A new interview with Janet is in today’s British broadsheet The Observer supplement The Observer Magazine. Entitled “I’ve finished talking about Michael. I’ve done it all my career”, Elizabeth Day talks to Janet who admits “You know, I don’t really sing that much. I really don’t. To be a singer, you’re supposed to always constantly be singing, and I’m one that doesn’t.”
Read the full article below.
There are few things in this world more embarrassing than being forced to dance in your chair. This realisation comes to me on a drizzly morning in Manhattan when I find myself in a roomful of earnest music journalists and record executives being played seven tracks from the new Janet Jackson album. We are seated in a large corner office at Island Def Jam Records, surrounded by orchids and ornamental cigar boxes. As each new song is pumped out at ear-splitting volume, a strange competitiveness sets in as to who can appear most in tune with the music.
An internet reporter from France performs a number of semi-epileptic contortions in time with the thumping bass. Two girls from the record company, each holding a giant Starbucks coffee, wiggle as if their promotions depend on it. I am trying to execute a strange gyration in a cream leather armchair, my head jerking back and forth like a chicken pecking the ground for stray corn. It is reminiscent of uncomfortable school discos where girls and boys sit on opposite sides of the assembly hall desperately bopping from the waist upwards in an attempt to appear nonchalant yet devastatingly rhythmic.
In the midst of it all, the chief executive of Island Def Jam Records, veteran producer Antonio ‘LA’ Reid, sits behind his vast desk with eyes half-closed, breathing in the gentle aroma of Diptyque fig-scented candles and nodding his head softly to the beat. ‘What did you think?’ he asks once the music has stopped. No one answers. Perhaps all our eardrums have simultaneously imploded. ‘Making this album has been the most fun but also the most unusual process,’ he continues, oblivious. ‘She is such a professional and has such amazing taste, but Janet is not the most…’ he pauses, ‘outspoken person.’
It seems an odd admission, given that Jackson, 41, is renowned for her suggestive music videos and sexually explicit lyrics (in ‘Feedback’, her new single, she breathily entreats us to: ‘Strum me like a guitar/Blow out my amplifier’.)
But when I meet Jackson, it becomes clear what Reid meant. She is sitting on a sofa in a hotel suite in Trump Tower, Fifth Avenue, her hands clasped round a mug of tea, her tiny face shrouded by long, heavy fronds of straightened hair. There is absolutely no sign of her wanting her amplifier blown out. When she first says hello, it is in a voice so quiet that it might conceivably only be heard clearly by bats or dogs trained to respond to supersonic whistles. She is dressed, like the man from Del Monte, entirely in white, in a fitted shirt and wide-legged trousers that trail to the floor. Her conversation is peppered with surprisingly quaint turns of phrase – at one point she worries that she is ‘tooting her own horn’, and she must be the only person still alive who uses the exclamation ‘Gosh darn it!’
The day before we meet, she has done 12 hours of interviews and photoshoots to promote Discipline, her 10th studio album. Today, the schedule is running late; she has not yet had lunch, and she will not finish until after 10pm. Does she ever wish she hadn’t been born into one of the most famous musical dynasties of the last century; that the Jacksons were a family with a talent for, say, hairdressing? ‘I really don’t know anything else because my brothers were famous when I was two years old,’ she says in her gentle half-whisper. ‘So I know nothing else, no other life. There are moments when you do want to blend in with everyone else, you want your life to be a little bit quieter…’
But Janet Jackson was never destined for a normal life. For most of her life she has been famous – as an actress, a singer and as the younger sister of the phenomenon that was the Jackson 5. In her heyday, she scored a string of number ones, won five Grammys and was the most searched-for female in internet history. As an actress, she appeared in various hit sitcoms and films – in 2000, she was paid $3m for a role alongside Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor II. But over the past few years, her album sales have disappointed – she split from record-label Virgin last year – and her fame has rested mostly on tainted association.
She is now more commonly referred to as Michael Jackson’s sister, the younger sibling who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘I’m a pervert too’ during his trial on 10 counts of child molestation in 2005. She is known for her ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during the 2004 Superbowl, when more than 100m American television viewers saw Justin Timberlake rip off a panel of her corset to reveal her right breast, naked save for a nipple ring. There were 540,000 public complaints over Nipplegate, and the CBS network was fined an astonishing $550,000 by the American equivalent of Ofcom. Wary of having more disapprobation heaped upon her, Jackson now refuses to talk about it, but does concede that she finds America’s conservative attitude to sexuality ‘a bummer. You guys [in Europe] are so advanced.’
