She used to be in control

critical eye pop music

Janet Jackson remains in an oversexed, arrested stage of musical development

October 12, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

You have to give Janet Jackson credit for doggedly sticking to her pleasure principle after all these years. No matter how mind-numbingly banal her sexually explicit lyrics have become, no matter how tired her clothes-optional promotional campaigns have gotten, Miss Jackson-If-You're-Nasty refuses to change the musical formula she apparently believes still works for her. But recent sagging album sales may show that fans feel differently.

She's not the only aging pop maverick caught in a vortex of cheesy sexed-up music and images (hello, Madonna and Mariah Carey). But Jackson, whose Rock Witchu World Tour stops at Washington's Verizon Center on Wednesday night, has unfairly caught much of the mainstream media's scorn for adhering to one of modern pop's saddest tenets: Female performers must somehow defy age and gravity to remain the objects of teen boys' fantasies.

Forever.

There are, of course, several examples of women in pop who transcended their hypersexual sound and image. Donna Summer immediately comes to mind.

But after the overblown backlash from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime debacle with Justin Timberlake, which was driven as much by racism as sexism, Jackson's career took an almost merciless blow. She's been hobbling along ever since.

Her stubbornness hasn't helped her, though. Instead of folding a refreshing sense of humor, irony and sophistication into her dance-pop approach, the Grammy-winning performer seemingly wants to compete with her spawn. The Ciaras, Rihannas, Britneys, Beyonces and a host of '90s boy bands owe a huge debt to Jackson for the dance and musical templates she set more than 20 years ago.

But ever since 1993's janet, perhaps her last great album, Jackson has been more or less recycling the same college-freshmenlike sexual exploits in song. Her CDs after the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" - Damita Jo (2004), 20 Y.O. (2006) and especially this year's Discipline - have been eye-rolling, lackluster efforts teeming with inane, oversexed lyrics and overly processed beats and vocals.

"You know, dance is my thing. I love dance, I love dance music," Jackson said from a recent tour stop in Los Angeles. "I know with [Discipline], there are certain people [at her former record label Island Def Jam] that did not like the direction that I took ... as far as making this album. They wanted me to take another route - a much calmer kind of Sade-ish route, and I think that's fine. ... [But] there will come a time when I'll decide, 'You know what? I want to do something like this.' I'm still a girl who loves to dance - so dance music for me."

Wrong, Janet. You're a 42-year-old woman whose juvenile obsessions with your sexuality have become embarrassingly passe.

Sure, Jackson remains a charismatic performer; her dance routines are still thrilling. Ever since coming into her own on her sole masterpiece, 1986's Control, Michael Jackson's baby sister has rocked arena stages around the world with her elaborate tours.

But it's the recent music that's sorely lacking in punch, flavor and sweet effervescence, qualities that once suffused her sound. Celebrated producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were largely responsible for shaping Jackson's musical identity, starting with the fierce Control and ending with the listless 20 Y.O. The magic clearly dissipated, which happens to many pop stars eventually.

None of her last three albums produced monster hit singles. That's startling, given that she has long been a singles-driven artist, racking up 27 Top 10 hits, including 10 No. 1's between 1986 and 2003.

With no standout single and video to push sales, her latest albums have quickly puttered out on the charts.

Though Damito Jo and 20 Y.O. made debuts at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on Billboard's pop charts, the CDs barely reached platinum.

They sold mostly to her loyal fan base, which must be shrinking, because Discipline didn't even go gold. Because of her dissatisfaction with its promotion and sales, Jackson dissolved her deal with Island Def Jam.

So far her tour, her first in seven years, has been hampered by a "sudden illness," which led Jackson to cancel a string of shows last week.

At the start of the tour a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, she seemed excited about hitting the road again.

"I'm able to do what I do because of the body of work - what I have achieved," she said. "And that's what the people want to see and I guess they know - you know, you have a track record ... so they know what I've done with past tours, and there's a certain level of expectation. ... I don't let that make me fearful in any way."

It's great that Jackson, when she's feeling well, can work the stage after all these years. You just wish she'd bring that same fearlessness to the recording studio and try something exciting, substantive and mature.

It's long overdue.

if you go

Janet Jackson performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Verizon Center, 601 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $49.75-$125.75. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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