I've been conducting MTV interviews with Janet Jackson since 1989's Rhythm Nation — and in that time, Janet's music has mirrored her personality: increasingly mature, self-assured, reflective, sexy and playful.
And yet shortly after the conclusion of 1998's Velvet Rope tour, Janet endured what had to be one of the most painful personal chapters in her life: the end of her 13-year personal and professional relationship with (and secret eight-year marriage to) Rene Elizondo Jr., under what were reportedly difficult circumstances. Elizondo has since filed suit against Janet, alleging she has failed to live up to a 'property agreement' between the two.
I expected these events to leave Janet wounded, if not shattered. On the contrary, she's emerged with a mostly bright, positive, danceable album called All for You — which boldly asserts the 35-year-old singer's single status, with some tracks as erotic as anything Prince or Madonna have ever recorded. We got into all of those subjects and more when Janet stopped by the MTV Studios to talk about her new LP and her new attitude.
John Norris: I don't know if other people have said this, but I was surprised not only that there is a record [this] soon, but you came out with an upbeat, hopeful, optimistic record following a time that I can only imagine wasn't always the easiest.
Janet Jackson: We have choices and [I truly believe in] surrounding yourself with positive energy and people. I made the choice in taking that positive path [with] all that I learned from Velvet Rope, [and] applying certain things to this point in my life. It really helped me get through this time. That's why [the album] is so hopeful and optimistic, because that's how I'm feeling.
Norris: I think a lot of people looked at the Janet album and said that was a sexy album and the Velvet Rope was more introspective and dealt with some darker places. How would you characterize All for You?
Janet: It's about love, the different levels of love. It's a very happy album. I'm always writing about what is going on in my life, what I'm feeling at the moment.
Norris: Are you surprised that there's not more bitterness or hard feelings on the record?
Janet: Am I surprised? Maybe that's a question I should be asking you.
Norris: I'm a little surprised. It's to your credit that you didn't bring that kind of baggage to the project.
Janet: That's to say if there is bitterness there. There are a couple of things I need to get off my chest, but there's a song called "Son of a Gun" and I think a lot of people are going to think whatever they want. It's about a few people, actually. "Truth" talks more about what went on a little bit and it's more about me talking out loud, thinking out loud, talking about myself.
Norris: "Son of a Gun" features Carly [Simon] on it, and you have now worked with such a variety of different artists on different records, from Q-Tip to Busta Rhymes. How does that come about? Do you come up with the idea or does [producer] Jimmy [Jam] bring it to you, or...?
Janet: It goes both ways, but Jimmy came up with this idea to use it as a sample. It wasn't supposed to be a duet, I wasn't going to do any duets on this album and once Carly heard it after we recorded it she wanted to re-sing all her parts and just throw away all the old stuff and write a few lines. And Carly went away and wrote a whole song. But it was great, because it really works. We decided to marry the two. I love it, because it's kind of abstract, and she's just awesome, awesome.
Norris: Do you have a wish list [of people] in your head that down the line you might want to collaborate with?
Janet: I've always loved [Cape Verde singer] Cesaria Evora. I think she's really cool. As far as the new kids, I think Pink is really cool. Aaliyah, she's not quite that new, but I think she's awesome.
Norris: A lot of them turned out for the [MTV tribute to Janet] ICON show, [which] looked like it was a lot of fun.
Janet: It was. It was a really special moment in my life.
Norris: Having Pink and Mya and those girls out there — of course Christina [Aguilera] and Britney [Spears] have really sort of risen since Velvet Rope — as much respect as those girls give you, are they competition as well?
Janet: Of course they are. I kinda see everyone as competition. I'm a very competitive person. But I think that's good. Competition is great. And as long as it's friendly and not a malicious thing, then I think it's cool. It's very healthy.
Norris: We talked about some of the tracks like "Son of a Gun," but there are arguably intense, as you call them, "baby-making tracks" on the record as well. Would you say?
Janet: The most intense? Good God almighty, everyone talks about that. It's really weird. "Would You Mind," the song that I'm sure you're talking about, everybody brings up that song. I feel like I've done things similar to this on previous albums, but why everyone is taking notice of it more now than ever...
Norris: You don't think this one is more explicit just in terms of the language you use? I mean the F-word, to my knowledge, has never appeared on a Janet record before.
Janet: Well, that's true. It's funny that you mention that, because most people talk about the word "come," but I've said that before.
Norris: You say "I didn't even come" [at the end of the song].
Janet: Again, it's just experiences and writing what I'm feeling.
