Janet Jackson’s Diff’rent Strokes

imageTop by Polymorphe, skirt by House of Harlot, gloves by Syren, stockings by Agent Provocateur, boots by Giuseppe Zanotti.

Photography by Matthew Rolston Styling by Jeanine McKirnan

Within a labyrinthine photo studio in Culver City, California, in a whitewashed room, otherwise unremarkable, a B & D fetishist’s arsenal is displayed as if arranged for a tradeshow by the Marquis de Sade. The gear, close to a type once reserved for “correcting” “scolds,” “shrewish women,” recalcitrant serfs, and persons confusing to the Church, is all laid out for use on Janet Jackson. Her recent album, for which she is currently touring, is called Discipline.

On collapsible buffet tables, hanging on fashion gurneys, and draped on walls, there are PVC cat suits, zippered headgear, latex eveningwear, metal-and-rubber bustiers, breastplates, gauntlets, codpieces, feather ticklers, and steel pelvic thrusters, relieved of their phallic attachments. Barbed cowhide whips are fanned out alongside some kind of automaton skull with a full set of human teeth and gums. There is an assortment of padlocks and chains, a bludgeon of some kind, a couple of fearsome hooks “Pinhead” would give the seal of approval, and a fresh coffee, extra large. On the bright side, it appears Jackson will for now be spared the Pear of Anguish and the Ducking Stool.

Outside of the room, on fabled Smashbox Studios’ blinding-white shooting stage, heavy-gauge chains sway and clang from a recently constructed metal gallows. There is a general clangor of metal as multiplying personnel, a majority large and tattooed, put through the paces more infernal devices.

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition.

Enter Janet Jackson, dressed—by nobody’s mother’s standards—in strategic neoprene. She is silent, resigned, as two assistants lock a stainless steel cage around her head, a medieval housewives’ bridle from the shiny future. Jackson is immobilized from the neck up, and there is a way to insert a ball-gag—or something—into the casque, should that be necessary. A prop director tests alien-looking keys in a ten-pound pair of shackles, which for certain would otherwise have to be removed with a wad of C4. Satisfied, he carries them off toward the already confined Jackson as more assistants draw towering walls of folded cardboard around her predicament, obscuring it from view, however precariously.

A woman rushes by, lubricating a zipper mask while clutching a riding crop in her teeth; she slips into the makeshift keep. Jackson is about to be either violently ravished, or pressed for information, comprehensively. It’s no great mystery if the caged bird sings

image Gown by Keith Lissner.

And then there is the other Janet Jackson. Not in the psychiatric sense, but a body double, in a director’s chair off in her own hair and make-up corner. Trinidad Mann is, like Jackson (almost exactly like Jackson, by definition, overheard to be mistaken for her several times), five feet and a few inches tall, elegant and slender, but acquainted with gyms. And she is game. She test-poses in a steel cage. One cage is solid, custom built by commercial artist Peter Gargagliano. It is cylindrical, like a birdcage.

The other is a kennel cage with a hole in the top, so that a captive’s head may protrude to be demeaned separately, unencumbered by the bars. It came from elsewhere (photographer Matthew Rolston’s team is infamous for its finds). Later, seen on a monitor on the civilian side of the wall, the doppelgänger is stretched out with her arms wrapped around Jackson’s calf, as if the culmination of a slink across the floor. It’s a nice shot—then very suddenly her face disappears, replaced by Jackson’s.

A well-established and fast rule, adeptly enforced by the Jackson staff during photo sessions, here and presumably always, is that only people immediately necessary to the shoot are in the vicinity, and that only those absolutely essential to the specific shot remain between the wobbly 12-foot walls—few if anyone beyond the subject and her photographer will see her.

However, when Jackson, now 41, emerges half an hour later from the configuration, all protocol, all of the seemingly overwrought law-laying is abruptly revealed to be a different animal entirely—as the proverbial elephant to the proverbial blind men feeling around different parts of it, sort of.

She passes through the room in a bathrobe, flanked by bodyguards, who are laughing and lightly helping her along rather than strong-arming a perimeter. Jackson doesn’t sleep more than a few hours per night, she’s just been freed from the torture device, and she is cinched into impossibly impractical raiment akin to armor. She walks softly, and, maybe partly because of her state, with a kind of demure shuffle, slightly afloat; head bowed, eyes averted—a geisha-through-a-teahouse. She is far from the fraudulently imposing “diva” that might rightfully expected by all the rigmarole. She also looks like she smells good.

As she’s escorted past people en route to the door marked “Closed—Janet,” she routinely looks up and musters a smile, very obviously because she feels that it would be rude not to.

