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Crushed Velvet

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Janet Jackson "I needed to do this album for myself, for people to know what was going on with me." (By Rene Elizondo Jr.)
Tuesday afternoon, the Southeast Washington branch of the Boys and Girls Club sported a huge sign welcoming "Janet and the General." Which is not the name of a new sitcom but celebrity shorthand for Janet Jackson and retired Gen. Colin Powell, who are spearheading America's Promise – The Alliance for Youth. The mentoring and safe-haven program for at-risk kids will be the beneficiary of a portion of the proceeds from Jackson's "Velvet Rope" tour, which kicks off its American leg tonight at MCI Center.

As part of the afternoon's presentation, the dynamic and decidedly photogenic duo were briefly entertained by the BrenCar Dancers, a group of youngsters who've appeared in the Apollo Theatre's amateur talent contest. When they started dancing – to a medley of Janet Jackson hits, of course – the singer's eyes lit up and a warm smile of recognition spread across her face, particularly when she looked at 8-year-old Brittanny Tyree, who seemed a foot shorter and years younger than everyone else but danced with a particular fervor.

"She had wonderful rhythm!" Jackson marveled later, and her words were motivated not by kindness but by recognition. What she was seeing was herself 25 years ago, a little girl stepping into the spotlight.

"It made me wonder what she would do in life," Jackson said yesterday, enjoying a last moment of peace and sanity before the tour begins. "Would she pursue this just as a hobby, or is she really going to want to get into show business at a young age? Then I started thinking about how it can affect you."

This is how it can affect you: After a childhood career in assorted television series that allow the world to watch you grow up, and after a couple of failed records, you hook up with sentient producers who help you find your voice.

You make a series of critically acclaimed albums that happen to sell 40 million copies around the world, thanks to 19 Top 10 singles, six of them No. 1's.

Your debut tour is the biggest in history. You sign an enormous record contract: $80 million for four albums.

After a disastrous early marriage – it's less than a year between elopement and annulment – you have a remarkably stable relationship for 12 years. But on your last tour, which lasts well over a year, you find yourself crying as you're about to go onstage. And when you begin what will be your next album, "The Velvet Rope," there are days when you can't deal with the studio you normally love to lose yourself in. Your songs seem harder to write.

You're sitting on top of the world. And you're sad. Anxious. Depressed.

"I remember, even after the 'Rhythm Nation' tour in 1990, when I was in my early twenties, I was really bummed out," says Jackson, who recently turned 32. "Looking back on it now, it was depression. But it hits a lot of people – and a lot of artists – and I didn't know that. Nobody ever talked about that in my family – I still haven't talked to anybody in my family about it."

Her family, of course, is the Jacksons – hard-driving patriarch Joseph, the compassionate matriarch, Katherine, and various sisters and brothers, the most notable being Michael, the most famous performer in the world. A pressure-cooker environment, to be sure, one full of comparisons and competitions.

She concedes that many people might be dubious about a superstar confessing to low self-esteem, or revealing the chasm between public shell and private sorrow. Jackson says that "The Velvet Rope," her most personal and revealing album, "had to do with me looking at myself and knowing who I am and what I really want, being happy with myself . . . learning to like myself."

"What people don't understand," she says, "is that most of the time that's what drives us, really, this low self-esteem, these feelings of inadequacy as a child. That's what makes you push so hard to be successful, to prove something to yourself. I never felt I was good at what I did."

What the second youngest of the Jacksons did first was act. Janet Damita Jackson made her stage debut with her older brothers at age 7 – in Las Vegas! – and took on her first serious job at 10, portraying Penny in the hit sitcom "Good Times," a role she played for two years.

"I enjoyed myself so much, even though I missed being with my family," she recalls.

After short stints in two other series, she spent a year in "Fame" – the television series – but only at Joseph Jackson's insistence.

"I never felt my father pushed me into anything except for singing and wanting me to do 'Fame,' but I was never a confrontational person – ever – so I never said no, I just did it," Jackson says. "Finally I came to the point where I said, 'I don't like this, I don't want to be here, I'm not happy.' "

And she abandoned television. That was when she was 19, still a teenager.

She might easily have abandoned music as well. In the early '80s, she cut two dance-pop albums ("Janet Jackson" and "Dream Street") that went nowhere. "I wanted to sing, but I said to myself, 'I'm only going to do a few albums and after that I want to have a family and be to myself.' That's what I was going to do, maybe do some more acting here and there and go back to school."

Instead, Jackson tumbled into Minneapolis producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. She would later describe them as her "fairy godfathers." Jam remembers his first impression: "Basically, a lot of raw talent, a great voice, a lot of spunky energy," he said. "We felt she had never been utilized to her potential."

The most common approach for pop singers like Jackson was to have them come in and sing on pre-written, often pre-recorded tracks. The Jam-Lewis approach was different, sort of a extended meet-and-greet in which social interaction precedes its musical counterpart. "We always wanted to go in and get into people's heads, have them singing about things they really cared about," Jam explains.

And that process, Jackson says, "is when I began to discover who I really was. I'd experienced a lot at a really young age, but I was very shy then, and I had to sit there and pretty much tell them my life."

