She has shown much of her outer self, as a child actress, a teen television star, as an assertive woman staring shirtless from an album cover, with her husband’s hands and a Mona Lisa smile the only guardians of her modesty.
All these outward facets of Janet Jackson’s life are part of the public consciousness, as might be expected from someone who has spent nearly 25 years in the entertainment business. So, at 31, it seems an appropriate time for Jackson to look inward for inspiration, as it happens, for comfort.
Her new album, “The Velvet Rope,” is a critical self-examination and an audio journal of a woman’s road to self-discovery.
“I’ve always written about what’s going on in my heart and in my life at the moment,” Jackson said in a phone press conference, “but this is the most personal album I’ve done to date.”
It arrives in stores Tuesday. The disc is both an acknowledgment and celebration of desire, whether for carnal pleasure or career advancement. The themes of sex and success have been productive creative fodder for Jackson on her previous five discs, but never in this much depth.
Her light, breathy voice has been showcased best on upbeat funk-pop cuts such as “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Rhythm Nation,” “Miss You Much,” and other skillfully packaged pop songs that have made her one of the biggest-selling performers in popdom.
“The Velvet Rope” skirts the cotton-candy fringes but contains songs that encourage HIV awareness (“Together Again”) and discourage domestic violence (“What About”). A sultry love song like her cover of the Rod Stewart gem “Tonight’s the Night” is balanced by “Free Xone,” which decries homophobia and gay bashing.
Said Jackson, “I hope it’s thought provoking for people.”
It’s likely that as listeners acknowledge the troubles of others, they may begin to understand the past two years of her life, a time filled with painful soul searching.
“I’ve always been able to push the pain aside, whether it was from my childhood, because being in the business, they always tell you it’s not professional,” Jackson said.
And the inner pain grew, deepening the downward spiral as she started the preliminary recordings of “The Velvet Rope.” “I wanted to know what it was. It got worse when I said I’m going to take this on. And it got worse still. It took six months to record this album, but I feel it has taken 31 years. There were times I had to walk away from the microphone and come back a few days later when I could tackle it.”
When talking about the past two years, her conversation is peppered with brief descriptions of what life was like in the emotional fugue of a depression.
“It was a real struggle with myself. It was really hard. There were times when my friends came over and we did nothing. There were times when I would get on the phone with them and by the time they got there, I would be so down in the dumps that I would walk away from them so that I wouldn’t bring them down. I would go upstairs and cry. … I felt like I was going crazy,” Jackson said plainly, her voice slipping briefly into a fragile trill. “A lot of it had to do with when I was a child, when I was a teenager. And a lot of it carries over into adulthood.”
There are probably people who might be unsympathetic to the plight of a young woman who in 1996, at age 30, signed a five-record deal worth $70 million. Some people might not understand the cellar-dwelling self-esteem level of a woman often called one of the most beautiful in show business, whose videos are among the most memorable of the past decade.
“Just because you have money doesn’t mean you’re happy. It doesn’t mean that all your problems go away. Just because someone thinks that you’re beautiful, it doesn’t mean that you feel that way. Or that growing up in such a huge family, and seeing them having such great success, that you might feel worthless,” Jackson said.
“I’ve gone through all those things. I hid all these things when I was a kid. There are nine kids in my family. My mother had to raise nine kids. My mom did her best, but that’s a lot of kids and somebody is going to get the raw end of the deal. That’s part of life.”
She meditated daily, worked out for two hours a day, and eventually recorded 20 songs, teaming with Jimmy Jam on the music and with her husband, Rene Elizondo, on the lyrics.
“Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” the first single from the disc, is currently rising on the R&B; charts. It’s a stellar example of pop songcraft.
Her domineering father, Joe, whom other Jackson offspring have described as both loving and loathsome, pushed her into a recording career; it’s likely he saw Janet as the last chance to hold the reins of a rising star. His influence reached its peak from 1982 to 1985, a time when Janet found little in her life that gave her joy.
“I was coming off of a TV show that I absolutely hated doing, ‘Fame.’ I didn’t want to do (the first record, ‘Janet Jackson’). I wanted to go to college. But I did it for my father,” she said, her voice dropping slightly. “I was butting heads left and right with the producers, I was in a (bad) marriage (to James DeBarge, annulled after little more than a year). I just wanted to get out of the house, get out from under my father, which was one of the most difficult things that I had to do, telling him that I didn’t want to work with him again.”
But she did tell him, and never looked back.
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