“I just get embarrassed so easily,” says Jackson. Her voice is delicate, and suited to whimsy. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in the wrong profession. You know, a photographer will ask me to do something, and I think, What? With all these people around, staring? I don’t know, I guess it’s my insecurity. Maybe when I’m 90, I won’t care, and just stick my ass out. But until I’m comfortable…”

The impish but collected Rolston, between set-ups, shakes his head and marvels at her physical control, “It’s like she has little invisible hair choreographers, nose choreographers, fingertip choreographers, teeth choreographers…”

By the time Janet Jackson was five years old, her brothers in The Jackson 5—“Jackie” (b. Sigmund Esco), “Tito” (b. Toriano Adaryll), Jermaine LaJaune, Marlon David, and Michael Joseph Jackson, eldest to youngest—just off what was historically referred to as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where they were not infrequently warming up for stripper acts, or “ballets,” around Gary, Indiana, had knocked The Beatles out of Billboard’s #1 spot, and their Rolls Royces were being dismantled from around them by dangerously adrenalized fans. Janet Jackson had—along with her mother, Katherine, and two sisters, Rebbie (b. Maureen Reilette), and LaToya Yvonne, been retrieved from the Midwest and installed in an epic in Los Angeles, at such time that her father, Joseph, was sufficiently convinced by the potential future there.

imageJersey Gown with solid piece by Donna Karan Collection.

Convincing, among other things, were the Saturday morning television cartoon likenesses of the brothers Jackson with Brobdingnagian Afros, bumping around in a blue jalopy, serenading trouser-suited ingénues, to an ill-timed laugh track, then compulsory. (Producer Rankin/Bass knocked the cartoon Jackson boys down a financial strata or eleven, gave Tito an identifying floppy street-walking hat, and Michael a pet snake, separated only by physical existence from eating his real pet rats). The house at 1616 Queens Road, Hollywood was on the Maps of Stars’ homes.

A few years later, Jackson was partnered with her older brother Randy (b. Steven Randall) in a preparatory Las Vegas vaudeville act, of Borscht Belt-mafficking, Groucho cigar-wagging, and the exquisite corpse of “Laugh-In.” If not quite yet considered an actress, Jackson had mastered the next level of dress-up, certainly, and the act continued on ABC’s “The Jacksons” variety show—a ratings buster. (A young Michael Joseph introduced the pilot, saying, “Those of you who were expecting The Osmonds, do not adjust the color of your set.”).

“My thing was to do impressions,” recalls Jackson. “My friends even to this day say I’m an excellent mimic. It comes from being around so many voices all the time.” She ticks off a list of subjects as impressive as the Rich Little oeuvre: “Edith Bunker, Shirley Temple, June Carter, Cher,” more. As Pearl Bailey, she stopped Randy mid-verse at his piano: “Now I ask you, honey, with a foxy mama like me, would Bill Bailey ever leave home?

“They made me do Mae West a couple of times, on ‘Good Times,’” the ’70s realist sitcom on which she appeared a few years later, as rescued urchin “Penny Woods.” The tom-tom booty sway and the boa twirl were, to her, devoid of suggestion—she wasn’t in on the joke. “Are you kidding? I had no idea. People thought I was adorable. I knew that, and that was it.”

In 2008, Jackson never misses an opportunity to say “please” or “thank you,” even while being chained up, caged, whatever level of carnality she is pushing.

“It’s strange,” says a confidante in the Jackson camp. “All the [bondage] and sex stuff, isn’t really what she’d choose for herself. We laugh about it sometimes, really. But she’s very cooperative with the ‘creatives,’ whatever their idea is. Sometimes maybe too much so, but it always works out.”

“All that—it’s a costume,” says L.A. Reid, whose Def Jam Records released Discipline in late February. “She’s an actress, she knows how to metamorpho-size.”

In the dance studio’s lounge on Sunset Boulevard—a few days after the photo shoot—her private chef, still grimacing from tattoo work, has just brought Jackson a lunch of steamed fish, and the herbal calmatives suggested by her doctor. In sweat-clothes and only cursory make-up, flush with health, she wouldn’t be suspect rushing a UCLA sorority. “It’s a big issue. My doctor is not happy with me,” she sighs, genuinely worried, it seems, about upsetting her doctor because she can’t sleep enough.

“I have to take these [supplements], otherwise my brain won’t stop, and I just lay there all night, thinking about everything.” She appears very calm already, neatly eating some wilted spinach. “Usually I just wind up watching cartoons,” she says, referring to her own prescription. Jackson is quite vocal on the subject of cartoons, in fact. “‘The Flintstones,’ ‘The Jetsons,’ ‘Johnny Quest,’ ‘Superfriends’—you know, the classics,” she says, before highlighting the lineup on Boomerang in more depth. “And if I get to catch ‘Family Guy,’ I’m happy.” She laughs. “I’m just a kid at heart. Just a big kid.”

