Whether She’s Being Ms. Nasty or Nice, Janet Jackson is Still the Rhythm Nation’s Beloved Sweetheart
Here's a hot tip: Janet Jackson loves strawberries. She likes them every which way, dipped in chocolate, topped with whipped cream, sprinkled with sugar, a la mode and au naturel. And gentlemen, you know she's available, right?
If there's one music icon who's universally loved, it's Janet, the most graceful Jackson of all. The diva who's never caught slippin'. And she's been walking that slippery slope of fame since she was a babe in the Gary, Ind., woods. From Good Times to bad times, you know she's had her share, but Janet's like a prizefighter. Each time she drops a record she comes out in fighting form, ready to take you higher with her music and dancing, artful album covers and videos, always pushing the envelop of what it means to be an artist.
"Wow," pauses the whispery voice on the other end of the line, "I'll take that as a compliment." The soft-spoken diva is calling from London, amid a whirlwind tour on the cusp of the release of All for You (Virgin), her latest upbeat opus.
"I was in a very positive place when I created that record," she says. "Actually, I've never been happier in my life."
Coming from a woman going through a widely publicized divorce from songwriter/director Rene Elizondo, this news is impressive. Consider some of her other obstacles: Her most famous brother is permanent fodder for the tabloids and her most famous sister may as well be keeping Billy Beer on ice. Janet's own personal weight gains and/or losses have become a national obsession.
Still, this is a happy voice on the other end of the phone line, and you can hear it in every note of the new album.
"I put everything into what I do, everything," she says. "I take my work seriously and give it my all each time."
She kick-starts the fresh-sounding All for You with some playful clowning in the studio, and then quickly fires up the funk with the soul-shaking firecracker "You Ain't Right," which sounds like Prince in his prime, if Prince was Arabian. The O.G. nasty girl gets downright "nastee" with "All for You," where she's talking about such delicate matters as "nice packages."
That's the part of Janet Jackson the church ladies like. The nice girl who can be "bad" on their behalf. The album quietly slips off into sex-u-up quiet storm mode, with songs like "Would You Mind" quivering in waters so horny, she's damn near stepping on Sade's toes. On "Trust a Try," she delivers an angry aria to a lover, and then gets down with Carly Simon, doing a girl-power powwow on "Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think this Song is About You)," a takeoff of Simon's "You're So Vain."
"My albums are my life," Jackson says. "I think it's just in me to do this. I've always found it really gratifying when an artist is willing to stick his neck out there, and really tell you what they're feeling."
Part of the reason people feel Janet Jackson is that she's involved in every detail of her music, from the writing and producing to the choreographed stage show. But she's the first to admit she gets a lot of help from her friends, longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
"I love Jimmy and Terry," she says. "What we do together even amazes me. We've grown up together in the studio. There's no egos, we love each other, we love the process of working together. I don't think I'd ever want to produce my own record."
She says the most important element of this dream team is honesty.
"They give me shit," she says with a laugh. "And sometimes we'll look at each other, and say, 'That's a crappy idea.' We sit around and bullshit. I mean we've known each other so long, we love each other, so it's like getting together with family and having fun."
Attention readers: I'm momentarily paralyzed because Janet Jackson just said the "s" word. But again, that's part of her round-the-way appeal, the good girl gone naughty gone good again.
"I have fun flirting with my image and how far I'll push it," she says. The new album features a very tasteful Janet posing nude, with only a fur blanket covering her privileged privates.
Fittingly, the new album also has some rock 'n' roll sass, compliments of producer Rockwilder.
"I like switching it up," she says. "Adding fresh elements each time we put it out there."
To be sure, the album's entire tone is a marked difference from her last album, The Velvet Rope, a dark, deep journey that came out of a very difficult period for her.
"Yeah, it was the last album where I was dealing with depression," she says. "I look back now and realize it was an important part of what I needed to go through to get to where I am today."
How did she pull herself out of it?
"My family, my mother; I'm really close to her," she says. "Simple things, meditation, the beach. I'm not a religious person but I do believe in God, and spirituality, and I believe you can be healed by just the forces around you. People come into your life for a reason and I know I have a lot of angels."
One in particular is an older gent she calls the Cowboy, a friend she met out of the blue who is an actual factual black cowboy. She says that whenever she's feeling low, she goes and kicks it with the Cowboy for a spell, and that he always manages to smooth things out for her.
"When we have lunch and people see us out together, we get the strangest looks, like, 'Who's Janet with?'" She laughs. "It's so odd, and it's cool."
But when you're Janet Jackson, your dance card's got one too many holes punched in it.
Despite being the first "mtvICON" to be honored on the music channel's new special series, she still hasn't seen the actual show that aired. It comes with the diva turf-time is precious.
Despite being such a public person, with each of her albums she lets people in on the most intimate details of her world.
In the surreal world of celebrity skin, she's actually a "real" person.
"I really love creating music," she says. "I've always appreciated and learned from the artists who are honest about the things they go through. It's what makes you love them."
Right now, she says she's vibing on singer Jill Scott morning, noon and night. "I have to hear Jill Scott's record at least once a day," she says. "It's so goooood."
It's interesting to hear a diva gush, especially when the world is usually gushing at her feet. Janet Jackson's awards could fill a coliseum. Forty million records sold, all groundbreaking: Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, janet, Design of a Decade and The Velvet Rope.
None so groundbreaking as janet, where she stepped up to bat in the really big leagues. Herb Ritts shot her videos and photographed her. She appeared nude on the cover of Rolling Stone. The album was equal parts class and sass and has to date sold 10 million copies.
"I'm still very proud of that album," she says. "It was an evolution for me, an openness that I'd never felt before."
It helped boost her from younger sister to playa playa. Today, she's got 20 gold singles and pretty much owns stock in all major music awards shows, and the accolades just keep pouring in.
Unfortunately, so does my 4-year-old son, who bumrushes the show and interrupts our interview. As I shoo him out of the office for the umpteenth time, I hear Janet ask, "What'd you say his name was?" I tell her "Riley" and she tells me Riley's the name of her one true love, a badass Rottweiler who stands guard over her heart and home, which is currently in New York.
Well, now it's on. We start gabbing about bullmastiffs, pit bulls, boxers and Rotts. Two chicks with a love for tough dawgs.
The funny thing about Janet is, I didn't know you could bond with a diva of her ilk. She would seem so far out of reach. Her family's name has been slung through the international tabloid mud second only to that of Princess Diana.
It's an interesting analogy. Like Diana, Janet's royalty. But she's also simply a sweet, talented girl. The intersection of soft and strong. It's why we love her and it's why we wish her strawberry fields forever.