I first saw Janet Jackson as a cute 9 yr old on her older brothers’ summer replacement show in ’75. The following fall, touring off the essential party jam, Dancing Machine the entire family came to the NY area and played in the round.
Along with the hits, Janet did an impersonation of Mae West opposite her brother Michael’s take on Sinatra. Cute kids, family stuff.
My mother organized a bus ride that was sponsored by our church. We were years away from Velvet Ropes, nose jobs, wardrobe malfunctions, pedophile charges and rumors of secret children.
We were also years away from the mega touring success and massive record, tape and cd sales that would collectively make Michael and Janet the most successful brother and sister to ever record.
Janet was the baby so she got to watch. She watched Michael and the others blow up first as The Jackson 5. Then after an acrimonious split with Motown that resulted; in their brother Jermaine staying behind; starting a solo career, marrying Motown founder, Berry Gordy’s daughter, and the rest of the family regrouping as, The Jacksons, at Epic Records, she found out a truth about the record business: it could split families apart.
She apprenticed in TV. She was a memorable addition to the ensemble cast of Good Times as, Penny. Then a less memorable period on the the forgettable tv version of Fame. She wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire.
She signed a deal with the independent west coast, powerhouse pop label, A & M Records. Home to Sting, Bryan Adams and Quiny Jones’ Quincy Jones Productions. She put out two stiff projects. She didn’t seem to have the stuff that the rest of the family had.
In an attempt to compete in the exploding black pop market that her brother Michael and Prince were dominating at the time, A & M hired a new A & R man to put them in the game. Former Jackcson 5 music director and long time family friend, John McClain
McClain was the scion of a hooked up African-American LA based entertainment family. His father, Big John owned an, LA soul music station and he was a guy you needed to see if you were in the black music business in the day. McClain in later years would be the man to sign Death Row Records to Interscope.
The first order of business at A & M was to fix Janet. At this time in the music business, you might get 3 albums to break in a particular market. Now, a second single is not guaranteed.
By hiring ex Prince sidemen and emerging pop funk producers, Jam and Lewis to oversee her third project. McClain insured that they would all make history.
GROOVE MERCHANTS JAM & LEWIS
In early ’86, the release of, What Have You Done For Me Lately, the first single and video from the album, Control sent shock waves throughout the music industry. A cute and pudgy Janet jumped out of tv screens dressed in all black and doing the hot dance of the moment, “the snake” in a malt shop. On the song itself, she was beefing about an unimaginative lover with lazy dating habits. She struck a chord in disgruntled listeners and smashed.
The albums Control, Rhythm Nation and Janet each sold six million units domestically. The tours that supported, Rhythm Nation and Janet sold out buildings that hosted NBA basketball games. She was not a star she was a consistent corporate profit center.
She got out of her deal at A & M and signed with Virgin in ’97 for $50 million dollars. Always an astute observer of the market place, she released the most interesting single of her career. The hip hop, neo influenced, Got ’til It’s Gone. The down tempo lounge joint that featured a sample from Joni Mitchell and a cool kid verse from then paramour, Q-Tip.
The Virgin realationship was off to a good start. Until you got the cd home. It was not reflective of the direction of the single and it showed a move away from her pop funk roots toward up tempo dance music. It also revealed a tendency that wasn’t clear before. Janet was musically concerned about sex. More specifically, Janet loved to sing about her pussy. Subsequently, it would be the rare church that would sponsor bus rides to see her performances.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
The S & M feeling of, The Velvet Rope was not a bad one, it just wasn’t done creatively. Record sales began to dwindle.
Subsequent Virgin releases sold less. Some of this could be attributed to a revolving door of executives at the label and mismanagement. Some to musical miscalculations.
While Janet was signed there, the day to day US head of the company had an affair with alternative bad boy, Custom. He apparently decided that it was over before he let her know. She called him over 80 times and left increasingly more and more threatening messages on his home phone.
Custom recorded a few of them and mixed them over a music bed. He then sent it to the head of business affairs for Virgin US, plunging the label chief into a scandal the led to her firing. In the aftermath Custom was signed by ARTISTdirect.
Mariah Carey had a disasterous one cd career there and was given a $50 million dollar check on her way out the door. She resurfaced at Def Jam.
While signed to Virgin, D’Angelo spent parts of 4 years and $3 million dollars on a record that he never released. He left the company and signed with J Records in early ’07. Virgin didn’t exactly have a grip on the black music game.
Despite the chaos around her, Janet soldiered on. Like all of the products of the great Motown music assembly line, she was a pro. Though she was never signed to Motown herself, five of her older siblings were and she was schooled by them and their father Joe.
One thing became certain. The hits were coming less often for Miss Jackson. Jam & Lewis were still down but it wasn’t clicking. They laced her with ’01’s, All For You, a snappy dance track that featured a loop from Change’s Glow Of Love. Sales continued to lag.
The tour was hot though! Seeing Janet meant seeing close to three hours of hits performed. But the records were not moving. Kanye West was brought in to give her a hit. It too was marginal.
Virgin then tried to get their game on track and hired super producer, Jermaine Dupri. His first order of business was to fix Janet. This was presumably not going to be difficult. They were already hooked up backstage.
Jermaine had released a video from a compilation project of his that cast Janet as a sex worker bursting out of a nurses uniform. He clearly had influence over her.
JANET UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF JD
I met with him in his capacity as Virgin Black Music Chief in the late summer of ’06. The day we met, Janet had been quoted on the world wide web giving Jermaine credit for being the best lover that she’d ever had.
Virgin politics reared their head again and Jermaine was forced out of the company. He too bounced to the newly hot Def Jam and took his girl wit him.
The result of their Def Jam collabo was another vaginal tribute, Feedback. I’m partial to the subject matter, I liked it but I didn’t have much company. Again the product wasn’t moving.
Today Def Jam and Janet Jackson announced that they are parting ways. One of the most iconic talents of the MTV era is without a recording home.
The new reality of the recording biz will give her many options to reach the consumer. Downloads, cell phone platforms, social networking and the rest, can give her control again.
Her current tour sold three west coast basketball arenas out last week. She’s crushing ’em with my old friend LL Cool J opening.
In the parlance of the music game we are all one hit away from major success and once a hit always a threat. Janet ain’t through. The pro will resurface and then watch out. It’s gonna be on.