What is Janet Jackson to do now? With the musical world filled to max capacity with young “divas” sporting major attitude and precision dance routines, there seems to be little room for Miss Janet, an innovator who popularized the Sexy Diva With Choreography paradigm in the first place.
I’m a Janet fan, and I’ve been proud to be one since the days of Control (1986), her feisty but introspective LP that showcased her newfound artistic and developmental independence. It wasn’t her debut album, though, as she had made two previous attempts to find her sound, engage a wider audience, and step out of the gigantic shadow cast by the weight of the Jackson family name and the success of her famous, supremely talented brother, Michael.
Those attempts, Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984), didn’t have the conviction or the sincerity of Control, and her transformation back then from bubble gum teen singer to dance floor diva is truly remarkable. It also suggests that there’s hope for the future. If she turned things around once, she can do it again. I know it’s tough to compete in a post-Beyonce world, but maybe Janet can regain at least some of her stature.
I’m sure she’s somewhere right now, thinking, “I’m worried about the future. I wonder what that guy at PopMatters thinks I should do next?” Of course. So here are my thoughts on what needs to happen to effectuate a full scale Janet Jackson comeback.
All of this assumes Janet is still interested in making music. Let’s face it, if she decided to sit home and eat corn chips and never release another album, she’d still have a solid legacy. She’d still be considered an icon. She doesn’t even have to use her last name anymore. She can just go by “Janet”. That’s how you know you got it goin’ on.
She’s also set her sights on acting. As a kid, she played the adorable “Penny” on the sitcom Good Times, where she carried a torch for Jimmy Walker’s tall, pencil thin jester J.J. “Dye-No-Mite” Evans. Her character tackled serious social issues such as child abuse, social work, and adoption procedures.
After that, she appeared on Diff’rent Strokes, the show with Gary Coleman (“Arnold”) and his trademark line, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Janet was opposite Todd Bridges (“Willis”), playing his onscreen girlfriend. Later, she was the poetry-minded “Justice” in the movie Poetic Justice, along with Tupac Shakur, and she showed up in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?.
She’s not hitting home runs at the box office, but there’s no career imperative that necessitates her return to the studio, either. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I said I was okay with her going out on her last album, Discipline. In fact, I’d like to see her find redemption for pretty much everything she’s released after the Janet (1993) album (and sometimes I’m good with Velvet Rope (1997) too, it depends): All For You (2001), Damito Jo (2004), 20 Y.O. (2006), Discipline (2008). In order to do that, she’s got to go into her comeback album with a mission, with something to prove.
That’s a tall order for an artist who’s won plenty of awards and has enjoyed worldwide acclaim. But if she can summon the desire, her excitement for her new material would be her best chance of getting us excited about it, too.
What Janet doesn’t do will be as important as what she actually does. Ever since the infamous Wardrobe Malfunction of the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, she’s been on the losing end of an ongoing punch line. Type “Janet Jackson Super Bowl” in your search engine and watch all of the articles, jokes, video clips, and spoofs you get about “Breast-gate”. You can say, “Well, that’s not fair,” and point out that although Justin Timberlake was involved in the Wardrobe Malfunction, his career’s been going really well ever since. But none of this changes the fact that, fair or not, we haven’t been taking Janet seriously.
Getting “real” means no publicity stunts. It means avoiding the usual Jackson family stereotypes like cosmetic surgery and airing out dirty laundry. It means not doing Weird Celebrity Stuff. It means getting back to the basics of what makes Janet worth watching and listening to.
Promoting a new album isn’t the time for Janet to authorize a tell-all book or memoir. It definitely wouldn’t be the time for another greatest hits package. What would it contain that isn’t already covered by the last package, Design of a Decade (1995)?. The comeback trail won’t be jumpstarted by popping up in bikinis on the cover of Vibe or Essence. A change in fashion sense or style might be acceptable. Another dramatic movie role wouldn’t hurt, either.
When it comes to Beyonce, movies seem to divert attention from her albums. Janet, on the other hand, could use the attention, even if it’s not music related. However, the attention has to show that she’s grounded and focused.
As she gets “real”, Miss Janet will also have to get “serious”. By that I mean she should be working to hone and refine the message in her music. What made Control such a powerhouse was that she had something to say and a sense of urgency about her need to say it. In the title track, her resolve is completely believable when she sings about her life as a teen, dutifully following instructions, back when she would “do what my father said and let my mother mold me.” Much of the album confirmed her desire to make her mark and stake her claim on her own terms. She wouldn’t settle for lackluster relationships (“What Have You Done For Me Lately?”), nor would she rush herself into a commitment (“Let’s Wait Awhile”).
Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet’s 1989 release, opened with a suite of social commentary. It’s a little like a public service announcement, but Janet’s pledge to unite the “people of the world” was thoughtful and inspired. The song also provided one of the few appropriate and logical uses for the “group dance” concept in a music video — you know, when the star performer and a bunch of anonymous people show up and execute synchronized dance movies.
Next, “State of the World”, presented as a set of sobering vignettes, continues the theme, as the stories of meager circumstances demonstrate the need for the title track’s call for unity and action. “Knowledge”, described in the song of that name as “the one thing we all need in life”, provides a solution to life’s ills.
