Janet appears in the latest edition of Q, a British music magazine. Read the interview here:
“We want the room swept for bugs.” In a London hotel suite, one of Janet Jackson’s managers is tweaking plans for the star’s forthcoming advance into Europe. She barks orders to an Italian hotel manager on the phone. But it’s clear the hapless flunky at the other end misunderstands. He is promising the maid will definitely get into all those fiddly corners before Jackson arrives. “No! Sweep for bugs!” insists the manager, tartly. “A counter-surveillance sweep for recording devices. That’s an absolute must.”
At least everything at London’s Metropolitan hotel is at its luxury zenith. Four managers, two publicists, her nutritionist, Dave, and her gym instructor, Tony, huddle and gabble in the Jackson operations nerve centre. With talk of a stalker in the vacinity, visit conditions are at optimum frenzy level. Which is a shame, since Jackson’s ninth album 20Y.O., is a further attempt to establish the youngest of the R&B dynasty as “the normal one”. But Jackson has still contributed much to tabloid mythology. It began with a secret marriage aged 18 to James DeBarge and persistent, though denied, rumours of a love-child. Eager to establish a persona outside the Jackson family, she has released a succession of emotionally confessional and highly sexualised albums over the last decade.
American moral arbiters baulked at the simulated phone sex on 1997’s The Velvet Rope. By 2004 they had all the ammo they needed. At the Superbowl performance with Justin Timberlake that February there was outrage when her right breast was exposed to 100 million TV viewers. Timberlake tore away her top during a dance routine to ‘Rock Your Body’ and later described the incident as a “wardrobe malfunction”. There were fines, lawsuits and even a change in indecency law passed in the US House of Representatives.
Janet has turned to super-producer and boyfriend Jermaine Dupri to effect a now-familiar diva transformation. He achieved it spectacularly with Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation Of Mimi last year. Janet, too, requires reinvention as a streetwise vamp. The night before the interview, Dupri invited me to a West London studio to hear 20Y.O. He was voluble on the “many Janets” we will encounter on this album, but maintained a robot distance when asked if executive producing a track about your girlfriend giving herself a hand-job is weird. “It’s business,” he said in a Cyberman voice.
Before meeting Janet, there are email, telephone and verbal warnings – neither the Superbowl nor her brother Michael may be mentioned. Entering her suite it feels like a supervised prison visit in a future world where felon care has been farmed out to World Of Leather. Jackson – looking like an African-American Vicky Pollard: ripped jeans, a fitted denim jacket showcasing bunched breasts, scraped-back hair in a scrunchie and big, hooped earrings – sits staring at her knees. The frail, falsetto Jackson “Hello” is inmistakeable. Initially the interview experience is awful, Jackson burning with defensive energy. There is prim, nervous coughing and that little voice cracks as though she might start crying.
The new album 20Y.O. stands for 20 Years Old. But you’re 40.
That’s a statement. Are you going to ask me a question?
Why is it called 20 Years Old?
Because it’s 20 years since Control, which is where I begin… OK, I never wanted to sing. I did it because my father told me to. I got a contract aged 14. I was given music: “Here, do this. Do that.” I never made any waves. I actually wanted to go and do Business Law and pay for that by acting. I could be an actress with something to fall back on. By 18 I was in (US TV Series) Fame. I was married and I wasn’t happy at all. I tried to get fired and finally asked them to let me out of my contract, which they did. Only then did I think, “I want to try singing again.” But this time, my way. I fired my father as a manager and made Control. This anniversary is so important to me. It took a lot for me to do that, given the shy kid that I was.
Your sexuality on Control was summed up by the track ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’. The new album has ‘Do It To Me’. There’s a lot of sex.
Forty years old, though. Surely it’s time to convert that into babies?
I’d love to. With Jermaine I’d love to. If it’s God’s will it will happen.
In the past you’ve said the idea of motherhood frightens you.
I didn’t think I would make a good mom. I never wanted to have children in my past relationships. They weren’t happy ones, so why bring someone into that?
Who asked who out?