Jackson is also intensely quiet, and deliberately unobtrusive. So are ninjas. It’s easy to imagine why she would adopt such a temperament early on, or adapt it. There’s no sense with her that she grew up feeling anything other than exited by her brothers’success, or that she had any doubt about her own eventuality. She was patiently waiting her turn.

She began singing, “because my father asked me to, basically,” Jackson shrugs. “But I didn’t care, I just wanted to be an actress.” Meanwhile, as far as the entertainment industry—and therefore America—went, the latter half of the 20th century was in her living room, visible all hours, by opening her bedroom door a crack, or walking to the kitchen for something. There is a serious nature-nurture thing going on with Janet Jackson.

“My parents would have parties all the time,” she says of her family’s early days in Los Angeles. “I’d be around all these people, but you know—it’s just, Oh, that’s Sammy Davis Jr., that’s Diana Ross, that’s Marvin Gaye. You’re just a kid, and you know, they’re just these people.” She has had by now some revelatory thoughts concerning the average household guest of the period, naturally.

“There was a lot of different music floating throughout the house. My brothers and sisters and I listened to a lot of classical—Paganini, Stravinsky…one of my brothers was into straight R&B, another one of my brothers was into rock. My mother loved country music, and blues. But I fell in love with Brazilian music. I was always looking for Brazilian music—Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethania, Milton Nascimento—which is how it all started.

“Sergio Mendes lived down the street from us; he was on our label, and I finally mustered up enough guts to invite him, personally, to a party—and he came,” she says mistily. “‘Waters of March’—I loved that, all of that. He was a big, big influence on me, on my life.” Songwriting since 9, at 14, she a bit surreptitiously recorded a Brazilian-styled original song, alone late one night in the family’s home recording studio, accidentally leaving it on the reel overnight, “like an idiot. When I came home from school the next day, my whole family was listening to it. They hadn’t heard me sing since I was a baby. That’s when my father said, ‘I think you should sing.’” A recording contract with A&M followed, immediately. “I’ve still never been to Brazil,” she adds. “But I’m going—this time I’m going to see to it.”

Her third album, Control, with its she-anthems set to Paula Abdul’s video choreography, made Jackson a megastar. Contemporary Top 40 artists followed suit, as best they could at the time. Next, with the socially conscious Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, she got respect. And that one caused a run on military waistcoats, epaulets, and 19th century infantry caps that since then waxes and wanes but never really goes out.

imageLatex top by Polymorphe.

“I always wanted to sign Janet Jackson,” says the wildly affable L.A. Reid, calling to mind Ray Liotta’s opening voiceover from Goodfellas. “I used to have a little label called LaFace,” he says, referring to the label that would break TLC, among others. “I went and talked to her. She was very nice, of course, but it was like, Cute, but never gonna happen. I kept tabs though, always.”

Jackson was just running out the clock on her term at Virgin Records when the champagne corks were flying at Island/Def Jam, in July of 2007. She could easily have found herself adrift, a free agent wondering where her next Grammy would come from (she has five to date). But Reid “didn’t leave any room for that—oh no.” L.A. Reid is an idea man. He has a good track record, to put it mildly, but he’s not a Svengali—more like a very audible whistle stop to superstardom. “Racking your brain to ‘create’an artist—it’s just… corny,” he says.

And a flatly ridiculous thought, when it comes to Jackson. As with the Kennedys, the American citizenry has for years considered itself on a first-name basis with the Jackson family, and has always taken an unusually keen interest in their affairs—palace intrigue, be it Camelot or Neverland. Undoubtedly it was and is complicated to be a Jackson, on top of everything else someone in her position needs to understand fully, to survive, let alone to endure as she has. For all her prepossessing polish, it’s obvious she draws on some unconditional Sphinx-ian strength beyond discipline, control, and her other family of dancers, managers, and crew.

“There’s just something so mysterious about her—about how she does what she does,” says Reid. “I wish I knew what was behind the curtain, but I don’t.” Which is probably just it.

When I guess that for Jackson the aim of the album’s overt Sado-masochism is “provocative,” she corrects me.

“Sensual,” she says, in earnest. Evidently I look surprised. “But I bet you’d think Pam Anderson is into bondage, right?” says Jackson.

I might have just offended Janet Jackson by underestimating her personal life, which seems singularly impolite. “I wouldn’t necessarily think anybody is into anything in particular—necessarily,” I say, “and I’m sure bondage is a private sort of thing,” continuing almost entirely without meaning. I’m distracted by the dawning of a shapeless inner struggle having to do with where I am positioned conversationally, with Janet Jackson.

There is a quick knock, and the door opens, revealing a giant in a crushed-velvet sweat suit, bearing water and a towel. She gets up and hugs him, chats briefly, laughs. Camp Jackson is a giggle-fest, missing only sleeping bags and marshmallows. Jackson returns to the couch.

