In a rare interview, the queen of pop talks to Matt Rudd about becoming a mum at 50, growing up the youngest Jackson and how music is her therapy
The Sunday Times, June 23 2019, 12:01am
Next Saturday evening, Janet Jackson will take to the Pyramid Stage. It’s too soon to say whether the 200,000 festivalgoers will be sunburnt or mud-caked — probably both — but she and her dance troupe will be resplendent in boas, sequins, catsuits and leather couture. “I’ve never been to Glastonbury,” she says. “Is it really always muddy? I’m excited. Hopefully they’ll like us.”
It’s certainly an imaginative booking. Janet Jackson wasn’t just big in the 1980s and 1990s. She was huge. A global icon. When Rhythm Nation was released 30 years ago, it broke all sorts of records and won all sorts of awards. Her 100m-plus album sales and counting make her one of the most successful recording artists of all time. In 1996, she signed what was then the most lucrative record deal in history — a cool $80m with Virgin, surpassing even her megastar big brother Michael’s contract. And yet for most of her career, she was always only the second most successful person in her family.
Now, though, things are different. Almost exactly a decade since Michael’s death, his legacy is under threat from renewed allegations of child abuse. Janet, on the other hand, is experiencing a renaissance. In March, she was, finally, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — a mere 22 years after her brothers Tito, Marlon, Jackie, Jermaine and Michael, aka the Jackson 5. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet,” she said that night, addressing those brothers. “Tonight, your baby sister has made it.”
There will be those in the audience on Saturday who are old enough to remember CDs and mix tapes. For them, it will be a choreographed walk down memory lane. All those hit songs that you had forgotten were Janet’s: What Have You Done for Me Lately, Miss You Much, Escapade. But for the younger generation, the 1980s and 1990s are coming around again, refreshed and cool. As in, “Dad, have you heard of an album called Like a Virgin?” Clever Glastonbury for keeping up with the pop culture carousel.
Alas, I am not interviewing a welly-booted Janet Jackson in a field in Somerset. I’ve come to the natural habitat of the lesser-spotted pop star: Las Vegas on Memorial Day weekend. To any normal person, Sin City is wildly disorientating. Everything is neon and flashing. The noise of college kids partying is drowned out by lift music, foyer music, even hedge music. It is madness made metropolis, but for Jackson, it is currently home from home. Metamorphosis, her new residency at the Park MGM, runs until August.
So it is with ears ringing and eyes swimming that I pick my way through a mile of one-armed bandits, across 14 lanes of backed-up party limos and underneath a 20-storey-high image of my interviewee to find my way backstage. What will she be like? As bonkers as you’d expect anyone who has lived their life as a Jackson?
She first performed in Vegas at the age of seven — “two shows a day in two-week stints. It was gruelling and fun at the same time, being so young on stage with my family,” she says. Before her 20th birthday, she was already a three-album veteran of pop, her life and all its associated dramas played out in the glare of late-20th-century tabloid sensationalism. Her whole career was threatened by that wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl where her breast was briefly exposed, which quickly became the most-searched event in internet history.
Judging by our first few minutes, she is remarkably normal. Warm, even. Friendly. In a way, this is even more disconcerting. As I walk into her enormous dressing room, we shake hands — a surprisingly firm grip for such a pint-sized person. In full mothering mode she asks about my jet lag and offers me a variety of drinks, fruit and snacks (“Do you have this kind of popcorn in England?”) before inviting me to join her on one of the sofas.
She is certainly guarded, but that’s hardly surprising. This is the first newspaper interview she has given in years. She has been described as reclusive, but of course that just means she doesn’t talk to the press. I attempt to break the ice by congratulating her on the rave reviews for her new show.
When she’s finished laughing at the “cute way you English pronounce ‘metamorphosis’ ”, she tells me she doesn’t read the reviews, good or bad. “I probably should, but I don’t. As long as the fans like it, I’m OK.” She speaks so quietly, an almost whisper from her bright tangerine lips, I worry the recorder won’t pick her up.
“I’m in a great space,” she says when I ask how her life is now. “I have a beautiful son.”
Eissa, her first child, was born in 2017, a few months after her 50th birthday. When she mentions him, which she does frequently, her flawless face lights up and she smiles that famous Jackson smile.
