THE MYSTERY is the low flame that burns around the perimeters of Janet Jackson’s soul. The flame feeds off the most highly combustible elements: survival and ambition, caution and creativity, supreme confidence and dark fear. The flame is a sensual thing. The power and purity of deep sexuality surely fuel the flame. Even when Janet doesn’t speak –– even when, as is often her habit, she allows silences to speak for her –– you sense something burning within. A secret, a poem, a song.
FOR YEARS, she has burned with the need to say what she has not been able to say before: that sometimes she is afraid, sometimes angry, sometimes confused, sometimes sad. She found a metaphor for the feelings that blocked her from herself: a velvet rope. Around that symbol she wrote a suite of songs, recorded an album and staged a spectacle to circle the globe. At some stops along the way, she got her ass kicked. Her metaphors were misunderstood. Word was she was into bondage. Or she was depressed. They said the album wasn’t selling. They said the tour was bombing. The press was hostile and, for the first time in Janet’s career, downright mean.
But after thirty-three sold-out shows in Europe, where she played to nearly half a million fans, Janet has broken house records in Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Salt Lake City. The album, The Velvet Rope, is resurging, with more than 5.5 million copies sold worldwide (2.2 million in the U.S.).
Here in Vancouver, fans fill the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, hunting for a glimpse of the star. Thirty stories above, relaxing in the split-level penthouse that overlooks the snow-capped mountains beyond, Janet reflects upon events –– distant and recent –– that have led to this moment.
At thirty-two, she still looks like a teenager. She flops around hotel suites in old jeans and pajama tops. Without makeup, her face seems more vulnerable. Her eyes are clear and somewhat wistful. “Someone recently asked me how it feels to be on top again,” she says. “My answer was simple: I don’t know, because I don’t feel that way. I’ve never felt that I was on top. I feel like I’m still trying to get there, still climbing the mountain. The effort goes on, and that’s fine. I’m at peace with the process. The process is hard work.
“I always think of my mother, whom I adore, and the attitude she expressed: ‘Anything to make ends meet.’ When we lived in Gary, Indiana, when she already had given birth to nine children, she’d walk the winter streets to work at Sears. And this is a woman who, because of polio, walks with pain. This was when my father worked in the steel plant. Work is part of my genetic code; work is in my blood. My response to adversity is always the same: Work harder.”
That night, Janet works the Vancouver crowd to exhaustion, singing and dancing for more than two hours. Hard work is the theme –– hard physical work and even harder psychological work. Part of what connects Janet to her fans is this notion of working through the agonizing problems of growing from a child to a teen to a fully functioning adult. If the Velvet Rope audience views Janet as a heroine –– and torrents of unrestrained adulation say it does –– her heroism is in her ability to reveal the scary reality of what it means to take responsibility for oneself. The show is generous, in length and look. It’s a mixture of whimsy and intimacy and grandeur, flashes of familiar videos, juxtapositions of live Janet and filmed Janet, adult Janet and baby Janet. At the end, she stands alone in front of a photograph of herself as an infant, while she sings of the struggle for self-identity.
“It’s the first time I’ve directed a show by myself,” she says after the last of four encores. She’s in her dressing room packing for the all-night drive to Portland, Oregon. “The idea came to me at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. I saw it as a landscape of my inner self. I wanted the crowd to feel what I’m feeling. I mapped it out –– here’s when I want them to feel anger, here’s when I want them to get down and get funky, here’s when I want them to feel the pain. But I worried that I was incorporating too much and trying to please everyone. Finally, I had to follow my instincts about representing myself as honestly as possible. That’s why the show starts with one of my dancers opening a giant scrapbook that becomes a giant video screen that turns into the story of my life. The show is an open book.”