It just happened. I don’t remember.
But how do you get a date with Janet Jackson? Fax your management?
Nooo! I’m not like that. They just had to ask. But that was the problem. A lot of guys seem intimidated by me just because I’m in a video or onstage. Just because you’re an entertainer they make a big deal of it.
OK, let’s go across the road into the park now and meet some normal people…
What do you mean, “normal people”?
I know you’re normal. Let’s go for an ice cream and show everyone.
I know I’m a normal person. But I’ve seen guys actually shake when they meet me. I think it’s funny. Before I met Jermaine I used to watch dates arrive and look at them through the peephole of my front door. I’d watch them straighten their tie, do their prep or get nervous and stuff. They’d be terrified. And some of these were well known people.
There are other reasons why guys might be scared of you. You’ve said you’re “a size queen” and like “a big packet”.
I don’t think I said it quite like that. But I am a size queen. We all have things we like and that’s what I like. It’s just like you guys being breast men or ass men. Some of us have that ass and some don’t. You just have a really big thing about your kick-stand, don’t you?
I’m trying to be nice about it.
So you assessed Jermaine’s kick-stand when you met? Your relationship is all about sex?
Of course not. That’s a big part of it, but it’s not all of it.
There’s a track on the album, ‘Take Care’, about giving yourself a hand-job. Tell me about that.
What do you want to know? How to do it? It’s natural. It all comes from God. It’s natural. Guys do it. Women do it. Jermaine didn’t mind. We’re not always together. In fact we’re apart a lot of the time and I take care of my needs with him on my mind. If I’m in a very sensual, sexual mood and he’s not there… you reach for your vibrator.
What sort of kit are you using?
I have a thing called a Rabbit, which is kind of a vibrator. It has these ears which contain pearls with latex stretched over the top. They rotate in different ways. You get a different vibe depending on which way it twists and turns…
You’re sounding very well informed on the subject.
(Sarcastically) Well, I am 40.
I asked Jermaine when he first took you seriously as an artist. He said it took him a while. He says he was always a Michael Jackson fan. He needs a slap, doesn’t he?
No. I won’t slap him for that. I tease him about it all the time. I was very much a Prince fan and you were supposed to be for Prince or Michael. And Michael’s my brother. I was definitely Prince… I saw him when I was like 18 and I had to sit next to my mother. She didn’t understand what I liked about him. He was doing ‘Head’. He loved sex and didn’t mind sharing his thoughts with the world. God created it. It’s beautiful. Even the animals do it. You must have sex?
Let’s not discuss my personal situation. But there’s a pattern here. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and you all started prim, proper and dominated by a Svengali or father. You’ve each gone street and sexy.
That’s not fair. Control was very hip hop and very street. And I think with Mariah it was what Tommy Mottola wanted her to do more than what she wanted. Now she’s doing her own thing.
She’s the biggest-selling female artist of all time, partly thanks to Jermaine. You are second. Don’t you ever nag him and say, “You need to sort this sh*t out”?
That stuff doesn’t bother me. Someone will surpass Mariah at some point. I’m competitive. You can’t be in the Jackson family and not be competitive. But that doesn’t bother me.
In hand-to-hand combat, could you take her?
(With comic venom) I’d crush her… Oh my God, that was just an awful question.
Jermaine says Mariah needed a comeback because she made three terrible albums and a terrible film. With you he says it only feels like a comeback because the Superbowl incident criminalised you.
Yes, they tried to make me feel like I killed someone. My God, there are more important things in the world. We were at war and they’re clearing the news schedules over someone’s titty? We have no cure for Aids. Come on, I think it’s dumb and stupid. But it’s the past. This is the most I’ve ever talked about it.
Talking of global issues, what happened to the Janet Jackson who made 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814? You were wearing a little soldier’s jacket and talking about peace.
The way the state of the world is right now I know I wanna escape. I don’t wanna get into anything heavy. People want to escape. I want to bring joy into their lives. I know there’s a war on, but I wanna talk about other things. I want a smile, not stress and darkness and worry.
