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Fear of a Black Titty 

Treating Janet like you don’t love her

Thursday, May 6 2004
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Photo by Patrick Demarchelier

You live by the pop machine, you die by the pop machine. The sleek commodity known as Janet Damita Jo Jackson DeBarge Elizondo Jackson has done her share of living and dying lately, often simultaneously. She’s been all over editorial pages and gossip columns; her Super Bowl controversy launched two phrases into popular vernacular (wardrobe malfunction; Nipplegate), and yet her latest album, Damita Jo, is widely perceived as a commercial flop and critical disappointment (even though its first-week sales were far stronger than those of recent releases by Madonna, Britney, Whitney or J-Lo). Radio has been lukewarm at best, and the hypocrites at MTV have all but banished her from their airwaves. For someone so long plugged into the machine, Jackson has committed one critical error after another — the Super Bowl fiasco, the staggeringly bad choice for a first single, a lackluster video for that first single.

That’s not to say that the disc is an unfairly maligned masterpiece. It’s loaded with far too much dross: inane interludes where Janet burbles like a ditz, musing on island vacations, the origins of her middle name and whatever fluff pops into her head; the limp sex odes “Moist” and “Warmth,” which sound like they were penned and sung by some narcotized junior high school ho; an obsession with sex that started three albums ago and whose dividends are only rarely even semi-interesting. It doesn’t help that neither the “official” lead single, “I Want You,” nor the “leaked” single, “Just a Little While,” are anything other than album filler.

But wait. Damita Jo is still better than most reviews and word-of-mouth would have you believe. Thank the producers. The whole thing is very much a retro affair, from the girl-group arrangement of “I Want You” to the infectious doo-doo-doo-doo-doo that opens the album’s best track, “Like You Don’t Love Me,” an attitude-laden, TLC-ish demand for a good, vigorous fuck (“You need to make love to me/like you don’t love me”) to the Vanity 6 homage in “Strawberry Bounce.” And “R&B Junkie,” the CD’s second-best track and likely candidate for club hit of the summer, has offended many detractors with its boulder-size sample from Evelyn King’s “I’m in Love,” but the gambit works in the context of a song that’s an ode to old-school soul music and the dances those sounds inspired. Meanwhile, producer Kanye West continues his midtempo winning streak with “My Baby,” while the lilting, aptly named “Island Life” is pure seduction set to a groove. Had some careful pruning taken place before the album’s release, the CD could have been at least a minor-chord “F-you” victory to the wolves nipping at Janet’s tits.

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Janet Jackson is simultaneously a minor talent and the unheralded mother-architect, for better or worse, of the current pop world. And though she’d be loath to admit it, her artistic baby-daddy is Paula Abdul, whose Control-era choreography has been the template for not only most of Miss Jackson’s moves over the past 15 years but for most pop choreography, period. (Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are the nannies who do all the unglamorous, necessary grunt work.)

While it’s a conditioned reflex for mainstream critics to heap praise upon Madonna as the mold from which MTV’s pop brigade is stamped, the truth is a bit more complicated. What Madonna’s really handed down has been a bottle of peroxide, a palpable contempt for her audience and a refresher course on the ways in which white skin earns props for its bearers way out of proportion to anything they actually do. Throw in some marketing-savvy DNA and you pretty much have her artistic legacy summed up. Case in point: The pathetic, creepy, faux-lesbian kiss last year between Madonna and Britney was largely interpreted as a passing of the diva torch. But Britney’s career, like those of her countless clones, rather than being a youthful updating of Madonna’s blueprint, is actually the Clorox remix of Janet’s. Brit’s every head snap, pelvic thrust and shoulder jerk was first executed by Miss Jackson, with many of her videos being almost frame-for-frame replications of past Janet clips. Even the most successful of the boy-band wave — ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys — owe much of their performing style to Janet and her various choreographers. (Tellingly, when Justin Timberlake was in ’N Sync, he and his group bit Janet’s style hard; as a solo artist, he lifts shamelessly from her brother.)

One of the most interesting aspects of the fallout from Janet’s controversial Super Bowl performance has been her subsequent psychological profile as crafted by a reactionary infotainment machine. Her every media appearance is prefaced with the news that her host has instituted a five-second delay, as though her titty baring weren’t an aberration for her, but the norm. Everything from the increased heat placed on Howard Stern to edited nude scenes on E.R. to the recently canceled Victoria’s Secret television special has been blamed on her: She’s been turned from the tapioca dominatrix no one could possibly take seriously into the stereotypical sex-mad Negress who’ll corrupt all she touches — or might touch. (One of the few critics to point out the race aspect of the media reaction to Jackson has been the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein, who, in a recent essay commenting on the varying ways that Courtney Love and Janet have been treated in the press, opined, “Thank God, for Courtney’s sake, that she’s white.”)

Pundits, who know they should be furious at something or someone but are too cowardly to take aim at the proper targets, have lumped endless scorn on Jackson for unleashing a puritanical FCC on us all. Aiming their vitriol at the agency itself would mean not only outlining the right-wing consolidation of media power in the hands of a privileged few, but also noting the Christian Taliban mentality of those who hold the purse strings and control the airwaves. In short, it would mean biting the conservative hand that signs their paychecks.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s Super Bowl accomplice, young master Timberlake, has proven himself to be the bitch-made-pop-star you always knew he was. As though aiming to get his own chapter in Greg Tate’s book Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, Timberlake shed all wigger affectations the moment he felt the heat of real controversy. He dropped the hip-hop gear, grabbed a suit and tie, and literally held his mommy’s hand as he strolled into this year’s Grammy Awards, where he all but burst into tears as he apologetically explained onstage how he’d been bamboozled into taking part in Janet’s shameful shenanigans. Poor thing.

 

The real problem for Janet is that, in total, Damita Jo underscores her as the ultimate modern American sex symbol in ways she didn’t intend. As she cruises toward 40, she has to figure out what it means not only to compete with her own cultural spawn on a playing field whose terms are viciously youth-obsessed, but also what it means to be a mature woman who is sexually vibrant, sexually curious and willing to speak with candor about her desires and experiences. For Jackson, that simply translates into a cataloging of sexual positions and X-rated activities. With her breathy, multitracked voice as her calling card and primary weapon, and slight-to-say-the-least lyrics as the bullets, she comes off more as a sexually precocious teenybopper than a woman of the world.

It’s not just that there’s no depth to her boudoir insights and philosophical musings, or that the bulk of her lyrics manage the unimpressive feat of being explicit and banal, but that she’s morphing into an aging porn starlet of the most tragic type — chasing relevance with ever bigger hair, ever bigger boobs, and a willingness to fall to her knees in mirthless, monotonous mimicry of sexual ecstasy. It’s like, after all the fucking and talking about fucking that she’s done, she has almost no idea what true liberation — or even pleasure — really is.

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