Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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But It's Really Good Sex

Musical pornographer Janet Jackson shocks a stupefied America into outrage and erection

Janet Jackson was a cause célèbre once before, and not for what most would call moral reasons. I'm talking about 1992, when she signed the $40 million contract with Virgin that has now generated her new sex opus, Damita Jo. What a time that was--mega-deals for Barbra Streisand, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, the insatiable Rolling Stones, not to mention Prince ($100 million, har har), Michael (announced at a billion), and Madonna (her own label!). Lightweight Janet was widely regarded as the silliest of the biz's spendthrift investments, which in toto helped pave the way to the doomshow in which the RIAA started suing 12-year-olds. And maybe Virgin took a loss on her. But compared to these has-beens, even Madonna, she's done OK--sextuple-platinum janet. in 1993, triple-platinum The Velvet Rope in 1997, double-platinum All for You in 2001.

It was to promote the 2004 installment that Jackson conceived her Super Bowl scam. I buy the "wardrobe malfunction" line--she never intended the sun-star on her aureole for public view. But of course she planned a scandal, and even before her bustier busted, hers beat frenching Britney Spears. Whether it gives Damita Jo a better shot at its multimillion than Madonna's American Life, which has yet to budge off its instant platinum, is not for mortals like me to predict. But it's certainly a better-conceived record. Madonna's strategy over the past decade has been desexualization, which met with minimal resistance until she replaced vague religiosity with vague politics, whereupon pundits and public alike abruptly decided she was a hypocrite in over her head. Eight years younger and with more repression to get out of her system, Janet made sex her cause, with political consequences she couldn't have intended. That the right would prosecute the culture wars into November and beyond was guaranteed by the gay marriage movement. But the intrusion of titty into our annual celebration of domesticated violence escalated those wars--to what ultimate effect is not for mortals like me to predict. Say hello to Howard Stern.

The Janet Jackson Virgin signed was a tiny-voiced dance diva whose Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis beats overwhelmed her independent persona. Pumped by a trio of suggestive videos and the mixed moans of the orgiastic "Throb," janet. came on as a sex album, but in retrospect it was transitional. The Velvet Rope was the sex album, from libertarian declaration of purpose to matched s&m and polymorphous-perversity tributes. With its pivotal Carly Simon cameo, All for You seemed more of the same, only the sexuality had deteriorated from exploration to entitlement. Turned on by the first and off by the second in their moments, I hear both differently now. Beyond its bondage fantasies and bisexual Rod Stewart song, what distinguished The Velvet Rope was its midtempo commitment to Jackson's fluting soprano as token of romance as well as engine of soft-core porn, so that despite its mild kink it's kind of bland. And though All for You turns to drivel once Simon shows up, by then it's been kicked into gear by three Jam & Lewis whomps, one nicely cock-hungry, and "Would You Mind," Jackson's juiciest come-hither to date. With familiarity, I feel both albums about equally.

The subjective voice is essential here because these records are pornographic. They mean not just to represent but to stimulate. Although in a grosser way this is true of all rock and roll, the task of getting bodies moving is basically mechanical--different beats for different streets, but the good ones reach across cultures and personal proclivities with remarkable ease and efficiency. When the aim is anything hotter than the warm feelings targeted by crooners and torch singers, sexual arousal is infinitely more complex and idiosyncratic. So all I can do is explain why Janet Jackson's moves work so much better for me than the jailbait sleaze of Britney Spears, who sings from the wrong side of too many orgasms, or the big-dick demands of Lil' Kim, which leave me out, or the experienced sangfroid of Madonna, which intimidates me even though she's probably a regular girl underneath. Velvet ropes notwithstanding, Jackson comes on pretty vanilla, and although her love songs per se lack bite, her sexuality seems steeped in affection. Yet she exudes carnality, a desire to please and be pleased radiating from and to the mucous membranes, and the nipples too. And thus she moves blood to the groin, where it awaits deployment in socially useful endeavors--in my case, marital relations.

Damita Jo is less impressive than janet., but that's not to go along with the moral watchdogs, some masquerading as aesthetic watchdogs, for whom the album's pornographic ambitions disqualify it as art. Yes, Damita Jo benefits from Kanye West's wit and peaks with the non-Jam & Lewis synth-dance that Jackson enhances with sensual background murmurs; yes, the spoken-word interludes, sometimes slyly sexy in the past, promise awkward bed talk. But the speaking voice is lovely, all unassuming flutter and grit, and the whispered softcore is quite graceful; having stopped pretending to belt, Jackson has grown into her voice along with the rest of her body. Damita Jo starts off bold--beats from Dallas Austin and input from West again put the saucy assertiveness of "Sexhibition" and "Strawberry Bounce" across. But as the album proceeds it gets realer, mostly whispered softcore by the second half even when it's love songs per se. Call me immature, but I figure there's never enough good sex in the world. In a culture inundated with dirty pornos, Damita Jo is good sex. Its right to move 3 million is worth fighting a culture war about.

Village Voice, Apr. 13, 2004