At this year’s Grammy Awards, Michael Jackson coyly denied the rumor that he and his sister Janet, who was beaming radiantly next to him, were the same person. Only Michael would take such a story seriously — after all, anyone can see it is he and La Toya who look frighteningly alike. Then again, Michael and Janet have more than a few qualities in common. Like Michael, Janet Jackson exudes both an unaffected grace and a cunning sense of calculation. And like Michael, she makes records, like janet. (Virgin), that aren’t merely collections of pop songs. They’re big-bucks spectacles with one eye on art and the other on commerce.
Produced almost entirely by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who crafted both Control and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, the records that made her a multiplatinum star) with Jackson coproducing, the album clearly works overtime to entertain. The credits list 27 tracks, half of which are either sound effects (”Wind” is exactly that) or brief, breathy spoken-word snippets. The 13 actual songs amount to a dizzying lazy Susan of pop: electro-funk throwdowns harder than anything previously released under Jackson’s name, orchestrated ballads sappier than anything she’s sung before, and gently percolating pop like the album’s easygoing, if bland, first single, ”That’s the Way Love Goes.”
Also, janet. wants the world to see Jackson as not just a cherubic pop star but a confident, self-sufficient, and sexy grown-up. The slinky, body-revealing video for ”That’s the Way Love Goes” is the first volley, and the strikingly explicit lyrics throughout janet. keep up the pace. ”Stroke me so gently my love/I love it when you mmmmmm/When you release my desire,” she oozes in one of the printable passages. Elsewhere, she fixates on the sight of lips, waists, and various organs. And who can blame her? Given her family, she’s probably unaccustomed to seeing authentic body parts.
If musical variety and daring lyrics were all that mattered, janet. would make the grade. But the album has a lot to prove. It is the first delivery under her $40 million contract with Virgin, and its title — which translates as ”Janet, period” — is meant as a declaration of independence from her oddball siblings. Equally important, it has to prove she is still relevant. In the ’80s, the youngest Jackson made her name not with a distinct vocal style — her voice is, after all, as thin as a clothesline — but with stylish videos, blippy pop tunes, and concerts that were showcases mainly for video-era choreography and lip-synching.
Technology still leads the way in much of pop, but in the wake of Milli Vanilli, what also counts in the back-to-basics ’90s is proving that one can sing (as in show-off pop divas and the return of harmony groups) as well as play (epitomized by the popularity of the MTV Unplugged series and albums).
With the exception of ”What’ll I Do” — a cluttered yet winning update of a ’60s R&B song that puts Jackson in front of a real, live band — janet. makes no concessions to those changing times. If anything, Jam and Lewis pull out all the stops, as if heavy, throbbing arrangements crammed with samples would make Jackson sound more substantial than, say, the wobbly Paula Abdul. Sometimes that approach takes Jackson into exciting new terrain. ”If” sets her voice against what sounds like a traffic jam in a city of cyborgs, and the electronic buffalo stampede of ”This Time” brings a feisty edge to Jackson’s dissing of a guy who’s ”runnin’ ’round/ With those nasty hoes.” More often, though, the sonic barrage threatens to capsize the songs, which are a melodically fragile lot to begin with. Cameos by opera star Kathleen Battle and Public Enemy’s Chuck D are little more than cumbersome window dressings.
Overproducing is merely one of the ways in which Jackson, Jam, and Lewis keep taking one step forward and two or three back on janet. Yes, Jackson is singing tunes she cowrote — yet her wispy voice is often smothered by her two male producers. Yes, she is singing some lascivious lyrics — yet she rushes through some of the most explicit, like the oral-sex part of ”If,” as though she’s a little embarrassed to be singing them. Yes, she rebuffs philandering men on the first half of the album — but the second half is a tribute to the banal, dewey-eyed love song, with Hallmark lyrics like ”When I first met you/I knew that my life would never be the same.” Yes, she wants to demonstrate her individuality on the album — but with songs like ”Throb,” a blatant rip-off of the club-beat style of Madonna’s Erotica.
By the time janet. ends — with the seven stultifying minutes of the ballad ”Any Time, Any Place” — the album has literally dribbled to a close, leaving any number of unresolved issues. For all her newfound sophistication, Jackson still sounds tentative. She still sounds like a young woman from a male-dominated family who is searching for her identity and voice. Mostly, though, janet. sounds like a mess — period. C+