The past two years haven’t been easy, though. Her “fairy tale” third marriage — to a younger Qatari billionaire — ended in acrimony not long after Eissa was born. Her father, Joseph “Joe” Jackson, died last summer and the controversy surrounding her brother rumbles on. Janet won’t comment on the allegations. Her answer when those stories first surfaced in the early 1990s came, as it always does, through music. In 1995, she duetted with Michael on Scream, a song that railed against tabloid speculation. Today, when I ask about his legacy, she takes a long pause before saying: “It will continue. I love it when I see kids emulating him, when adults still listen to his music. It just lets you know the impact that my family has had on the world. I hope I’m not sounding arrogant in any way — I’m just stating what is. It’s really all God’s doing, and I’m just thankful for that.”
It is immediately apparent that motherhood has given Jackson a new sense of fulfilment. “My friends call me Superwoman,” she says. “God knows I’m not. But I think what they are seeing is the energy and that extra drive I’m getting from the inspiration of Eissa.”
However, she insists that her work/life balance has changed since he came along. “I’ve slowed down a great deal. I don’t rehearse as many hours as I used to because of being with my baby. My days have been cut in half so I can spend that time with him.”
Today, Eissa is back at the rented house in Vegas, but his ride-on Ferrari is parallel parked in the adjacent dressing room. “He comes to the rehearsals. He sings along. He loves being around the kids.”
Metamorphosis is a neat title for this stage of the Janet Jackson narrative. The publicity says the show charts her “path to self-love, empowerment, motherhood and activism, amid the challenges faced along her personal journey”.
Of the challenges faced, the first and most overarching was the one common to so many child stars: growing up with the expectations of a domineering father. She was the youngest of nine in an industry of Jackson’s offspring. “You miss out on your childhood, you really miss out,” she says when I ask about those early years. “You don’t get to do all the fun things that kids do. I wanted to do gymnastics, but that couldn’t happen because I was busy working. But at least I had my brothers and sisters. They were my best friends.”
Her father, a former steel worker, boxer and blues musician, makes even the most intense of today’s helicopter parents seem laid-back. He demanded a punishing schedule of rehearsal and performance. Many of the Jackson children have spoken about the corporal punishment he would dish out. Recalling group rehearsals, Michael once said: “He had this belt in his hand. If you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up. It was bad. Real bad.” Janet has said her father only struck her once, but she was never allowed to call him “Dad”. He was always Joseph and this was a business, not a family.
“The struggle was intense,” wrote Janet last year of her battle with depression in her thirties. “Low self-esteem might be rooted in childhood feelings of inferiority. It could relate to failing to meet impossibly high standards.” Today, one year after her father’s death, she puts it all into perspective. “When parents see something in their children, I guess they guide them in that direction,” she says. “Especially when you’re talking about children who grew up in that urban area. Music was a way to keep us off the streets. My father saw a way out for his children. A better life. And thank God for that.”
What would have happened if she had wanted to do something other than show business? She laughs drily. “That did happen and my father told me ‘no’.”
She can remember the exact moment when her path was set for her. “We had a studio at my parents’ house, and we’d go in there any time of day or night and put tracks down. I had written this song — I’d played all the parts and sang the backgrounds — and I came home from school one day and they were playing it loudly. I was 13 years old and I was just so embarrassed. That’s when my father said to me, ‘You’re going to sing.’ I told him I wanted to go to school and study business law. I really wanted to make my way by acting. That was how I was going to pay for my schooling. He felt that God had a different path for me.”
Did she talk to him about the way he raised her and her eight siblings before he died? “I felt that I did say everything I needed to say to my father,” she says. “I was thankful for the time that I did have with him, with Eissa, the three of us together. Being together with my father in the end.” Eissa, she says, will be allowed to follow his own path. He is also allowed to call her Mummy.
Jackson might be guarded in interviews, but she has always shared intensely through her music. Her third album, Control, released in 1986, was the first she released without her father as manager. It also came after the annulment of her first marriage, another unbalanced relationship addressed in the track What Have You Done for Me Lately. “I’ve taken control of my own life,” she said at the time. Out from a marriage, out from the family home, free at last to find her voice — one that challenged toxic masculinity before the phrase had even been coined. The track Nasty, for example, came as a result of a showdown with a group of men harassing her outside the studio in Minneapolis.
“It was a difficult period,” she says of those first attempts at independence.“How do you say to your father, ‘Listen, I want to move on and I don’t want you to manage my career any more’? That’s a tough thing to do and I cried about it. Prior to that, he always had someone there to create everything for me. So it wasn’t coming from me. They would talk to me, but it still wasn’t coming from me. I hate to say it, but [breaking free] definitely allowed me to be who I was, to show who I am. Since then, I’ve always taken that route. My albums became my diaries.”