A little too simplistic? Too black and white? Perhaps, but that was Rhythm Nation‘s theme, though I never quite got the “1814” reference aside from the letters “R” and “N” in “Rhythm Nation” being the 18th and 14th letters of the alphabet. I keep hearing that Francis Scott Key wrote what would become the US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”, in 1814, but I haven’t quite connected that to Janet’s album yet. Maybe the intro track, “Pledge”, is designed to bring it all together: “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries / bound together through our beliefs / We are like-minded individuals / sharing a common vision / pushing toward a world rid of color-lines.”
In any event, Rhythm Nation spawned some classic Janet tracks like “Miss U Much”, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”, “Escapade”, and “Alright”, and none of them touched on the overt social commentary of the opening sequence. In fact, when the song “Knowledge” ends, a short interlude called “Let’s Dance” follows in which Janet puts an abrupt, almost flippant, end to her altruism. “Get the point?” she says in a monotone. “Good. Let’s dance.”
Rhythm Nation marked the beginning of Janet’s obsession with interludes, but at least (1) she had the good sense to track them separately on the CDs, and, most importantly, (2) the “Let’s Dance” interlude accented the stark black-and-white mood of her videos, her commentary, and the fun-versus-fierce sides of her persona. Social awareness gets an encore a little later in the album, when Janet dedicates “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” to the kids of the world.
With the release of 1993’s Janet, Jackson welcomed us in full-on sensual mode, from the James Brown sampling “That’s the Way Love Goes” (“Go deeper, baby, deeper / You feel so good I’m gonna cry”) to the provocative “If” (“If I was your girl, oh, the things I’d do to you / I’d make you call out my name, I’d ask who it belongs to”) and the Madonna-style workout of the heavy-breathing, long-moaning “Throb”. Stylistically, her sound had never been so varied, and she still managed a collaboration with Chuck D. for the gender anthem “New Agenda” (“African-American woman / I stand tall with pride”).
It is my contention that Janet is at her best when she couples her sensual appeal with her awareness of personal and/or social issues. Janet was the last album that displayed her effectiveness with this duality, and Janet itself was admittedly heavy on the physical (“Anytime, Anyplace”) and remarkably light on anything of gravity outside of the love and sensuality context. Velvet Rope‘s sadomasochistic overtures (“Rope Burn”) and All For You‘s Dear John kiss-off approach sent the general focus awry. Velvet Rope is rather popular, nevertheless, and many of the songs on these albums were decent, some were actually great (“Go Deep”, “I Get Lonely”, “You Ain’t Right”, “Doesn’t Really Matter”), but since she hasn’t mastered the art of reinvention like Madonna has, the more Janet retreats into sexuality, the faster and deeper she sinks.
Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado changed their more artistic approaches in favor of making club bangers. If you notice, there’s an almost mind numbing difference between Mariah’s whispery “Mimi” phase and the fervor of her songwriting and vocal technique during her “Vision of Love” days. Furtado, as well, went from a folk-oriented pop sound to catchy, but ultimately empty, songs like “Promiscuous”.
In 2006, while promoting 20 Y.O. on BET’s 106 & Park (yeah, I’ve watched BET a few times, wanna make somethin’ of it?), Janet noted that she intentionally stayed away from serious topics in order to provide fun and relaxation in the tense and distressing post-Iraq War environment. Since then, Janet’s been trying to hop on the flavor-of-the-month bandwagon, but what we really need is to know what’s on her mind now.
She need not address global catastrophes or sing songs of gloom and doom, but she does need to convince us that her songs matter. Maybe she’s not as hungry as she was when she made Control, but there must be something she cares about these days. That’s what we want to hear.
Get a Producer
As if it’s not tricky enough to do all the other stuff I mentioned. She also needs to pick a producer or a production team to complement her newfound resolve and her commitment to sharing her ideas. Obviously, she could resume her mostly successful relationship with super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They’ve been around for almost all of her albums, and you could very well argue that the real trouble began for Janet when she allowed other collaborators to participate in the Janet, Jam, & Lewis inner circle. The familiarity of the working relationship and the resulting sound could break Janet’s current losing streak.
Whatever she does, the prevailing notion would certainly be to stay away from Jermaine Dupri, who joined the party for 20 Y.O.. I don’t think he should automatically be cut from the list of prospects, though. If he can deliver a sound that will support Janet’s messages, Dupri will do just fine. We cannot, however, endure more of the generic and gimmicky fluff that is the hallmark of the faceless and the forgettable.
Now if “going back” to Jam and Lewis is out of the question, might Janet consider working Samuel “Tone” Barnes and Jean-Claude “Poke” Olivier of Trackmasters? Tone & Poke’s production credits span genres, and include songs by acts as diverse as LL Cool J, Nas, Mary J. Blige, and Elizabeth Wills. As long as they don’t rely on monotonous loops, their approach could give the diva a boost.
One thing’s for sure. There’s no mistaking the importance of a skilled producer to Janet’s potential comeback effort. Seeking out the “hot” producers of the moment might be of use in the short term, but it won’t get us what we want as far as musical quality.
All right, Ms. Jackson. Get the point? Good. Let’s get it done.