Janet is in today’s edition of Britain’s The Guardian – even making the masthead. In the interview she talks about who she’d most like to meet – the Dalai Lama and Jesus – and speaks of the American press behind far behind those in the UK in terms of their attitude. Read the full article below.
‘Fame can be addictive. But not for me’
Unlike her brother, Janet Jackson has managed to stay on the sane side of celebrity. The only thing she can’t escape is people asking her about her sex life, she tells Paul Lester
I recently asked Nick Cave what it was like to be Nick Cave, and he told me this: “I kind of know that as soon as I enter a room things are going to change for everybody.” He wasn’t being immodest – just honest. And then the Aussie rocker put his celebrity effect into some sort of perspective. “For some, it’s more intense than others,” he said. “Take Michael Jackson: when he walks into a room, everything – the entire trajectory of people’s lives – changes. Now, I ain’t Michael Jackson. But there is an element of that.”
Cave may not be Michael Jackson, but the only postwar entertainers who could legitimately claim to equal Jackson’s celebrity effect – Sinatra, Presley – are dead. Of pop’s living deities, probably only a handful come close, among them Michael’s younger sister, Janet.
Imagine, then, what it must be like to be Janet Jackson, the ninth biggest-selling pop act of all time, the second most successful female artist ever and the most searched-for person in internet history, to see the effect you have on the people, the atmosphere, the temperature, as you enter a room.
“You can feel it,” says the woman herself, looking smaller than you’d expect in a black Adidas tracksuit, sitting on a sofa in the office of the Alley Cat studio complex in downtown Los Angeles where she is rehearsing a dance routine for her latest video. “You can sense it. You can see it.”
Is it freaky, or a buzz, to have that kind of effect?
“It’s not a buzz, and it’s not freaky,” she considers, her voice veering between a high-pitched murmur and a barely audible whisper. “I’ve been around it almost all my life. I saw it with my brothers, so it’s just … It is what it is. But I do see it. I don’t really pay that much attention to it, but I see it.”
It is she who mentions her brothers, not me: I’m under strict instructions from her PR team not to ask questions about Michael, which is a shame because the T-shirt that she wore during her brother’s trial on 10 counts of child molestation in 2005, bearing the words “I’m a Pervert Too”, was crying out to be discussed. Other subjects that can’t be addressed in this interview: her yo-yoing weight (a couple of years back, there was 60lb more of her) and Nipplegate – the notorious “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, when Justin Timberlake whipped off part of her Mad Maxine black leather ensemble to reveal her right breast with a silver starmcovering the offending areola (“offend” is the word: more than half a million Americans complained to the TV network).
But I haven’t been told that sex per se is off-limits, so I ask Jackson about the title of her 10th and latest record, Discipline, and how it relates to her 1986 breakthrough album, Control. On one of the record’s many between-song interludes, she talks about self-control and chastisement, connoting will to power as well as S&M. She seems to have a thing about discipline and control.
“It’s actually about aspects of love,” she says of her new output. “It is on the sensual side, but I titled the album Discipline because it has different meanings, the most important being discipline in work. To have done it for as long as I have and to have had the success I’ve had – I mean, obviously, it’s God, but it takes discipline and a great deal of focus for that. And I’ve had that since I was a kid.”
Her long career has been all about asserting control – wresting it either from record companies eager to sell her as a pop puppet, or from her domineering father Joe – and sex has been her method of achieving this. On Nasty (from Control), she made explicit her refusal to be portrayed as demure; on If (from 1993’s Janet), the phallic imagery left little to the imagination; Would You Mind (from 2001’s All for You) should have had a parental advisory sticker with its lyrics about how she was going to “kiss you, suck you, taste you, ride you/ Feel you deep inside me ooh”.
Jackson is shocked that people are still, well, shocked by her forthright approach.
“Discipline is no different than the previous albums,” she suggests, “but I notice that people are paying more attention to this one in the way it’s being rated as more sexual than the other. But the Janet album was very much like that. Or even Rope Burn [from 1997’s Velvet Rope] where I talked about blindfolds and being tied up. Or Would You Mind: there were no metaphors whatsoever used in that song. I remember Jimmy [Jam, producer] read the lyrics and went, ‘Whoa, okay!’ I’m just being honest and telling you how I feel. Discipline is nothing new. I’m surprised [at people’s reactions]. It’s, like, what’s the big deal? On If, when I say, ‘Your smooth and shiny feels good against my lips’ – it’s like, what else could it possibly be talking about?”
The American press, she decides, is far more prudish than its British counterpart – “We need to catch up with you guys because we’re just butthole backwards,” she says – and is taken aback by recent reports in the States that she’s been promoting group sex without even realising.
“Isn’t that something?” she almost giggles. “A journalist brought up a threesome, and I said, ‘I mention threesomes on this album?’ – which I don’t think I do. And then I said – and I honestly meant it – if a person is into that, that’s their business. There are people who swing, couples who swing. So why are people hounding me about a threesome?”
Perhaps they think you’re leading the innocent astray. Kind of: “If Janet Jackson’s doing it, maybe we should?”
