Last month, MTV bestowed the latest in a series of increasingly bombastic tributes upon one of its leading lights, Miss Janet Jackson. The newly crowned Icon, a position which apparently is one step beyond Video Vanguard and a rung below senior VP, seemed less than grateful. Skimpily dressed, she practically cowered in her seat, flanked by the significantly beefier producers who've held her hand throughout her career, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. As one underwhelming tribute bled into the next (Macy Gray? Buckcherry!?), Janet seemed positively frightened, like she'd been pulled from a cave and forcibly thrust into the spotlight. Given her druthers, it seemed, she'd have still been wrapped in the white fur throw she's strangling on the cover of her new album, All for You.
All for You (Virgin)
But Janet is nothing these days if not a hostage. She's a victim of her own celebrity, doomed to refresh, if not reinvent, herself every couple of years to maintain her prestige, wealth, and sex appeal. There are few stars of her status, and the public demands their blood perennially. She's a victim of her family, notorious for its psychologically damaged offspring. Of the clan, Janet always appeared to be the together one, but the past few years have seen her threads unraveling, something that's been reflected in her music—the most obvious area of her life where Janet's been held captive.
Janet's early solo work was a revelation—a bristling m鬡nge of sensuality, sass, and edge. She danced and wailed. She wore pseudo-military garb and preached harmony through music. She avoided excessive makeup. She was as confident a black pop star as there was, making Whitney Houston look timid by comparison. When Janet had her first sexual awakening, starting with the flesh-baring in the Herb Ritts-directed video for "Love Will Never Do Without You" and culminating in the luscious menagerie of lust that was the janet. album, it was a sincere expression of a young woman at play: "That's the Way Love Goes" showed the coy, flirting side, while "If" showed the dominatrix-in-waiting. Janet seemed emboldened, embracing her new kitten demeanor as eagerly as she'd renounced such frivolities a few years earlier.
But there was no basking in the sun. Seemingly as soon as she'd burst into the spotlight, Janet was nowhere to be found. By the time she reemerged in 1997, her carefree smiles were a thing of the past. On The Velvet Rope, Jackson seemed like a victim. Unlike Madonna, whose forays into increasingly deviant sexuality always came off as exciting and daring, Janet's felt contrived, like she'd shrouded herself in absurd rhetoric and behavior to mask other, more deeply felt problems. Furthermore, Janet appeared to be out of step musically. Timbaland and Missy had sprung upon the urban music world with ferocity, and the longstanding hip ears of Jam and Lewis were clearly coattail-riding in hopes of making Janet sound fresh. It failed, partially due to their uninspired beat-biting, but mostly because Janet had lost her heart. Success wasn't the easy roll it once was, and scars were beginning to show.
Four years later, they're showing again. Janet's split with longtime partner Rene Elizondo has clearly been painful, as has his recent spilling of the pseudo-marital beans to the tabloids. But Janet's depression runs deeper than love. Growing up in the spotlight, perpetually subjected to public scrutiny, Janet has an ego premised upon public acceptance, not organic self-confidence. Many celebrities suffer the same fate but few so acutely as Miss Jackson, who's had her life in the hands of others since before she could speak properly.
On the cover of All for You (the casing, not the CD booklet), Janet looks downright sad. Her cheeks are sagging; her pout isn't sexy, it's literal. Say what you will about rumors of Janet having gone under the knife repeatedly in the past few years to maintain her youthful glow, but her look is that of an old woman constrained in a young body—and hating it.
Her songs are little better, mostly feeble love ballads and the occasional wronged-woman torch song. Jam and Lewis sound truly without anchor, their production an irksome combination of blip-pop, guitar soul, and ethereal washes. It's a cleaned-up Velvet, with glimpses of vulnerability. But on the cusp of her 35th birthday, Janet should realize that the best thing she could do for her music is let go. Let go of the past. Let go of people's expectations. But most importantly, let go of her anger. Instead of striving for perpetual pop purity, she should ease into a new phase of her career as someone who tears men to shreds with an icy glare and wears confidence like a low-cut dress. Then, instead of a quivering icon, she could be a lofty diva. VH1, where are you?