Two years ago, she attracted much media attention for walking about town in shapeless sweatpants, looking considerably more rotund than usual after a 60lb weight gain. When we meet, however, she is back to sample size, having shed the excess flab with the aid of personal trainers and a healthy eating plan. She is currently working – inevitably – on a diet book. ‘There is a moment when you get older when your metabolism slows down and you don’t feel like working out any more, so you don’t want to keep yourself fit any more, but that’s your decision. Why should you be judged for it?
‘Do I find it difficult [being judged]? I don’t find it hard. I don’t try to think about stuff like that: I just do what I want, mind my own business. I think if you let yourself feed into that, you’ll go crazy. It’s really about being pleased with yourself.’
And is she? ‘I like myself a lot more than I used to. I had a very difficult time in my twenties especially. It was hard for me to look in the mirror and find something that I liked about myself.’
She explains that she thinks this came from her deep-seated fear of being found out, from the perennial celebrity insecurity of feeling oneself to be a fraud. ‘I remember years ago working on a few songs and there was another person working on the songs as well, but I was told not to give them credit for it and I didn’t like that – I felt very fraudulent. It was something that we had worked on together but still, it was like: I didn’t do it all myself.’
When pushed, she says that she can now just about appreciate her physical attributes – she specifically mentions the small of her back and her smile. ‘I never really liked my smile before because it was sort of big and broad and I was like the Joker, but [now] I feel warmth there that I never saw before.’
Part of this new-found confidence she attributes to her boyfriend, the record producer Jermaine Dupri, whom she has been dating since 2002. The couple spend their time between Los Angeles and New York. ‘He really loves me,’ she says in a tone of quiet wonderment. ‘He appreciates me. He’s good to me. He loves me as I am, whether I’m this size or whether I’m 60lb heavier. He cares about me and not about what I do or what I can do for anyone. I’ve never felt that before.’
It is a telling comment given that, for much of her life, Jackson’s existence has been governed precisely by what she can do for the benefit of those around her. She was born in 1966, in the grim, industrial city of Gary, Indiana, the youngest of nine children. The Jackson family history, so often invoked as an excuse for their seemingly congenital weirdness, has become part of showbiz folklore: a well-trodden tale of their impoverished background and their disciplinarian father, Joe, a steel worker who marketed his children with such ruthless efficiency that his sons became the family breadwinners before they properly hit puberty. By the time Janet was a toddler, her five older brothers had signed a lucrative deal with Motown Records, enabling the family to move to an upmarket Los Angeles neighbourhood. When she was seven, she made her performing debut alongside her brothers at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, doing singing impressions of Cher and Marie Osmond. At 10, she was appearing on the American sitcom Good Times.
‘I would set my alarm clock for 5, 5.30, get myself dressed, get myself out of the door for work five days a week,’ she says of this period. ‘And for a 10-year-old to be that responsible, to have that kind of discipline – there’s a lot to be said for that.
‘My parents [her mother Katherine is a devout Jehovah’s Witness] were very strict and made sure we all worked really hard outside of what we did, so we had tons of chores. On Saturday mornings, we had to rake up all the leaves from the yard, and we did all that aside from being on stage or on television, and I thank God for our parents keeping us that grounded. Just because your children are the breadwinners in the family doesn’t mean that you have to say yes to everything and give them what they want. It’s not OK to do that.
‘We were very obedient children. I think that’s something with black families, too – you obey your parents, and if they tell you to do something you just do it, you don’t question it, because they are your elders and they are your parents. You do it. You sit on that couch, you be quiet, you don’t make a sound.’
Her submissiveness was such that she simply accepted the life choices her father made on her behalf, despite childhood ambitions to be a jockey or, later, to go to law school. Did she ever want to give up? ‘I wanted to quit fame,’ she says. Really? She got sick of being a celebrity? ‘Oh no,’ she giggles. ‘I meant Fame, the TV show. I didn’t want to do that to begin with. I did it for my father. The kids that were on it… they were so outgoing, I felt like an outcast. They would do things like eat my breakfast. I’d open up my breakfast case and there’d be nothing in there. I was the new kid on the block. I was very shy and very quiet so I would never say anything, I’d just close it back up.’
At 14, her father decided Jackson should launch her own music career (‘He felt there was more money in music than in film,’ she says, matter-of-factly), but it was not until she dropped him as her manager in 1987 that her solo career truly began to take off, with the platinum-selling albums Control and Rhythm Nation. Her single act of rebellion was to elope at 18 with James DeBarge, a singer who turned out to have a serious drug problem. ‘I thought I could change him, through love,’ she says. ‘But it doesn’t matter who’s around you or who’s there, it really matters that you’re ready.’ The marriage was annulled in 1985. A second marriage, to songwriter and music video director Rene Elizondo in 1991, lasted nine years.
