time, Any Place,” a composition of daring sexuality, where making love on a public dance floor brings Janet’s suite of desire to rapturous climax. But no. Following her after-the-dance dream, her final reverie is one of chastity, a return to the whimsy of childhood. This moment – the tension between the erotic and the innocent – seems the essence of Janet Jackson.

She considers my thesis before saying: “Let me describe one of the biggest musical influences of my life. It was Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime.’ I was only 3 years old when that song had me jumping up and down. It made me so happy. On ‘Woops Now,’ I even say, ‘I’m out in the sun having fun with my friends.’ There’s also the Turtles’ ‘Happy Together’ and the Association’s ‘Windy’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Feelin’ Groovy.’ Those are all precious moments to me. They’re about just plain feeling good. Talking this way makes me want to skip out and go to the movies. Have you seen the new one about Tina Turner?”

Three hours later, Janet, her boyfriend, Rene Elizondo, and I are leaving a crowded Los Angeles theater. What’s Love Got to Do With It has left a strong impression on Janet, turning her mood from carefree to thoughtful. At the back table of an art-deco-designed coffee shop, she orders mineral water. Inevitably, the question of family dynamics arises. She mentions sister LaToya.

“I’ve thought long and hard about what happened,” says Janet. “LaToya was closer to my mother than anyone in the world, and yet my mother is the one she has hurt the most. When LaToya left the family, she was unhappy with her career. She was at a terribly vulnerable point in her life. She was taken advantage of. I’m convinced she was brainwashed. She was turned against the family and made to see us as enemies, when, in fact, we love her more than words can say. Right now, there’s no contact. But I believe my sister will be back.”

That night, with the TV news in the background, Janet balances a Powerbook on her lap, manipulating the mouse as she writes words that will be a song or poem. Suddenly she stops, looks up at the TV. An 8-year-old girl, singing a song about her friends in heaven, breaks down crying. The girl has AIDS. I glance over and see tears in Janet’s eyes.

A week has passed. We’ve been looking at the beach, but we haven’t actually touched it. The sun has set, and Janet’s ready to get away from the ringing phones. We take off our shoes and head for the sand. She walks in spurts, stopping to talk, then starting out again. The surf is calm. Sandpipers dart about. In the distance, city lights are twinkling. The sky is streaked with shafts of soft light.

We talk about the little girl with AIDS. It turns out she’s a Janet Jackson fan, and yesterday was her birthday. To surprise her, Janet flew to the girl’s home in Las Vegas for the party. “The thing that impressed me most,” says Janet, “was her writing. She made up songs on the spot. She sang them to me with incredible spirit and spontaneity. She was brilliant and made me think that children’s intelligence – their artistic intelligence – is the most valuable and purest human resource.

“That’s the intelligence I look for in myself. I don’t always find it, but I know it’s there. I’m talking about responding to the world emotionally, directly. Art that comes from the heart, not the head.

“The thing that excites me,” Janet insists, “isn’t becoming a bigger star but a better artist, deeper, truer to the things I find exciting. If right now, I find sex exciting, if I’m looking at physical love in a beautiful light, I put that in my art. If next year, I’m depressed or confused or angry, I hope to have the courage to express those feelings. I hope to be an honest artist – no more, no less.”

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