What do you think of the war?
I don’t want to get into politics. But I’m not for war.
Do you listen to Radiohead?
Yes. Not a lot, but yes. The engineer on this album had that angry bear (band logo) on his computer.
Your new album has a track ‘Enjoy’, all about pleasure and hedonism. Thom Yorke has a new album out which is all about the creepy alienation of modern times. Can you both be right?
‘Enjoy’ is about my world. He’s talking about his. His world is coming to an end. My world is great. I’ve got this man who loves me unconditionally and I’m enjoying every fucking minute of it. My advice to the Radiohead guy is that the world is not all dark. Enjoy simple things.
There were some pictures last year where you looked like you’d had a fair bit of pizza…
Yeah, I put on 60lbs. It was physically painful carrying that around. That was in preparation for a film called Tennessee (the part eventually went to Mariah Carey). I ate junk. Ice cream and pizza. I like New York pizza with cheese. A lot of potatoes and cheese. David Allen (her nutritionist) got me back in shape.
But previously you’ve said you had a problem with diet pills.
My weight really yo-yoed as a kid. That was to do with stuff that stays with you all your life. I was always made to feel I was a fat kid by Michael. He’d say, “Your butt is fat.” We were really close as kids but he made me feel bad about my body. He’d say, “This is what your butt should look like,” and show me a picture from a magazine. It really affected me. Even as an adult, I wouldn’t buy pants that showed the true size of my butt.
Was he projecting his issues onto you?
Of course he was. I don’t know if it was intentional. He was such a happy kid, but then when he became a teenager he got issues. Like acne and stuff. That’s when he became an introvert. It affected him so much, he became introverted and he projected all that on to me. He’d call me brutal names and say it was meant affectionately. Fat butt. It really affected me, and then by the time I was married and on birth-control pills that’s where I really went wrong. They made me gain weight. Everyone on Fame thought I was pregnant.
Did you ever take Michael to task about it?
Yes. He apologised. Like I say, I don’t think he knew what effect it was having.
Jermaine says he can make a great album with Michael.
He could. He’s a fan.
So what are the obstacles? Come on, he could bring him back from pop hell. A real R&B album…
He’d have to give Jermaine control. That would be really hard for Michael to do.
Couldn’t you sort it out? Call Michael now. Tell him the plan.
Yes. I could put a gun to his head, couldn’t I?
You and him. You’ve both had such weird experiences. You seem more resilient somehow. Why?
(Jackson rolls up the sleeve of her right arm to reveal a tattoo on her wrist) I don’t speak for Michael. I don’t speak for anyone but me. This tattoo I had done in South Africa about 10 years ago. It’s called “sankofa”, from the Akan tribe, and it means you must solve your past before you can fully embrace your future. Sometimes the trauma you’ve experienced can overwhelm you. I was at a crossroads and I could have gone down a very dark road. But I didn’t. I think we all feel pulled back by our past sometimes. I didn’t give in. And I won’t.
The interview ends, strangely enough, in violence. Jackson invites me to take a proper look at her tattoos and leans in. With a sudden bulky heave off the giant marshmallow of a sofa, I send a glass flying across the glass table between us. It smashes to pieces and shards fly onto the floor and into her lap. I half expect gas canisters and a SWAT team to come crashing through the door to secure the primary Jackson asset. After scrabbling around on the floor, I look up and she’s laughing her head off. It’s the only time she truly relaxes. “You’ve been listening to too much of that Radiohead,” she jokes. It takes much gabbling in earpieces to communicate the words “dustpan and brush”, but staff eventually enter to clear it up. In their presence, Jackson’s guarded, mournful demeanour resumes. In reality, her 20-year struggle to extricate herself from tabloid Jackson mythology may be paying off. If and when she and Dupri marry, is it possible they could make up the spare room and work a little of their downhome love on Michael? “He goes his own way,” shrugs Janet. I’d put the question to Dupri earlier. He frowned darkly at the workload. “Man, I’m with one Jackson. I can’t be messin’ with the brother at the same time.”