Sex, Sadness and the Triumph of Janet Jackson - Rolling Stone
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Sex, Sadness and the Triumph of Janet Jackson

After being told her album was a flop and her tour was a bust, she did what she knows best — she worked harder

Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson performs on stage in 1998.

Phil Dent/Redferns/Getty

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.”

IWANT A BETTER nation of what the book is about. So a year before the start of the tour, I spend considerable time with Janet as she writes, records and promotes The Velvet Rope. Our interviews begin in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York last summer, continue through the fall in Australia and Japan, and culminate in Vancouver in August.

Life for Janet in Tokyo is no easy matter. The crowd in Shibuya, an urban zone of sleek vertical malls, verges on a mob scene. The fashion is edgy, and the average fan looks no older than eighteen. American brand names –– Timberland, Tommy, Polo –– scream from window displays. Around the corner from Issue Miyake’s Pleats Please boutique, the American brand-name entertainer sits in a fishbowl radio studio, visible to all.

I watch hundreds of fans watching Janet Jackson watching them. They are teenagers, mostly girls, many of them crying. Their noses press against the glass. When Janet waves or nods, they openly sob. Their hands shake. When Janet answers a simple question –– “Are you happy to be here?” –– with a simple “Yes,” her whisper-quiet voice provokes screams.

There’s a certain anguish in Janet’s voice and the reactions of her fans, an unspoken dialogue that I don’t entirely get. Two Japanese girls hold a sign that reads, “Janet. Please see us. Please understand.” Afterward, I ask them through a translator what it is they want understood. “She already understands,” they say. “What?” I want to know. “Us,” they reply. The girls are fourteen, maybe fifteen.

Years ago, when I met Janet’s brothers Jermaine, Jackie, Randy and Tito, I was impressed by their quiet presence. I was moved by their Niceness. In a disarmingly charming way, they wore this palpable, extraordinary Niceness like a protective cloak. Strange how it also made me feel protected –– and protective of them. I was crazy about them. I had great respect for their talent. I felt the same way when I met brother Michael while he was recording Thriller in 1982. Speaking with Michael in the sealed-off studio, I envisioned a hothouse flower. He was polite and gracious. Almost painfully Nice.

When I met Janet at the end of the Eighties –– when Rhythm Nation 1814, her meditation on social injustice, was taking off –– she seemed Nicest of all. It was no act, I learned when I was assigned the ROLLING STONE hands-over-breasts cover story five years ago. She had her brothers’ social skills, and then some. I saw how those she employed –– hairdressers, trainers, producers –– adored her. She dealt with them, as she deals with her fans, with almost seductive kindness.

In some ways she reminded me of Marvin Gaye. I knew that the singers who moved her most were brothers Michael and Jermaine, both of whom knew Marvin as a Motown label mate and were strongly molded by his plaintive style. Janet had absorbed that influence. Like Marvin, autobiography seemed the sole source of her music. Her art, also like Marvin’s, floated over a reservoir of secret pain. When the pain became too pronounced, the feelings were sexualized in smoldering dance grooves. If Rhythm Nation was Janet’s What’s Going On, Janet became her Let’s Get It On. From serious problems to serious sex.

In the world of pop, where sex as self-portrait and as sales device is hopelessly confused. Janet saw frank sensuality as an extension of the personal freedom she declared in Control, the record that jumpstarted her career in 1986. Eleven years later, when I first got wind of The Velvet Rope, I wasn’t sure what it meant. But watching her forge the music over many months, I saw something I hadn’t seen before –– how much Janet suffers from a past that’s alarmingly clear and frustratingly vague. I wanted to ask Janet the same thing I had wanted to ask Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, Randy and Michael: What the hell happened to you guys? What kind of mangled childhood makes you so goddamn Nice, yet so ill-equipped to talk about what the Niceness is covering? But their Niceness kept me from asking, even as I knew Janet was the only one who seemed to be struggling for an answer.

Consider cartoons. Think about turning on the TV to watch your family, filled with pressures and rivalry and unspoken angst, transformed into animated characters. It’d be one thing to see your family as the Simpsons, where dysfunction is a howling joke. But to see your siblings –– the Jackson 5 –– as a sepia version of the Seven Dwarfs, man, that has to be confusing.

“I absolutely loved those cartoons,” Janet says, referring to The Jackson 5ive, the TV series that debuted in September 1971 and was in reruns for years. We’re in Melbourne, on our way to a studio where Janet will perform on an inane Australian TV show called Hey! Hey! It’s Saturday. “I was amazed to see my brothers as these lovable cartoon characters. It made me love them and miss them even more. This was the early Seventies, and I was six or seven, and they were gone all the time. It also gave me a feeling that everything was all right. Cartoon characters don’t have real problems. I guess I wanted to join them and become a cartoon character myself. I was a kid who found it easier telling my problems to animals than to real people.”