Does she feel she missed out on childhood? ‘Of course, but I don’t feel like…’ she falls into a prolonged silence. ‘Who am I really to complain or nag about it, because I had more of a childhood than my brothers. I still did lose some [of my childhood] and…’ She gets suddenly teary, her small voice dropping to a tiny whisper. ‘Yeah, I do think kids should be kids. You have the rest of your life to be an adult. But this was my life. It wasn’t something I said I definitely wanted to go into. It was something that just kind of happened. I don’t know if my parents asked me or if it was a natural progression because of everyone else, but I did it and I guess it’s gotten me where I am.’
Much has been made of Michael Jackson’s childlike persona, of his need to surround himself with toys and water-slides and roller coasters, of his controversial friendships with young boys and of his stated desire to recreate the youth he never had without realising how sinister it seems. His sister has something of this childishness about her, too. At times, with her quiet, high-pitched speech, wide eyes and softly proportioned face, she resembles a Disney cartoon character – likable, sweet, but not entirely real. She says that eating toffee apples makes her happiest, and that when she is on tour she likes nothing better than getting in her pyjamas to host ‘sleepovers’ with her dancers, playing softball games or hiring out bowling alleys for the crew.
‘Of course it’s like being a kid again,’ she acknowledges. ‘A lot of people who start work at a very young age never grow up because they never got that opportunity to be a child, so they hold on to that and still do a lot of childish, silly things. And it’s OK. I think it’s fine never to grow up,’ she says, adding hastily: ‘As long as you still remember yourself as an adult when need be.’
Does she want children? ‘At some point, yes. I just have to hurry up,’ she says, giggling. ‘I get so much pressure from people I don’t even know and I think: “My God, am I missing my moment?” Even my mother mentioned something to me the other day. But now you can have your eggs frozen and there are all sorts of things you can do, I’ve still got time so I think I’m OK. I’ve got to get a little more kid out of me first before I move on and be childish with my child.’ It doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind, as she heads towards her mid-40s, that feeling childish is not quite the same thing as actually being young.
Yet for all that she feels she missed out on her childhood, she remains strangely protective of her parents, insisting that the family has become closer in recent years. It is an intimacy forged, perhaps, through public adversity – the entire family attended Michael Jackson’s trial three years ago in a conspicuous show of solidarity. ‘We wound up becoming closer because it became more about family and less about work for a lot of us as we got older,’ she says. She politely refuses to be drawn on anything further to do with her most infamous sibling, although they are in contact. ‘I’m just done talking about my brother,’ she says, with a half-sigh. ‘I’m not going to answer questions for him. I’ve done it all my career.’ Are they competitive? ‘Yeah. My parents are very competitive, so we are very competitive as kids. But it’s a good kind of competition, it’s not a jealousy. You always want to do your best and if it can’t be you, you want it to be your brother or your sister, you know what I mean?’
But although several of the tracks from the new album are slickly produced and infectiously good, I’m not sure that Janet Jackson will ever entirely emerge from the shadow cast by her brother or the controlling influence of her father. She tells me that when she phoned her parents recently to have a chat, her father, now almost 80, started giving her career advice: ‘He said: “You know what you need to do next?” I said, “No, what’s that?” He said: “You need to do an action film. You need to stick with drama and do an action film.”‘ She laughs. What did she reply? ‘I said OK.’ She shakes her head in affectionate disbelief. ‘It always gets back to that, to entertainment. I have no clue where he gets it from, but there’s not a lazy bone in any of us.’
It is almost 3pm and, outside, dusk is settling over the skyscraper rooftops. You must be hungry, I say, which in hindsight was probably not the best line to use on a woman who has just struggled to shed 4st. ‘No, I’m OK,’ she says. ‘The tea helped.’ Jackson’s PR pokes her head round the door to tell us our time is over. Jackson stands up, and four burly security men appear like holograms, seemingly from nowhere.
We have just been talking about how Jackson’s singing voice has got deeper with age, and before she leaves the room she says, almost as an afterthought: ‘You know, I don’t really sing that much. I really don’t. To be a singer, you’re supposed to always constantly be singing, and I’m one that doesn’t.’
And although she has found herself in this curious profession, releasing albums and being famous, it is clearly not a path she would have chosen for herself, nor a source of particular contentment. As she waits for the lift to take her to the lobby, a vague smile fixed in place, I can’t help but feel she’d be far happier eating toffee apples in her pyjamas and not caring, for once, what anyone else thinks of her or wants her to do next.