"It was funky as shit! I just could not stop listening to it..."
- Janet on them Chemical Brothers
N the Japanese restaurant where Janet Jackson and her entourage ate yesterday evening, it started raining saki bombs. It's a traditional thing. What you do is this: you get a glass of beer (slightly warm) and one of those little thimbles of saki, Nippon's potent and holy rice wine. You drop the saki tumbler into the beer glass, bottom first. Then you chug it all right back, down in one, thank you and sayonara. And you hope that the little ceramic shot-glass doesn't slide back and smash your teeth out. They were at it all night. "By the time we left," Janet says evenly, "everybody's eyes were very glassy."
Not very Jackson, is it? Not very We Are The World, or You Are Not Alone, or Look Away, Baby Seal? More of a Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough type of thing. In fairness, though, Janet has always been a little more part of the real world than her brother, and a little more three-dimensional than the rest of her clan, who range from the game (Jermaine) to the terrifying (the freakishly plasticised LaToya). You could never imagine a night out with Michael - and only an Eartha Kitt fetishist with martial arts qualifications could envisage a night in with LaToya - but beer and bogling with Janet, despite the fact that she is one of the ten most famous women in the world, seems somehow reasonable. She'd probably get her round in.
Janet Jackson is the approachable diva, an old school disco star: Donna Summer with more starpower, Diana Ross without the monomania. Even people who cannot abide the sugary outpourings of the Jackson conglomerate will admit a sneaking liking for, say, 'Rhythm Nation'. You could put it down to her percussive, hungry dance monsters, made with producers Jam And Lewis, a series that began with 'Control' in 1986. In an r n' b industry which overuses the concept of "pushing the envelope", Jackson, Jam and Lewis are among few who really have done something different with the big studio's towering sonic arsenal - the Sly Stone-sampling, drum-box crowded title track of 'Rhythm Nation', for instance, is something swing still hasn't properly responded to (if Jam And Lewis were white and working in techno instead of r n' b, they would be lauded on this side of the Atlantic as top-table sound-manglers of Underworld calibre). Or you could put it down to her medium chutzpah, exemplified by the cover shot of 'janet,' where a pair of male hands cupped the generous, naked Jackson bosom - tame as a kitten by British standards of tits-oot shockery, but near-knuckle stuff in America. You'd probably want to draw a veil over the ballads, but either way, even club people will probably allow that Janet, she's OK.
Except she isn't, not really. Janet is in London to promote her new record with Jam and Lewis, the follow-up to the ten-million plus selling 'janet' which is entitled 'The Velvet Rope'. Preceded by a hip hop slow-jam single which samples Joni Mitchell and guest-stars Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, it is - deep breath - a concept album. It is all about Janet's inner pain. The velvet rope is the bane of American clubs, the demarcation line between the famed and the fabulous who get in, and the proles left outside. It's just like our own hated guest lists. Janet says it is a metaphor for the velvet rope that's, like, around all of us, keeping other people out of the place that's inside. Sitting on the big white sofa of her super-suite in the Dorchester Hotel, she explains it with the earnestness of American therapy-culture, where everything relates to self-esteem and we are all dealing with our pain on a daily basis. It's the kind of mindset that would make British people shriek and run away, and its high priests are the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson. Janet's PR organisation are duly mindful of the poor singer's vulnerability. Considering she's so keen on co-opting the various forms of club music, Mixmag had hoped (for a laugh) to play her a tape of crazy contemporary dance sounds and see what she thinks - a little happy hardcore here, a little drum n' bass there. Much to-and-fro'ing ensued, with the British end of JanetCo thinking it might be a jolly wheeze and the Americans adamant that Janet would not "feel comfortable" with the onerous task of listening to a minute of someone else's music and saying whether or not she liked it. In the end, Ms Jackson declined the Mixmag challenge. Our ghetto blaster was politely confiscated in the Dorchester lobby, lest Janet's opinion of Mung's challenging experimental techno number 'Rectal Toolkit' should pierce the accepted wisdom which American showbiz royalty represents: that everything is great in its own way, and everybody has something to offer, and if you can't say something good then you are best off saying nothing at all.
Well, whatever. Let's have a look at 'The Velvet Rope'. Some of it is terrible, like the hopeless therapy-pop ballad 'Special'. It features Janet (one of the most famous women in the world) singing "I have the need to feel real special." Some of it, though, is just fantastic, collapsing together high-glitz swing and shameless disco with white noise, rough-arsed beats and sonic abrasion that can't help reminding you of Skint and the Chemicals and big beat. It's a weird thing to hear - half saccharin sludge, half hardcore stuff you could hear at your local raucous night out. It's also a very dirty record. Janet sings a Rod Stewart song, taking on the old model-shagger's lusty masculine persona as he promises to give the object of his affections a right good seeing-to. And on one of the numerous interludes between tracks, there's a speakerphone conversation where Janet seems to be masturbating and the (woman) friend on the other end of the phone seems to remark that "Your pussy gonna swell up and fall apart." It seems a good time to ask: Janet Jackson, what are you on about?
So , is this the new model dirty-talking Janet Jackson? Some of those interludes are a bit Lil' Kim, aren't they?
The one where you're on the phone with your girlfriend and it sounds like you're, as it were, polishing your credentials. "...Weeeell..."
And then the woman on the other end of the phone says "Your pussy gonna swell up and fall apart." Who's on the phone to you?
"...But it's reality! That kind of thing happens. I can't tell you who it is, she's a good friend. She knew she was being recorded, but it wasn't scripted. She's very funny and she said that from herself. It's just real - that's the kind of relationship she and I have, and the way we talk. And the subject is real, because people do it and why should that be something to hide? We're making fun of it. When she says 'Your cootchie's going to swell up and fall apart,' we were all laughing so much. But it's reality."
You also do a Rod Stewart song, 'Tonight's The Night', without altering the genders, so you still sing the song to a girl - which is a bit saucy.
"But I wanted to keep the song true to the way Rod Stewart wrote it. And once again, it is reality. I have a lot of friends who are gay and when they heard it for the first time they were very surprised. Some people advised me not to do it, and to change the 'girl' to 'boy,' but really, why do that? For what reason? A lot of women fall in love with other women and that's OK. It's a part of our society. My gay friends were very happy I kept the lyrics as they are."
You must be aware that some people are going to say, Oh yeah, Janet Jackson is a big-time lesbian now.
"[slightly forcedly] Ha! Wouldn't be the first time I've heard that. Not at all. I guess it's because
I am still a tomboy, and because, say, sometimes I go to an awards show with a girlfriend. And often
those friends are tomboys too, so people automatically assume that we are lovers. But no, I am not gay.
People should be able to take the song for what it is and read so much into it."
When you saw Jarvis Cocker invade the stage when Michael was onstage at the Brit awards, what did you think? "I didn't see it. But I heard about it. And I thought, that's jealousy."
Won't people find it funny to hear one of the most famous women in the world talking about how terrible the 'velvet rope' is?
"A lot of journalists have said, 'You have everything, why do you want to expose yourself like this?' But I have to because I always write about what goes on in my life, and also because I like to share the things I discover. Since the last album, there were times when I felt so alone that I didn't know what the hell was going on. I thought I was going crazy at times. And for people who are experiencing that themselves, it is good to know that they are not alone, and that they can get help and find a way through their troubles. It was a really hard time in my life, making this record."