“So, what do you think of the album?”

The album Discipline is a 21st century party album. It is a bit of a departure for Jackson. “Not really,” she says. “It has a modern twist to it, but I think it’s still classic ‘me.’” Or not. The lyrics from Control’s “Nasty” (“Be a gentleman, or you’ll turn me off… I’m no prude I just want some respect…”) jibe quite easily in person with mild-mannered, earnest Jackson, who once considered business school and ably discusses architecture. As with subsequent albums, Discipline finds her in another mood. She has explored the territory before: “Tie me up, tie me down/ make me moan real loud,” from Velvet Rope’s “Rope Burn” and more generally in “Would You Mind,” from Janet (“Baby would you mind coming inside of me/ letting your juices free/deep in my passion,” and so forth), all of which I was warned of back in catechism regarding “filthy pop music,” by Sister Rose-Marie, speaking of discipline—but then she was impossibly contrary anyway. But Discipline’s title track goes one more—a vision of Jackson, repentant on all fours, begging for carnal punishment from her “Daddy,” to which Sylvia Plath cannot hold a candle.

Though Jackson didn’t write the song—Jermaine Dupri, her producer-boyfriend, takes the credit— she feels that she might as well have. “When I first heard the song, I thought, It sounds like me! I fell in love with it immediately.” (It is more difficult to explain lyrics such as: “My swag is serious/something heavy/like a first-day period.”)

But Discipline isn’t all pain and degradation. After all, it is a party album—a Janet Jackson album. “I laughed a lot making this album—a lot. Recording, laughing—and eating caramel apples! With nuts!” she exclaims.

“We all got tattoos last night,” says Jackson, grinning in the dance studio on Sunset Boulevard. It’s taxing to determine the age of anyone in the room, subject included. There is a new chocolate lab puppy, “Chocolate,” careening about with a squeak toy, and there are cupcakes. “This is a West African symbol, from the Ashanti tribe,” she says, pointing at the wounded underside of her wrist. “And this means ‘warrior.’ So the whole thing means ‘protected love and discipline warrior.’”

Her four dancers—two male and two female protected love-and-discipline warriors, sometimes referred to as “the babies”—are certainly young, under 20, maybe. Everyone present is in motion almost constantly, sometimes to absurd degrees. They’ll peel back a corner of a tattoo dressing, compare designs and healing rates, then without warning suddenly windmill onto the floor, tumbling out into a splayed freeze, then get up to continue a conversation.

Jackson’s “Feedback” begins shaking the room, everyone falls into place in font of the mirror wall, and everyone is dry. Two minutes dancing and everyone is drenched. The number goes for another two minutes still, and the rehearsal will be eight hours today—and tomorrow, and the next day, ad infinitum.

On a break, the “babies” improvise dangerous-looking flips, their feet straight up in the air, hair sweeping the floor. Most of the non-lethal dance moves come from Gil, Jackson’s Hawaiian (“Asian persuasion,” her lyrics) choreographer, who thinks of them somewhat spontaneously, as Jackson says, “like the melody of a song.” The melody of a song that could break your neck, I add mentally. I have contact exhaustion from watching the dance rehearsal.

“Sometimes I wish I’d taken ballet or something,” Jackson says. Her dance experience comes originally from mimicking Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers, watching her reflection in the sliding glass door of her family’s Los Angeles house, looking out on the lights of Hollywood. “It’s hard—people have no idea,” laughs Jackson. It’s harder to imagine Jackson having two left feet. “I have trouble sometimes, and [the other dancers] will laugh at me.”

She’s very patient, and tells me again. “So, when this arm goes out, this leg goes back. No, the other one.” She pats my right leg. The simple “melody” of the “Feedback” step is made of a great deal more than it looks. It’s only possible to do this sort of thing properly with the aid of muscle memory, very specialized, which comes for me—well, not quite—after about ten minutes of looking like a mental defective in front of a room full of people. Courteous people, thankfully.

Later, we’re both enjoying some first-rate birthday cake. (“Really? Four months ago she wouldn’t touch a cake,” Reid remarks. Jackson is writing a book on the matter of weight issues, having conquered said). This is the calm between storms. Last year she recorded Discipline and starred in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? Her promotional tour started last month, in Europe. It’s nonstop, until who knows. She is emphatic about her love for the tour bus, the “rhythm”of it, and spending time with her other family—the dancers and her crew, which should not surprise anyone who has met them. But, as she skims the squeak-toy across the glossy floor of the dance studio, pursued by the puppy, slipping all over the place, I’m somewhat idly curious to know what Jackson would be doing if she weren’t doing what she does. She thinks, and says, “Probably something in real estate.”
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