Love always, Janet

Ms. Jackson does it all for you

by Philip Brasor

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan seemed to be an odd choice for Janet Jackson’s press conference, not that her being in town for the Japan leg of the “All for You” world tour didn’t count as news — the banquet room was packed with reporters and TV crews. But Jackson isn’t the kind of news personality the FCCJ normally presents. And considering her somewhat opaque public persona and tendency to spout biz cliches when describing her music (in the promo video for the tour, she says that she “just wants people to have fun” three times), it was unlikely that the event would offer any insight or, for that matter, gossip.

But, apparently, that was OK with the press. So thank God for FCCJ Treasurer George Baumgartner, who acted as master of ceremonies. Reading a self-penned statement that commented glowingly on every phase of the singer’s career and exhausting his thesaurus’s list of synonyms for “beautiful,” he called Jackson “Virgin’s golden girl” (take that, Mariah Carey!), the “highest paid musical performer” in the world (latest recording contract: $90 million) and a star whose 15-year success has “eclipsed that of her older brother Michael.”

Aside from these ostensibly journalistic observations, Baumgartner’s effusive, often hilarious, introduction (“let me be politically incorrect and offer you these flowers”) provided advantages to parties on both sides of the dais. To the reporters, most of whom worked for legitimate news organs, it offered a break from the normal FCCJ fare of “politicians and business leaders.” For Jackson and her entourage, it was a way of advancing her material accomplishments without their having to pass between her own well-glossed lips.

Consequently, no one put Jackson on the spot. One AP reporter did comment on the “raunchy” aspects of her music. “That’s a pretty harsh word,” the singer answered, and the reporter sputtered an apology, trying to come up with a more acceptable adjective. “Sensual?” she suggested, and everyone laughed. Any question about her secret nine-year marriage and ex-husband Rene Elizondo’s legal complaint that she and her lawyer had cheated him out of a great deal of money would have been out-of-place and unappreciated, certainly by Jackson but also by the assembled scribblers, who were here to chill and, anyway, clearly adored her.

So when the Wall Street Journal correspondent got up and, referring to a statement brother Michael made several years ago in Korea that he wanted to help that country with its economic crisis, asked Janet if she thought of matching such “largess” with a similar pledge to economically strapped Japan, it was obviously a joke. She wasn’t expected to answer it, and she didn’t.

Still, if the FCCJ isn’t going to ask sticky questions, then no one is. Jackson deserves her privacy, but Elizondo’s accusations have a bearing on her career and, by extension, her art, since he claims he contributed to her music as an equal partner. Jackson, it has been suggested, insisted the marriage be kept a secret in order to promote her image as, first, an independent woman (“Control”) and, later, a sheltered innocent who suddenly discovered the joy of sex (“Janet”).

Sex has been the main theme of Jackson’s music ever since she became Virgin’s cash cow. Less ironic about the subject than Madonna is, Janet has in many ways been more frank, but her take on sex is also more abstract. One female reporter asked about her music being censored in Singapore. Jackson said she couldn’t understand why the authorities would get upset about the new album’s “sexual connotations. [Sex is] something incredibly beautiful.”

She does do a lot of moaning and cooing about “sucking and licking” on “All For You,” and while it’s probably less problematic for mainstream fans than the S/M and lesbian stuff on “The Velvet Rope,” it also sounds generic, almost rote; meaning, the sex may be abstract for a reason. When one person asked if there was anything she didn’t have that she wanted, she replied, with a plaintive catch in her voice, “I’d like to be in love.” The entire room let out a huge “Awwwww . . . ” “But,” she added. “I don’t want to get married.”

Actually, “All for You” isn’t about sex. What it’s really about is abs. The video for the title song spends a lot of footage on Janet’s uncovered abdomen, which might be the only real thing on screen: Even her mascara seems digitally enhanced. This also turned out to be the case at her concert at Tokyo Dome on Jan. 17. It was very difficult to determine what, exactly, was genuine and what had been either prerecorded or rehearsed into a simulacrum of spontaneity. The only thing I would stake my life on is that her tummy is the finest example of self-improvement in the world of pop, and that includes Britney Spears’.

The show opened with a series of Janet bromides projected against a scrim, with the scrim then dropping away to reveal the singer herself on a raised pedestal. As she launched into “Come on Get Up,” her dancers, dressed in white tails, descended from the rafters on lighting fixtures.

As she promised at the press conference, the show was “high energy,” but while the production numbers were slick, the musical expedience was often frustrating. The idea of compressing some of her best songs into medleys based on themes shortchanged the songs as songs.

In one fantasy segment, the stage was set up like a giant playpen, with huge jack-in-the-boxes and blocks and dancers in whimsical get-ups. They did “Miss You Much,” “When I Think of You” and “Escapade,” three of the best dance singles of the late ’80s, but here they were reduced to one-verse novelties.

The only really interesting production number was “Would You Mind.” Dressed in a full-body jumpsuit, Jackson surveyed the crowd for a few minutes and then had a young man pulled out and strapped to a device onstage. As she sang the song, she rubbed the guy’s crotch with her hand and rubbed her own crotch against his chest and did all sorts of other intimate things. Considering the tenor of the huge response, I’m sure most of the audience would have filed this number under “raunchy” rather than “sensual.”

Madonna did the same thing on her “Blonde Ambition” tour, but she used a dancer as her boy-toy, so chalk up another one for Ms. Jackson in the sexual pushing-the-envelope competition. In the social criticism sweepstakes, however, she came up short.

“Son of a Gun,” despite a slamming beat and some smooth choreography, came off false and pretentious. A “duet” with Carly Simon that samples her classic hit “You’re So Vain,” Jackson’s song is supposed to be an indictment of showbiz greed. So here, in concert, up on the screen, we have Carly herself, a child of wealth who did very well for herself at Warner Bros., and there down on the stage, the youngest of the Jackson clan dancing to the tune of — what was it again, $90 million? Both “Would You Mind” and “Son of a Gun” are calculated to press buttons rather than describe something experienced, much less deeply felt.

Which isn’t meant to deny their appeal as music, only that the music would probably sound just as good with another singer’s input. Janet emerged in the ’80s when R&B had turned wholly into a producer’s art. Jody Watley, another mediocre vocalist, was her main competition. One wonders where Karyn White, a much better singer, would be today if Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production team she shared with Janet, had given their best material to her rather than to Jackson, who made them very rich.

Janet’s dependence on the team became more obvious in the ’90s with the return of skilled, idiosyncratic singers like Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton, who didn’t need as much production assistance or high-concept image manipulation to sell records. And if Janet is more successful at this point than Michael, it has nothing to do with talent or product. For all his pathological self-regard, Jacko remains a true original. His latest album is one of his best, but it isn’t selling because people have tired of his antics and his icky face.

In other words, no matter how good his music is, Michael can’t compete with Janet’s adorability. As little sister said at the press conference, she finds it silly that she’s always portrayed as the “normal” Jackson, but nevertheless understands that such a perception is part of her appeal. Someone asked me after the show how many times she told the crowd, “I love you.” A lot, and she meant it. And the crowd meant it, too, reciprocating a thousand-fold. They appreciate the effort she’s put out to maintain her lofty position over 15 long years. The abs prove it.