Janet's innocence mission - Despite red-hot lyrics, the pop superstar insists she's just the girl next door
Not much flusters Janet Jackson. Not the questions about her eccentric big brother Michael, nor the ones about her estranged husband, René, who's suing her for $10 million.
But bring up the subject of sex – in particular, her new song, "Would You Mind," which features more moaning than a hospital emergency room – and the soft-spoken singer finally raises her voice.
"It's weird ... not one interview has gone by without people asking about it," she says, growing agitated during an otherwise Zen-like conversation in her suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. "I did not do it for shock value."
Maybe not. But it's odd to see her getting so ruffled by the one topic you'd think she'd be very comfortable with. After all, she's spent the last decade trying to dethrone Madonna as pop's titillation queen, and she shows no signs of retreating on her new CD, All For You, which came out Tuesday.
On the CD cover, she sprawls across a bed, buck naked save for a small, strategically placed piece of white fur. And on the album's title track and first single, she declares her desire to get busy with a man who is – how shall we put this? – anatomically formidable.
"Would You Mind" is even more bold, with Ms. Jackson conducting a heavy-breathing seminar, followed by a risqué "performance evaluation."
"I just write from experience, and I didn't think anything of it when I was writing it," she says. "When I was recording it, [producer] Jimmy [Jam] said 'I wonder if we'll have to change some of this for the kids.' And I said 'Are you serious?'"
A wallflower superstar?
If she sounds naive on the topic of sex, it's only fitting: Innocence has always been a huge part of Ms. Jackson's appeal.
Thin-voiced, cleavage-baring singer-dancers were a dime-a-dozen in the mid-'80s. But what set this particular temptress apart was her reputation as the bashful little girl from Good Times and Diff'rent Strokes. And despite all the Caligula-style lyrics and skin-o'-plenty videos since then, fans get the sense that she's still sweet, simple ol' Janet.
In person – dressed casually in jeans and a sleeveless pink top – the petite singer is less MTV ubervixen than shy girl next door. Her whisper of a voice is barely audible over the hum of the air conditioning. Every now and then, she turns self-conscious and glances at the floor.
Yet there's no forgetting this wallflower is also a superstar. As she conducts her interviews, an army of seven managers, assistants and record-label reps stand guard in the hallway outside her suite. When her last interview ends, four of them swoop into the room to wrap up business and help prepare the 34-year-old multimillionaire for her flight home to Los Angeles.
The fame game
The title track to All For You has already shot to No. 1 on the singles chart. But she says there's no guarantee the album will maintain her 15-year streak of selling 5to 10 million copies of each new CD.
"I don't take [mega-fame] for granted. Hell no," she says, when asked about her brother Michael's nosedive in popularity.
"Are you kidding? Nothing lasts forever – that's the bottom line. When you've made it, people are tugging at your bootstraps ... they wanna see the next person get famous."
But for the time being, she remains one of the most successful – and influential – pop stars around.
"I've learned so much from watching her over her career," says Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny's Child – part of the flotilla of teen-pop acts who owe a major debt to the singer.
"She starts the trends ... and she taught me you have to reinvent yourself with every new album. She's still herself, but she always has a new thing, a new hair color, a new look, a new type of album."
Ms. Jackson doesn't take any huge musical departures on All For You – a CD that relies on the usual mix of uptempo R&B tunes and dreamy ballads. But she does stretch out now and again – especially on "Son of a Gun," a surreal hip-hop overhaul of Carly Simon's 1972 hit "You're So Vain" complete with Ms. Simon reciting her own poetry.
Did the two divas hit it off in the studio?
"You know ... we've never actually met," Ms. Jackson says sheepishly. "I wasn't going to do any duets on the album. I was just sampling the chorus of 'You're So Vain' and when I spoke to Carly on the phone to get permission, she said she wanted to ... write a few new lines.
"She said we weren't obligated to use it if we didn't want to, but I think what she wrote was so hot ... It came out really cool because it's so abstract."
Help from hits
"Son of a Gun" isn't the first song Ms. Jackson built on the foundation of someone else's hit. She traveled a similar route with "Got 'Til It's Gone," her 1997 reworking of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."
And two other tracks on All For You borrow liberally from old songs: "Someone to Call My Lover" samples the guitar refrain from America's "Ventura Highway," and the CD's title track gets its rhythm and melody from "The Glow of Love" by the early '80s R&B band Change.
The singer concedes that the "Glow" melody is "the focal point" of "All For You." But she insists she puts more thought into her songs than other R&B and hip-hop acts who simply strip mine old melodies for their "new" hits.
"What I don't like is when artists don't put any work into it or build anything else around it. I ... we ... like sampling ... because we always create a whole new world and a completely new song," she says, referring to her co-producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
The Minneapolis duo has helped sculpt the singer's music since Control, the 1986 album that transformed her from just another actor-turned-singer into a pop phenom. But, as always, Ms. Jackson wrote the lyrics herself for All For You.
Most of the words are far more upbeat than those on 1997's The Velvet Rope, which she made after battling the depression she says was left-over from her childhood and her short-lived first marriage at age 18 to singer James DeBarge.
"I think I'm past [the depression]," she says. "Certain issues resurface from time to time, but at least I know how to deal with them now, as opposed to being confused and being in this daze and feeling hopeless.
"Making this album was such a happy experience, and that's why it's very 'up' for the most part. ... Granted, there are some edgy things on there, too – I wanted to get a couple things off my chest."
Including her breakup with videomaker-choreographer René Elizondo Jr., whom she'd been with for 13 years and had been married to for eight (though the marriage was a secret until recently). "Trust a Try" and "Truth" tell stories of jealousy and deceit, and while she says the "greedy [expletive]" in "Son of a Gun" isn't based on Mr. Elizondo specifically, he apparently thinks it is.
"I've said from Day One that it's about several people, but his attorneys have told me he thinks it's about him," she says, with a laugh. "It's funny. It's so ironic – 'I bet you think this song is about you.' I guess if he's putting the shoe on, it must fit."
Life goes on
While lawyers haggle over her impending divorce, Ms. Jackson has been busy learning a new skill: how to date.
"I feel like a teenager because I'm experiencing dating for the first time in my life," she says. "I'm having a great time – I'm dating different people and not looking for anything serious – but I felt kind of stupid in the beginning. My friends could see I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and they said 'We need to teach you some things.'"
But not all of their advice made sense to her – especially when they said all men are the very same "nasty boys" Ms. Jackson used to sing about.
"They said, 'Guys will not be your friends for no reason. There's always an agenda there, and you best know what that is,'" she says.
"But I have to disagree. Maybe it's because I grew up with six boys and was so close to them ... but I know that guys don't always have a 'reason' for being your friend."
Janet Jackson will start touring in July to support her new CD, All For You. The singer is scheduled to perform Sept. 23 in Dallas, though which venue she's playing has yet to be announced.