It looked like trouble. I was driving on my way to last week’s Toronto concert by pop/R&B superstar Janet Jackson, who plays HSBC Arena tonight, when I was stopped at the border by a particularly inquisitive Canadian border guard. In addition to the typical questions about what I was bringing in, she started grilling me about alcoholic beverages, illicit drugs and concealed firearms. I was certain that I was about to be subjected to a full body cavity search, when she asked me where I was headed. I told her about the show, and she said, “Janet Jackson, eh?” Then, she quickly waved me through with a smile.
The guard’s response exemplifies the kind of joy the 33-year-old singer and her music have been having on people throughout her 15-year recording career. Her often intensely personal tunes have helped her rack up worldwide sales of over 60 million units and allowed her to remain a pop and R&B radio staple at a time when acts have an increasingly short shelf life.
“Janet has shown a longevity that is unlike the trends we see today in music,” said Skip Dillard, program director of WBLK-FM.
“She’s huge,” said Dave Universal, program director of WKSE-FM. “Ever since she started she’s been a core artist for us. The first two singles from her new album were huge records for us. Her new single, “Someone to Call My Lover,’ is the biggest song on the radio station. And the first single, “All For You,’ did really well, too.”
Part of the reason for Jackson’s long-lasting success is that unlike many of her diva contemporaries, her music is deeply rooted in her own personal experiences, and audiences seem to enjoy listening to her chronicle her life through music. This introspective approach dates back to Jackson’s ’85 breakthrough album, “Control,” where she dramatically asserted her independence on the title track and demanded respect and reciprocity in her romantic relationships on songs like “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty” and “Let’s Wait Awhile.”
Not only were these songs huge hits when they were initially released, but they also sounded fresh and relevant when she performed them at the Toronto show. In many ways, the song “Control” has become as much of an evergreen sentiment for modern women as Aretha Franklin’s call for “Respect.”
Jackson’s subsequent albums continued to explore what was happening in her life, whether it was her growing awareness of social inequalities that she addressed on the ’89 album “Rhythm Nation 1814,” or her increasing comfort with discussing her sexuality that was the focus of the 1993 “janet” album. These releases not only painted a more complex picture of the former child star, who had been performing with her seasoned siblings since age 7, but, thematically, they also put her in the esteemed tradition of the late R&B great Marvin Gaye.
Author David Ritz, who knew Gaye well and has also profiled Jackson several times, has said her move from “Rhythm Nation 1814” to “janet” is akin to Gaye’s journey from the politically conscious album “What’s Going On” to the more erotically charged “Let’s Get It On.” Ritz, who co-wrote Gaye’s smash “Sexual Healing,” also thinks there’s a distinct similarity in the musical approaches of first Gaye and now Jackson.
“When they create their art, they’re completely instinctual and intuitive, and they write personally in spite of themselves and whatever predetermined judgment they might have made about doing a certain kind of album. And I admire that a lot,” said Ritz.
Such admirable introspection doesn’t always pay off in big commercial success, however, as Jackson learned with her ’97 moody masterpiece “The Velvet Rope,” which delved intimately into her battle with depression. Although it yielded a few hit singles, the album sold only three million copies in the U.S., where her previous three releases had sold over five million copies each. Nevertheless, when I spoke with Jackson in March of this year for a Vibe magazine cover story, she said she had no regrets about making the album.
“It was a very dark time in my life,” said Jackson from the Minneapolis studio where she was recording her new album. “But if I had the chance to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing. There were people that I knew were ready for it and there were people that weren’t. At the time in music, everybody else wanted to escape. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t the space I was in. So I did what I was feeling as opposed to doing what other people were doing. And that’s just the way I’ve always been.”
Jimmy Jam, who along with his writing and producing partner Terry Lewis has been responsible for Jackson’s funky and intricately textured sound since “Control,” added, “What we did was make a very honest record. The cool thing about Janet is that the records are always honest and reflect whatever she’s feeling.”
Fittingly, the recent divorcee doesn’t hold back about discussing the dissolution of her 9-year secret marriage on her new album “All For You.” Still, her candor surprised even her closest associates.
“I was talking to her the other day about her new album and I was amazed at how autobiographical it turned out to be,” said Ritz.
On “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You),” featuring Carly Simon, Jackson excoriates an ex-lover for cheating and trying to extort money from her. And on the plaintive and pointed “Truth,” she sings to a former paramour: “I had a career before, now didn’t I/sold out ’round the world before, now didn’t I?”
In addition to addressing these harsh post-relationship realities, however, Jackson also includes several songs that celebrate sexuality in intimate and explicit detail, so much so that the album has been banned in Singapore.
However, it’s notable that the way Jackson deals with sex is different than, say, the way Madonna approaches the subject. Jackson is less interested in using sexuality to shock than she is to embrace it as vitally important part of her life. This makes the lyrics come across less abrasively than they might if performed by another vocalist.
“Here’s the thing about Janet that I think is so cool,” said Jam. “When she’s singing these explicit lyrics, she does it in such a soft sensual innocent voice that it takes a minute to think, “wait a minute, what is it that she’s actually saying?’ “
This ability to make potentially controversial aspects of her life come across as endearing and palatable is key to why Jackson is one of pop and R&B’s most enduring talents.
“She’s sustained longer than most people,” said WBLK’s Dillard. “People have taken interest in her and her music for so long. She is one of the legends. She comes from a legendary family and she’s had a legendary story.”