Janet Jackson Goes Deep on Her Early Challenges, Upcoming Music & the Joy of Motherhood
Janet Jackson remains the same, in many ways, as when we first met 29 years ago, while she was shooting the “Rhythm Nation” video at a power plant in Pasadena, Calif. She was 23. For hours, I watched her perfect the paramilitary moves of a thrilling dance exhorting the world to break the color line. She was fierce. At the end of the day, I was invited into her trailer, where she had changed from a take-charge black uniform to oversize jeans and loose white T-shirt. Here, she was hardly fierce at all. Instead, she was reticent, even timid. She was so soft-spoken that I had to lean in to make out her words. She was uncomfortable speaking to a stranger and, with elaborate politeness, made it clear that the shorter the interview, the better.
This was three years after the massive success of 1986’s Control — her first Billboard 200 No. 1, now certified five-times platinum by the RIAA — and I expected at least a little self-satisfaction or swagger. There was none. Her success almost seemed like a source of embarrassment. Speaking about her private life and professional accomplishments was obviously painful. So instead, we talked about music — by other people. Joni Mitchell, Sade, Nina Simone. She glowed at the mention of Marvin Gaye, whom she called “our John Lennon.”
As Jackson slowly revealed the seriousness of her artistic vision for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and its precedent in work like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, her ambition became obvious. In her whisper-quiet way, she articulated the grandeur of her artistic dreams. Her confidence, deep and steely strong, was wrapped in a remarkable sweetness.
Nearly three decades later, having just turned 52, her passions are unchanged: pursuing grand artistic endeavors while protecting her privacy. Her self-effacing demeanor — still sweet, still barely audible — defies even a hint of braggadocio, in spite of the achievements that have earned her the Icon Award at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards (BBMAs): No. 1 albums in four consecutive decades; roughly 32 million albums sold in the United States, according to a Billboard estimate (based on RIAA certifications, Nielsen Music data and archival reports); 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including 10 No. 1s; and on and on. Yet for all the consistencies of character, the Janet I’ve encountered recently is undoubtedly changed, in large part because she’s now a mom.
Our recent discussions begin in December 2017 in her spacious Midtown Manhattan apartment. Before we start talking, she tenderly bathes, powders and eases her 1-year-old son, Eissa, into a peaceful slumber. (Jackson married Eissa’s father, the Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana, in 2012, and the two separated in early 2017.) Wildly in love with the child asleep in the next room, she’s now freer with her feelings. She laughs more frequently and with greater abandon. And although the artistic ambition I sensed when we met decades earlier is intact, there’s now an eagerness to reflect on that ambition.