Norris: I don't know why people are asking you more on this album, but I think that among some people you are [perceived as] shy and reserved about those things, and then on record there's this person where they feel there's almost two Janets.
Janet: They always say you have to watch out for the shy ones, right? [laughs] That's what I've always heard. I don't think I'm shy, but we all have different sides to us, and this is definitely a different side.
Norris: Is it hard at all to do intense [songs like] "Would You Mind" and "China Love"? It's very convincing, you know? [laugh]
Janet: Is it difficult in the studio? No, not at all. You just have to kind of relive it. Put yourself there and whatever it takes for you to get there.
Norris: I read that a track like "All for You" is about someone taking the initiative [with] someone you like [and] approaching them, and that's something you've had to do because people are a little reluctant to approach you.
Janet: Right. 'Intimidation' is what my friends have always said. What they're feeling because of me being an entertainer.
Norris: Are you able to approach people? Can you take the initiative in a situation like that?
Janet: Oh yeah, I have. That's the whole point, I always have. Pretty much everyone I've ever gone out with, I've taken that initiative. I'm the one that always asks them out, so it's not a problem for me at all.
Norris: You mentioned "Truth" before, which I think in terms of openness ... I found that song really touching. Because of its personal nature, was it harder to record and will it be harder to perform if you do it on the road?
Janet: No. Well, I can't say that it won't be hard to perform, but it wasn't hard to record at all. There are times when you do think back, and I did, but it wasn't anything I got choked up over. Maybe that was a good day. Ask me again when we're on tour if we do it in the show and then I'll tell you how it feels, 'cause I'm sure I'll have my days and it might be a completely different story.
Norris: I think it was in the Vibe [magazine] piece that you said that it surprised you and disappointed you more, not so much that your marriage [Rene Elizondo Jr.] came to an end, but the fact that you guys did not or had not — at least at the time of the article — been speaking. Do you think you guys will eventually get to the point where you can be friends again?
Janet: I'm a believer in trust, and I don't let many people in my inner circle, so that would be kind of difficult for me, honestly. Especially when it wasn't my choice to begin with for things to go the way that they have. I thought we would always be friends, so when I feel betrayed in that way it's really hard for me let someone back into my life.
Norris: Is that the case in terms of meeting new people too? Are you reluctant to get too close to people?
Janet: Yeah, it takes me a very long time. Being in this business, choosing friends is very difficult and — it is with everyone, but especially in this business — [knowing] who can you trust, who you can't, hoping that you don't read something two weeks later that you may have told them in confidence. It's a tough thing. So I don't have very many friends, but the ones that I do have I do consider them true friends.
Norris: Were there people there for you, helping you when you guys split up?
Janet: Definitely, and the thing about it is, obviously we had a lot of the same friends and I wanted them to be there for him as well.
Norris: Which is tough, right? Are you asking them to make a choice, I guess, between the two of you?
Janet: No. I wasn't asking them to make a choice at all. That's exactly what I didn't want them to do, to say, "No, just be my friend, don't be..." No, I wanted them to be there for him as well. Whatever they were to speak about, that's their business. Whatever they and I speak about, it's our business, but I wanted him to keep some of the same friends because they are such good people. He just did his thing and kind of said, "No, leave it be," so that was his choice
Norris: There's a tour coming up this summer. There aren't many artists out there who have raised the bar so much in terms of the production level of their live shows. Is it like, "What am I gonna do this time?" Is it a question of topping [yourself]?
Janet: No. Honestly, it's not a question of topping, it's just trying to do something different each time and trying to make it enjoyable for the people, but at the same time putting myself in the audience's place. Hopefully I'm on the same page as everybody else, [and it's] something I want to see from an artist, from myself. Things that I enjoy and hopefully they will as well.
Norris: Anything specific you have in mind that you can say yet for the show?
Janet: No. [laughs] Lots of specific things, but [nothing] I'd really want to say.
Norris: Starting in the States?
Janet: Yeah, in July.
Norris: I mentioned ICON before, and I wanted to get your thoughts specifically on Destiny's Child, who did "Let's Wait Awhile." What did you think of their performance?
Janet: I think they're incredible. I just saw them in Holland. We got together for a little while. That's actually where we met three years ago. At the awards show, same show, same place, so we got together again. And I hadn't seen them since then. I didn't see them the night of ICON, I just saw their performance. I think they're amazing. I think they're incredible ... so much success, and they're very talented and sweet girls.
Norris: Do artists like that, that are really starting to blow up, ever ask you for advice? Solicit input from you on things they should look out for [in their] career?
Janet: It's happened before, yes. And I do try to give them the best advice possible.