Through that process, Jackson's life began to change, dramatically. Her first Jam-Lewis collaboration, "Control," sold 5 million copies. The follow-up, the socially conscious "Rhythm Nation," sold 6 million. "Janet," which addressed Jackson's blossoming sexuality – Jimmy Jam makes the analogy to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" being followed by "Let's Get It On" – sold 5 million.

Along the way, Jackson became what Stephen Hill, MTV's video director, calls "one of the top video artists of all time."

"She has songs that are perennial hits," he says. "And she totally embraced the video medium. She doesn't make boring videos."

Hill suggests that part of Jackson's appeal is a gift for reinvention that goes beyond the surface. "As Janet grows, she exposes different parts of herself. In her late teens, when Janet was just breaking free from her family and going out on her own, it was about taking control. In her early twenties, discovering the world beyond your cocoon and the problems in it, that manifested itself in 'Rhythm Nation.' She discovered her sexuality and that begat 'Janet.' 'The Velvet Rope' seems to be a culmination of all of that, touching on issues of control, of sexuality and social responsibility."

Without overextending the Gaye analogy, "The Velvet Rope," released last fall, was in the emotionally naked tradition of "Here My Dear," albeit not specific to the dissolution of a relationship. After all, Jackson and Rene Elizondo Jr. have been together for 12 years, though marriage seems to be uppermost on everybody's minds but theirs.

Despite the usual array of dance-floor delights, the new album is about self-examination, self-discovery, recognizing pain rather than denying it. It was about bad relationships and cruel lovers, about societal homophobia. It was about how, as Jackson finally acknowledged, "I Get Lonely." It was about depression.

Jimmy Jam knew there were problems – suddenly canceled recording sessions, troubled moods that seemed to linger – "but Janet never let on except in the songs she was writing. When I saw the lyrics to 'Empty' and 'What About,' I thought, 'This is deep stuff.' Normally we'd do tracks and she'd write lyrics to the tracks. This time, in a lot of cases, she'd write the lyrics and then we'd do the tracks."

"There was a lot inside of me and I really needed to get it out," Jackson explains.

WPGC deejay Donnie Simpson, a family friend who has followed Janet's career since she was 13, wasn't surprised at her problems, at the onstage adoration contrasted with offstage sorrow. "You are it for that hour and 20 minutes and you touch all these people's lives and they have no idea what's going on inside you. You get back to your hotel room and all you can think is, 'Boy, if they could see me now.' "

Elizondo, a gifted dancer, choreographer and photographer, has been involved in Jackson's last three albums, but began taking songwriting and producing credits only on the new one. He admits that dealing with Jackson's depression was "rough, particularly trying to strike a balance of being there when she needed me and giving her enough space to feel what she needed to feel. It's like watching someone floundering in a swimming pool – you don't know whether you should jump in or let them learn to swim. She had to do some soul searching, some heavy-duty emotional excavation.

"The one thing that Janet and myself have tried to do is stay true to what we're writing," he adds. "We're not going to write about things we don't know anything about. We're not going to write about low-rider cars because we don't have low-rider cars, or about carrying guns because we don't carry guns."

Some critics have dismissed "Velvet Rope" as an overtly sexual, at times ambiguous, effort at adult credibility. There'd been no fuss a few years back when Jackson appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing nothing but a human-hand bustier (those were Elizondo's hands, incidentally). But the album's intimations of bondage unsettled folks, as did a cover of Rod Stewart's deflower-the-virgin saga "Tonight's the Night," which Jackson recorded with the female references intact, fueling rumors of bisexuality or lesbianism.

"Sometimes people read too much into it," Jimmy Jam says. "A couple of times in the studio, Janet would do a lyric and laugh and say, 'Do you think this is too much?' "

Sex, Jackson says, "is what the 'Janet' album was about. This was a continuation. It's still a part of my life and I'm not going to leave that out."

Virgin Records isn't seeing the sales the label envisioned when it signed Jackson to that $80 million contract in 1992. "The Velvet Rope" did open at No. 1 and has sold 2 million copies, but spent only three weeks in the Top 10. Its predecessor, "Janet," spent six weeks atop the charts and eight months in the Top 10 on the way to sales of 5 million.

This may be Jackson's slowest commercial start since "Control" in 1986, but she insists she's not worried. The upcoming tour and all the attendant hoopla will certainly boost those figures, and the album has already spun off three hit singles, "Got Till It's Gone," "Together Again" (a No. 1) and the currently climbing "I Get Lonely."

In any event, Jackson says, sales are not the crucial barometer. "Of course I want it to be successful, but I needed to do this album for myself, for people to know what was going on with me."

And just what is going on with Janet Jackson?

"It's an ongoing process, and there are times when I feel really great and times when I don't," she says. "Life is a journey and I'm still walking it and, like everyone, I'm going to have some days that are better than others, some days that are tougher than others.

"But I'm in a much happier place, the happiest place I've ever been in my life and that's why it feels so good to me, finally being able to say I do like who I am. That's the scary thing, digging really deep: You don't know what you're going to find, or if you're going to like who you find. But I like who I found, who's there now. The next process for myself, for sure, is to learn to love who's there, and that's going to be the real tough one."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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