What about all the shit you’ve done to me?
What about the times you hit my face?
What about the times you kept on
when I said no more, please?
What about those things?
What about?
What about the times you shamed me?
What about the times you said you
didn’t fuck her, she only gave you head?

I first heard those words –– the chorus to “What About,” from The Velvet Rope –– at Flyte Tyme, the Minneapolis studio where Janet has gone for the past decade to find her muse and connect with collaborators René Elizondo and Jimmy Jam. Sometimes roles overlap, but it’s usually René, Janet’s longtime lover, who co-writes lyrics and melodies, and her friend Jimmy, a brilliant composer-producer, who creates melodies and the variegated music tracks. The gutwrenching business of birthing her songs, though, belongs to Janet alone.

“What About” is the most shocking segment of her current show, played out as a mini-psychodrama focused on physical abuse. “Elements of the song have to do with me,” she confesses, although she does not go into gruesome detail. “And elements are from René’s life. Abuse of all kinds –– emotional, verbal –– is incredibly common. The challenge is creating boundaries that shouldn’t be trespassed.” The Velvet Rope seems to be about boundaries –– restrictions imposed upon us by forces in and out of our control –– and, on a gut level, “What About” breaks through a boundary that Janet had previously blocked. “Singing these songs has meant digging up pain that I buried a long time ago,” she says that same day in Minneapolis. “It’s been hard and sometimes confusing. But I’ve had to do it. I’ve been burying pain my whole life. It’s like kicking dirt under the carpet. At some point there’s so much dirt you start to choke. Well, I’ve been choking. My therapy came in writing these songs. Then I had to find the courage to sing them or else suffer the consequences –– a permanent case of the blues.”

That evening, Janet shops for CDs at Borders. She fills a shopping cart with Billie Holiday, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, and Joao and Astrud Gilberto. Meanwhile, I wander over to the Janet Jackson bin. Her first two albums –– Janet Jackson and Dream Street –– hardly made a dent. Then four blockbusters: Control, Rhythm Nation, Janet and Design of a Decade. Then, at the peak of her popularity, she releases The Velvet Rope, an album fraught with artistic complexity. Not a conventional career move.

The Velvet Rope is still rattling around my head when I find myself in New York a month or so before its release. Riding from midtown to a SoHo studio every morning for a week, I ask Janet to interpret each song. She’s reluctant, as she puts it, to “spoon-feed the meanings to anyone.” But after a few days, I think I understand what she had only hinted at earlier: The Velvet Rope is a way to keep herself together. She’s writing and singing her way out of confusion.

“The reason we oppress other people,” she says, “is because we oppress ourselves. We run away from ourselves. In that sense, I’m probably no different than everyone else. We all have voices beating us up. But my background taught me to smile and act like the voices aren’t there. I was taught to please everyone, to stifle feelings, just get out and make money. Money equaled success. No one asked me if I wanted to go into show business. It was expected. That’s what I did when I was seven. When I said I wanted to act, my father said, ‘There’s more money in singing. You’ll sing.’ Now I’m grateful, because my heart is in singing. But to get to that gratitude took twenty-five years of often feeling lost and alone.”

Janet is in the city for two photo sessions. Her new look involves piercings and tattoos and, of course, velvet ropes. One day we drive into Brooklyn to shoot in a turn-of-the-century vaudeville palace, with cracked walls and battered bricks that reflect Janet’s mood. In one shot, her hands are bound by a velvet rope; in another, she hangs from a velvet rope. It doesn’t take a shrink to see she’s dealing with pain.

“I have high tolerance for pain,” she says back in her trailer between shots. “When I was tattooed and pierced, I sat still. I won’t say I enjoyed the discomfort, but it was something I wanted to do. It’s pain with artistic results. The tattoos are tribal. The logo for The Velvet Rope, tattooed on the inside of my wrist, is African in origin. Its meaning is, roughly, ‘Explore your past to build your future.’ Body art can be deep, but I also see it as funky and fun. I’ve always wanted to do these things but was afraid of displeasing people. Now I’m just flat-out pleasing myself.”

Nice girl gets nasty, I think to myself. Janet was brought up in an affluent corner of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, a suburban scene ripe for rebellion. But rebellion took several twists and turns. As a child, she played good girls in the sitcoms Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes. Then and now, Niceness both defined and restricted her. Sweetness does appear to be her essential nature, but she was taught as early as age seven, when she imitated Mae West as part of the Jackson family act in Vegas, that sweetness plus sex is a selling combination. And God knows she wanted to sell. Somewhere along the line, though, Janet saw her artistic instincts veering toward self-examination. When I think of The Velvet Rope, the current manifestation of those instincts, I picture the paintings of Frida Kahlo and her compulsion to reveal her open wounds. Those wounds, with all their attendant pains, feel strongly sexual.