“Because I’m doing it? They need to get their own mind and figure out their own life,” she says, more gently than it appears. “What about your own life? What about the things that you want to do? Granted, there are people that look up to you, but what about people within your own life? What about your parents? You understand what I’m saying?”
But we’re always told that people look at celebrities as their role models and leaders …
“I understand what you’re saying, I totally understand, but at the same time, you still have to be true to yourself. I’m not saying I’ve had one, I’m not saying I haven’t had one, but if a threesome is something that I was into, that would be me, not you. And if that’s something you want to try, then that’s up to you.”
Then there’s the new album’s The 1, during which reference is made to penis size. But it’s guest rapper Missy Elliott being her usual playful self, not Jackson.
“I keep saying, ‘That’s Missy,'” she says, as exasperated as she can sound with that breathy, high voice. “I say, ‘That’s not me. I’ve never said anything about being seven inches. Missy says that.’ But once again, they put it back on me.”
Jackson’s rigorous self-discipline is what has pushed her to achieve 100m album sales, win acclaim for her groundbreaking videos and dance routines, and recognition for her acting (the recent Why Did I Get Married? was her third consecutive film to open at No 1 at the box office). She gives her parents a lot of credit for her success – it was their discipline that drove her.
“My parents were very strict with where we went and what we did,” she says. “They made us do a lot of chores. People laugh when I tell them, but we worked when we were home, and we didn’t get paid for it. We got no allowance. My parents had three acres, and on a Saturday morning we’d have to get up early and rake every leaf on the yard. There were tonnes of trees and we had tonnes of animals, and we had to keep the animals clean and their cages clean and feed them on a daily basis. And when my brothers were on tour, I was doing everybody’s chores.”
For Jackson, discipline has always been crucial, then?
“Of course it has, and I think that’s what helped us to stay grounded,” she says, though the extent to which Michael is grounded is open to debate. “My parents knew what they were doing. You see all these people screaming for you and giving you anything you want … My mother and father were quick to say that this is all because of God, and as quickly as you acquired it, he could take it away, so respect it.”
Apart from her parents, Jackson says she has few, if any, role models. “I hope that doesn’t sound bad. Some of the artists that I’ve looked up to, they’re no longer here, maybe due to drugs or things like that, but musically looking up to them, um, not really. Does that sound weird? I feel like I’m supposed to have someone because everybody has someone, but I don’t have anyone. But yeah, it does feel kind of strange.”
Conversely, Janet has proven the paradigmatic cyber-diva of modern machine soul, a key influence on her successors, from Whitney to Mariah, Britney to Beyoncé. In fact, there’s a track on Discipline called So Much Better whose harsh military beat seems like an assertion of supremacy over her progeny, especially Spears, whose Toy Soldier (from Blackout) Jackson’s track uncannily resembles. Jackson could see that one coming.
“It’s funny you said that,” she says with a smile, “because I figured people would think that. But, no, once again, it’s about love. Sorry to burst your fantasy.”
So is Jackson the queen of hi-tech R&B, the future-shock Aretha? She looks blank.
“Are you kidding me?” She had been resting her head on the top of the couch, gazing up at me with those famous Jackson eyes – so famous, in fact, that she says she can’t even go out in disguise wearing a scarf and baseball cap – but now she’s sitting upright.”I wish I had a voice that soulful. I’ve only set foot in a church maybe all of three times.”
But as an urban figurehead rather than just A Voice?
“Why, do you see me like that?”
I guess so, yes.
“Well, that’s … I mean, I’ll take it. It’s a compliment!”
Despite almost rivalling him in terms of statistics, Janet doesn’t quite match her brother for sheer outrageous hubris. No giant statues of her sailing down the Thames nor displays of messianic self-glory. There are eccentric moments – when I ask her who she’d most like to meet, she says the Dalai Lama and Jesus – but the essential difference between Janet and Michael is that Janet can enjoy some semblance of normality. Fame is something she can switch on and off.
“Someone said to me, ‘Oh my God, you seem so quiet, and when I listen to your album it’s so sensual,’ and I’m, like, ‘Well, am I supposed to be walking around with my butt hanging out and my boobs up to my ears, with voluptuous lips and high heels all the time?’ That person still lives within me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s there every single moment of the day.”
Besides, she’s learned the benefit of using her records as therapy.
“I always reveal a great deal of myself,” she says, “especially on the Velvet Rope album. That was like taking a knife to me and doing an autopsy, just cutting me open and saying, ‘Here I am. This is me.’ I didn’t hide anything. Because I feel like people put you on a pedestal, and they have to understand that you’re human, just as they are. People tend to forget that, and even though they see you on TV and hear people clamouring for you, entertainers have the same issues as everyone else, sometimes even more so.”
The lack of self-worth is magnified because you’re famous?
“It all depends upon the artist,” she says, now limbering up for an afternoon’s worth of gruelling Terpsichorean manoeuvres. “I think for a lot of them, the cameras and the accolades, all the attention, it validates them. And if they don’t have it, I think they’re completely lost. Is it addictive? I think it can be. But not for me.”
· Discipline is out now on Universal/Island