Janet Jackson made her latest album all for me? Well, gawsh. Or maybe by the words All for You she actually means "us"? Or some other "you" entirely? Pop has always thrived upon indeterminate pronouns, and Jackson has as well. Her quest for "Control" was a self-actualization fantasy for every overshadowed little sister, providing a female "I" that flexed its autonomy so benignly that only a fellow with a crepe-thin psyche could feel intimidated. Yet because men is who they is, plenty of insecure muhfuhs rose to Jackson's challenge. For instance, Eddie Murphy pointed out in Raw that Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" provided a stinging kiss-off for women everywhere to use upon their hapless men.
Don't expect the same level of universality to apply to "Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)," the misguided centerpiece of All for You (Virgin). The song lifts from Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" just as 1997's "Got Till It's Gone" swiped from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." But where the earlier song sampled Joni smashingly, here Simon embarrasses herself in person: She raps. As if that weren't bad enough, Jackson chants, "Greedy motherfuckers try to have your cake and eat it too," taking on a world of rumor and back-stabbing while Simon indulges in embarrassing post-beatnik jive. (Um, actually, ladies, I'm pretty sure the song isn't about me.)
And so, Janet has hied off to the world of celebrity, singing about yachts and gavottes and scarves that are apricot, about her own personal grudges that listeners are supposed to care about because--well, just because, you know? Fame has a way of robbing pop of its pliability--the way listeners can abstract lyrical situations for their own lives--and the Jackson family has long suffered from a surplus of the rampant subtext that comes with stardom.
For all her foot stamps of self-sufficiency, Janet has often tried to shrug off controversy by giggling with harmless, Nembutal-fed promiscuity. But now, Janet is up to her booty in subtext of her own: Her latest album is overshadowed by the dissolution of her secret marriage to collaborator Rene Elizondo. Seems the pair kept the marriage under wraps until it was over. Also seems that Elizondo is after some $10 million from his former "collaborator." As preliminary press releases and Janet interviews have framed the situation, All for You means to show Janet setting her singlehood into footloose action. As she declares on "Come on Get Up" while framed amid shimmery house keyboards courtesy of producer Rockwilder, "The single life's for me." What we have here is a struggle between Jackson's Byzantine private life and her need to shake her ass. If only we could be assured that her ass would win.
Even the fun tracks on All for You are tainted with the worries of megastardom. "You Ain't Right" finds Ms. Jackson suffering from a 104-degree fever, but before you can assume that the sickness is just a bout of puppy lust, she explains she's "'Bout to explode from the gossip." The confessional details of the lyrics grow even more exclusive on "Truth." "I sold out 'round the world before now didn't I," announces the particularly singular first person. "I had a few hits before now didn't I." But while Janet is settling accounts, which may be her prerogative, she comes close to biting back against the backbiters--just like brother Michael.
Such personal themes needn't doom her material: The Velvet Rope plumbed introspective depths with intriguing results. But The Velvet Rope didn't string four sucky ballads in a row, mid-album. The same vocal quality that makes a single Janet Jackson "slow one" beguiling makes a quartet of the other suckers sleep-inducing. Her soft purr envelops the song, but it doesn't transform the words. If "Would You Mind" is a softcore delight that promises to touch, tease, lick, please, love, hold, kiss, suck, taste, and ride some lucky "you," the feigned orgasm wouldn't pass the audition for a cut-rate phone sex job.
With help from the aforementioned Rockwilder, co-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis generate enough Zapp-tastic bounce to keep Jackson's turmoil in the public domain. "Trust a Try" veers thrillingly between a semi-classical rondo and guitar-rock crunch. And whether lifting a guitar lick from America's "Ventura Highway," spreading out a piano line from Debussy, or quoting "Ooh Child," this duo show a defter hand at the sampling game than most pilferers. There's always been a hint of sadomasochism in the punishing crunch of Jam and Lewis, and the whip came down on The Velvet Rope. On All For You, their angular rhythms glide and swirl rather than disciplining Jackson.
This newfound, light-footed swoosh sweeps in most daringly on the breezy title track, so secondhand in its Chic-derived élan that it actually samples Chic-derived funksters Change rather than the originals. With JJ slobbering over her scoped boy's "package," ("Got to ride it tonight," she declares blithely) the single makes for the droolingest ode to shy, fine boys since the Pointer Sisters' "He's So Shy" ripped off the Chiffons. And unlike the rest of these "personal songs," "All for You" is directed outward toward all of "you" shy, sweet boys in MTVland. Well, at least all of you who have prominent packages.
On its surface, All for You may be merely another documentation of the tribulations of stardom. (The stray giggles and studio banter sprinkled throughout, intended to make Janet seem more like one of us, are so forced as to make her sound psychopathic). And yet, no matter how many copies it sells, the album will dribble out to the world as a collection of fabulous singles. In turn, teenage girls will wrench these songs out of Jackson's psychodrama for their own uses. Like my girls in 3LW (an anonymous trio if ever there was one) say, "players, they gonna play, and haters, they gonna hate."
And so, regardless of the experiences of particular artists, the fundamental things apply to fans' lives as well. Whoever you are, those of you listening to All for You, some of these songs are about you--or at least you probably think so.
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