The question of artistic openness is raised in July 1997, as Janet rides over the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The sun has fallen behind the jagged line of skyscrapers, and Janet’s cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” pours out of the van’s speakers. In Rod’s version, the seducer is a man and the seduced a virginal female. Janet hasn’t changed a thing, assuming the male role and singing, “I love you, girl.” “People might raise their eyebrows,” she tells me. “And the record company might even say this will hurt sales. But the truth is that that’s how I felt that song. Funny, too, because the original is one of Mother’s favorites. I wanted to sing the original lyrics. I am not gay, but there are lots of women who relate to it this way. I think that’s fine. On ‘Free Xone,’ I’m singing about how homophobia, or any form of intolerance, injures the soul. I’m singing about accepting yourself and living in a world –– a free zone –– where the world accepts you.”

Self-acceptance is a major theme. Self-acceptance as opposed to family acceptance. At one point, Janet talks about dropping the “Jackson” from her name: “If I do it, I’ll do it quietly. I wouldn’t make a big announcement, and I wouldn’t want my family to think I’m ashamed of them. I’m not. I love them. But my last name represents a part of my past that I’ve been working through. I’ve always wanted to be just Janet. I’ve always wanted to simplify and feel like I’m standing on my own.” Eventually, The Velvet Rope is credited simply to “Janet,” although “Janet Jackson” is listed as co-producer and songwriter.

Pop iconography is tricky business. The subject comes up at a sushi bar in Roppongi, the clubbing center of Tokyo. Seated cross-legged on the floor in a back room, we’re devouring a small fortune’s worth of tuna, salmon and eel. “I don’t pretend to speak for anybody,” Janet says between bites. “And I don’t pretend to represent anyone. At the same time, I need to offer hope. People need nourishment. I need nourishment. That’s the art I’m interested in. Hopeful art. That doesn’t mean sentimental crap with greeting-card messages. Some of my favorite art, movies like Raging Bull and Glengarry Glen Ross, is in your face. They express the truth about people. Truth in any form is liberating.”

That same night in Tokyo, a reporter asks her about the rope business. Isn’t she toying with S&M? Janet explains it like this: “Soft ropes and blindfolds can be romantic and add mystery. Mystery can be sensual. But to me there’s a big difference between gentle games and being choked and beaten. The music is sensual, not brutal. The feeling of The Velvet Rope is soft, not severe.”

The feeling in the small recording studio, somewhere in the metropolitan maze of Tokyo, is almost frighteningly intimate, a conversation between two Janets, one looking to give love, one looking to receive. She’s come to add vocals to “Together Again” for Japanese TV. This is her ode to friends who have died of AIDS. A post-disco celebration of undying life, the song recharges the engines of Seventies optimism, the decade when Janet was struggling as a showbiz baby. I’m moved by how sadness and joy commingle in a single voice. That night, an early edit of the video arrives from California. It’s Janet in a tribal setting. At a crucial moment, twin Janets, echoing a famous Frida Kahlo self-portrait, appear on the screen at once; the first Janet gently places her hand on the second Janet’s breast. A sign of self-reconciliation, even self-love.

Family memories, like so many Janet songs, are a mixture of joy and pain. “I was a part of something very wonderful,” she says, “and yet felt cut off. I remember watching a troop of Girl Scouts, thinking how great it would be to join, knowing I couldn’t because I had already started traveling and entertaining. The simplest things –– like having a close friend –– seemed beyond my grasp.”

Early marriages were a way out of the Jackson household. Rebbie, Tito and Marlon were eighteen when they got married, Jermaine nineteen. Janet was eighteen when she wed James DeBarge; less than a year later, she had the union annulled. Recovering from her disastrous marriage, she fell in love with René Elizondo, whose parents had moved from Mexico to the San Fernando Valley when he was a small child.

You can’t understand Janet without understanding René. For the past twelve years they’ve been a team, a study in yin yang. Janet is an introvert, René a rousing extrovert. Janet is a reluctant talker, René can riff nonstop. They met when he was an assistant cameraman; his interests –– as a filmmaker, songwriter and photographer –– are in envelope-pushing projects. René is a postmodernist whose Tarantino-esque humor finds expression in the sort of flat dialogue he hears as the music of modern life. “At the supermarket I heard two stock boys on two opposite aisles talking loudly with no eye contact,” René says. “One told the other, “Dude, the strippers aren’t even going to be there, so why are we going?’ Man, I love hearing lines like that.”

