Depending on who you ask, Janet Jackson may not actually be in need of fixing. Her latest album, Discipline, is a hit and so is the first single, “Feedback.” Things should be pretty good in Nasty-land, but a quick peek under the numbers reveals a different story. Although the album debuted at #1, Discipline is actually not selling as many copies as her previous releases. It’s a case of new math and relativism: 20 Y.O. and Damita Jo sold more, but did so in a more robust music sales market and could only eke out the #2 spot on Billboard. Discipline looks strong only because the market is so very weak.
The album also continues a disturbing trend with Miss Jackson where a real spark of excitement, inspiration or fun is replaced by a demented sexuality feeding off of shock. She may attempt to project empowerment, but all she seems to reveal is that she can’t be anything in her creative world other than some contented plaything or, even worse, a little kid that likes to shout out the dirtiest words she knows because it makes the adults in the room quake. It was that perverse acting-out that ruined The Velvet Rope. The fans rejected it and she attempted some poppier fare afterward. Seems that she’s treading into old, shallow waters once again. The digital workout of famed producer Jermaine Dupri can’t save her from the same old schtick.
We know she has a story to tell. Up to now, she’s only hinted at it through her rebellious nature. Whenever she feels threatened or cries out for attention, she whips out the boobs. The first time was the famed Rolling Stone cover, a tie-in to her janet. album. The “man hands bra” image made her, for the first time in her career, a full-on sex symbol, and it’s been one strip tease after another since then. Preceding each album’s release is a pictorial of some sort to show off her latest slim-down. “Doesn’t Janet look hot? What does her new album sound like? Who cares!” Even the notorious wardrobe malfunction speaks to her psychological tether between sexuality and control, and before anyone once again raises the white flag of “accidents will happen” don’t forget that the woman was wearing silver nipple jewelry underneath. You don’t wear adornment unless you plan to lose whatever is covering them. Seriously, I never waste perfectly good pasties if I don’t intend to drop the bombs, but oh no, I’ve said too much.
The Jackson family has a twisted and turbulent passage, from “Wacko Jacko” to LaToya (who cut straight to the chase and posed long before she ever attempted relevance), from familial abuse to certain members who try to maintain the veneer of respectability and, in turn, shoot themselves in the proverbial foot. Only Murry Wilson and his talented and terrified progeny paint as tragic a picture. It’s not too late for Janet though, and if she really wanted it, she could use her history as inspiration rather than some psychic drain that manifests itself in baby-talk and bondage shots. Some points that come to mind are:
1. Get Real. She’s not a kid anymore. She’s not a young woman anymore, either. She’s 41 freaking years old. The statute of limitations are off and she can say anything she wants now, not just the spank talk she seems so stuck on. As someone who has seen the glamour, the glory and the rotten and reviled, she is in a position to comment on all of it in a powerful way if she chose to. If she truly wants to be taken seriously as an artist moving into her fourth decade, she has to finally grow up.
2. Get Original. What about Mariah Carey? Well, what about her? Is Janet trying to conjure an Emancipation Of Mimi sort of resurrection for herself, because that would be very easy to do — just steal from the Alicia Keys songbook too. “We Belong Together” is, in my mind and the minds of many a critic, a flagrant swipe from the Keys style, so if Mariah can do it, Janet can do it. But why do that when she has the ability to go in a completely original direction? Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 both benefited from the late ’80s New Jack movement, but has anyone really tried that sound out for the 2000s, perhaps laced with a little electronica for color? Or maybe she actually could pull off a mature, sincere ballad without schmaltzy instrumentation and brother Michael’s well-timed choke-up (“She’s Out Of My Life” and “Again” are much too close for coincidences). Who’s to say no, since she hasn’t apparently tried it on for size.
3. Get Quincy. Sure, she’s romantically involved with Dupri, but Jackson needs to break out of this rut she’s digging herself in. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are done to death. Danger Mouse is best left to his own devices and, honestly, Timbaland needs to take a long, long vacation away from mixing boards. If Janet really wants to channel those lost heights, she needs to hire Quincy Jones, or any producer who has more experience in them than Generation Ringtone. Most of all, she needs someone who is going to let her know when an idea is bad and not worth pursuing, someone whose opinion has gravity and will keep recording until it is right, not merely fix it in the ProTools mix.
It’s hard to see someone that you know has talent and resources squander them in a prolonged arrested development. Janet Jackson is such a figure and she has proved it on several occasions, both in talent and in missed opportunities. She just needs to actually step away from her facades and tell the story in plain, clear ways rather than constantly trying to appeal to the horny R&B machine. We may see that particular Janet one day, and I hope we do. If her output is to remain one long, lurid exercise in audio voyeurism, it would be little more than a sad, pointless fade-out.