Like all performers, there is a private and public persona, but I’ve never encountered such a contrast between the two. In a few hours’ time, I will watch her descend to the stage on some kind of chaise-longue trapeze and mesmerise an ecstatic audience for almost two hours. She will be a completely different person, at turns provocative, powerful, emotional and free. At one point, she will stop to thank the crowd for their years of support. She will cry. The young couple next to me dressed head to toe in studded leather will cry back. In fact, the only person in the packed theatre who will remain unmoved is the man mountain just across the aisle. He is Beyoncé’s bodyguard. Everyone else — including Beyoncé — is caught in this moment of raw emotion.
Janet was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and is still a practising Christian. When I ask about her radical transformation on stage, she says, “At a certain point, you have to give it up to God,” before describing the act of performance as “cathartic, very therapeutic. We all go through stuff. You can take that pain and those traumas and turn it into something positive or you can turn it into something negative. You can start doing drugs and drink, and it can be horrifying … I tried to do something positive with it.”
It was her fourth album, 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, that established Janet as a superstar in her own right, not just another Jackson. Unusually for a big pop record, it was an album with a social conscience, featuring songs about poverty, racism and injustice. The inspiration came, she says, from seeing a story on the news. “This family was homeless. They were sleeping in their car and I remember they interviewed this little kid with his stuffed animal and it just really touched me. I always saw my brothers, the Jacksons, doing charitable acts. When I was younger, maybe 10 or 11 years old, my brother Mike and I would buy these barbecue dinners. We’d buy 10 of them and we would drive around looking for homeless people to feed. We did that quite often. So, Rhythm Nation, it was putting that foot forward again. I saw that kid on TV and it tore me up. I wanted the album to touch upon that.”
I wonder how she feels about the state of the world now, 30 years on from Rhythm Nation, and more turbulent than ever. On Brexit and divisions in Europe, she offers three words: “Oh my gosh.” On forces resisting social reform in her own country, she says: “Change is inevitable. They can’t stop it. I mean, come on.” The last time she was in London, she encountered a children’s climate strike in Trafalgar Square. “I filmed some of it, I thought it was so amazing,” she says. “It gave me chills to see how powerful they were. They have a say in all of this. They are the ones who are going to have to take care of this world, so they have the right.”
She has been an outspoken advocate of the #MeToo movement. Last September, at the Global Citizen Festival in New York, she gave an emotional performance of What About, a song about domestic violence, before telling the 60,000-strong crowd: “Like millions of other women out there, I know about bullying, I know about verbal abuse. I know about physical abuse. I know about abuse of authority. I am sick, I am repulsed, I am infuriated by the double standards that continue to treat women as second-class citizens. Enough.”
When I ask how she overcame these abuses, this bullying, in her own life, she says: “Well, it’s still kind of ongoing here for me, a little bit …” The disintegration of her third marriage was, once again, played out in the tabloids. “You assume I would never go through things like that. It’s important to let people know, yeah, I have and there’s still some drama, some crap that you have to deal with. Sometimes you have to confront it head-on, and that’s not a comfortable space to be in.”
She adds that therapy helps: “I know a lot of people who frown upon it. But try it. Not just once, not just twice, give it a moment. It’s never going to be an easy ride, but we’re going to get through this.”
You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to see that the damage inflicted not only on her but also on her brothers by their father clearly had a lasting impact. Factor in the pressures of fame from an early age and it is as remarkable that Janet is here now and “in a good space” as it is unremarkable that her brother didn’t make it.
Her faith must have helped in darker times, so I ask if she has always been a believer. Her mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, “allowed us to explore other religions”, she says, “but I never moved away from spirituality. I’ve always been searching. God knows what’s in our hearts and it’s being able to talk to him. He listens and sees all things.” God and Eissa are the two men in her life. Neither is likely to let her down.
As she makes her debut at Glastonbury next weekend, the sunburnt/mud-caked crowd will see a woman who has used music to survive the effects of a domineering father, three unhappy marriages, the controversial life and early death of a superstar sibling and the moral panic of a nation terrified by the sight of a nipple (for five-eighths of a second). They will see a woman empowered by late motherhood. They will also see a 53-year-old moving like she’s still 21.
“I’ve done a lot in my life and it’s about having fun, continuing to have fun,” she says as she heads off to say hello to her dancers. “There are still things that I do want to do in life, but if I don’t get to do those things, then I’m good. I have a son and he’s beautiful. He’s my light.” Four hours later, her show closes with Rhythm Nation. The group choreography is pure 1980s: kitsch, crisp, spectacular. Even Beyoncé’s bodyguard is dancing.
Janet Jackson performs on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage at 5.45pm next Saturday.