When I’ve watched Janet and René work together in the studio or discuss matters in their Malibu home, they appear as two halves of a whole. They’re both lightning-fast thinkers, and one often completes a thought the other has begun. There seems to be no hierarchy, no boss. They operate on the same wavelength. They’re almost always together, and René, as chief adviser and constant collaborator, is intensely focused on Janet’s career. He has had a creative hand in all her videos since Rhythm Nation, and three of them –– “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Again” and the recent alternative version of “Together Again” –– he directed.

“René,” says Janet, “has also been my co-writer on almost all my songs since Rhythm Nation but refused to take credit. He wanted to prove that he wasn’t with me to take, but to give. I appreciated that attitude, but I also saw that it was leading to feelings of fraudulence –– on his part and mine. On The Velvet Rope, René’s name appears for the first time as a co-executive producer and co-writer. Just as it’s wrong to claim undeserved credit, it’s wrong to deny credit when it is deserved.”

Janet is a woman in love. She is openly affectionate with René, resting her head on his shoulder, snuggling up to him on the couch. Their fascination with personal art as pop poetry keeps them unusually close. Certainly Janet is comforted by the stability of the relationship, and it’s clear that without René she’d have a much harder time dealing with the various hues of blues that have been haunting her.

If underneath rock & roll is rhythm & blues, and underneath rhythm & blues is the blues itself, all popular singers, in one form or another, are singing the blues. In America, the blues is the basis, the primary forum, for genuine musical feeling. Remembering that the blues embraces all the big emotions –– ecstasy as well as grief –– it’s easy to see Janet dealing with the blues. Two episodes from my journeys with Janet, two misty blue scenes, make the point:

The first is midnight on a Monday in New York. The streets are not crowded, and a wet fog chills the air. Janet is not in much of a mood to party. But Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men is celebrating his birthday, and Janet has promised to make an appearance at the midtown club. She sits in the back of a van with Wanya’s present, a sweater from Gucci, resting on her lap. Dressed in black wool and looking especially sophisticated, she nonetheless makes me think of a very small girl on her way to a birthday party. Doing what she has to do. On Second Avenue, she asks the driver to stop for a couple of slices of pizza. “I’d rather eat here,” she says. She asks the driver to turn off the lights in the back of the van. I can feel her enjoying her anonymity.

The party is a mob scene. Two security men escort Janet inside and, a few steps behind her, I feel like Fellini’s camera. Flashbulbs pop, reporters scream her name, characters bounce in and out of frame –– here’s Puff Daddy, here’s Warren G, here’s Tyson the Polo model –– stopping to get snapped with Janet. Her smile is dazzling, constant. Her accommodation is complete. Niceness prevails. Stevie Wonder is brought over and cops enough good-natured feels off Janet to send a sighted man to jail. Still, she smiles. Stevie is her idol. Mariah Carey approaches. They’ve never met before. “Miss Jackson,” she says with friendly reserve, “I’m Mariah.” “I know,” Janet acknowledges. “We’re having champagne at my table,” Mariah announces. “Would you care to join us?” Janet says she’ll try. But the crowds move in, and for another hour she shakes hands and poses for pictures until her graciousness is worn to a frazzle and her smile strains the muscles in her face.

The second scene is the Chinzan-so Gardens, on the outer rim of Tokyo. An hour has been spent exploring the geometric fusion of flowers and shrines. In the peacefulness of the moment, in and out of the long shadows of late afternoon, Janet sits and considers calmness. Watching her inch her way through a bucolic landscape, I think of her usual gait –– her strong, athletic stride, her firm handshake. But for this interlude, her rhythms have slowed. The Asian promo tour, her publicity push in New York, the pressure of selling songs have all receded. She’s talking about peace. “I believe in meditation and prayer,” she says, “but it’s not easy. I get caught up in the rat race. We all do. I need time to be alone, and I need time to stop and consider where I’ve been and where I’m going. That’s what tripped me up to begin with: jumping ahead of myself. Not being with myself. Now I’d like to let my thoughts race through my mind without attaching myself to them. I’d like to allow myself just to be.”

These are words preceded and followed by a long breath of silence. In that silence, I wonder whether I’m hearing what the teary-eyed girls heard that day in Shibuya, the ones holding the sign that said “Please understand.” They heard someone who has been hurt by the confusion that life brings to children and teenagers and young adults looking for self-love. The hurt is felt in the songs, in the struggle for sexual freedom, in the determination, despite all the blues, to work as an artist, searching for something that can’t be defined. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Janet Jackson


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