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Out of Touch

While other eighties pop stars are redefining themselves as entertainers and sexual icons, Janet Jackson seems oddly stuck in time.

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Strategic: Jackson's oversexualized new album.  

Janet Jackson
Damita Jo (Virgin)
The hysteria over Nipplegate was so absurd not because the reaction was disproportionate to the alleged crime but because Janet Jackson’s exposed breast was actually the very last gasp (flash?) of one of pop music’s most sexual—and least sexy—eras.

Jackson’s oversexualized new album, Damita Jo, all breathy come-ons and strategically placed fucks, is a relic from that era, which pop historians will probably someday note began in 2001 with Christina Aguilera, Mya, and Pink doing a kind of karaoke-in-lingerie to LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and reached its pseudo-pornographic pinnacle in 2002 with Aguilera’s renaming herself “X-Tina.”

That she’s so late to this titillating trend is devastating for Jackson, who, like Madonna, is more pulse taker than artist. Jackson’s best albums—1986’s Control and 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814—brought a real, confident sense of sexuality (she was the embodiment of LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl”) and smart production to the dull, upscale R&B scene of the late eighties.

“Jackson’s take on sex is regressive, not progressive.”

Damita Jo, sadly, is an outdated product of the turn-of-the-millennium pop scene, in which female singers conflated sexual openness with empowerment. It’s a sexuality that alternates with sentimentality and nothing more; on Damita Jo, Jackson goes from “Moist” to “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex,” which leaves little to the imagination and lacks any nuance. It’s an unwinning wistfulness made worse by the album’s gauzy production—all well-worn samples (Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “I’m in Love”) and harpsichords and chimes—by longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Jackson would like Damita Jo to stand as an example of a bold embrace of black sexuality (she even implied as much about Nipplegate while accepting a Soul Train lifetime-achievement award recently). But unlike with real sexual renegades—Prince, in particular—Jackson’s take on sex is regressive, not progressive. Like Britney, Hilary Duff, and X-Tina, Jackson clings to the Madonna/whore dichotomy of the fifties. On Prince’s classic Dirty Mind, sex was a refuge, a place where outsiders could go to be free. He even praised a rough Minneapolis neighborhood for providing that escape in a song called “Uptown.” The difference between Dirty and Damita couldn’t be more stark: Prince went “Uptown” while Jackson went to the Super Bowl.


Usher
“Yeah” (Arista)
LCD Soundsystem
“Yeah” (DFA)
Like so much of R&B’s avant-garde, Usher’s “Yeah,” from his new album, Confessions, isn’t much lyrically—it’s standard “I can’t get off the dance floor ’cause this lady’s so hot” stuff—but its sonics are nearly overwhelming in their power. Usher’s rote routine is backed by horn squelches as synthetic as those on Green Velvet’s earth-shaking remix of Basement Jaxx’s “Fly Life,” and during the song’s bridge, he’s accompanied by icy, dissonant synths. The green lasers piercing the song’s video confirm it: “Yeah” is R&B as rave.

It may be sheer coincidence that 2004’s other great single is called “Yeah,” but I doubt it. This offhand affirmation seems to sum up the enervated mood among music-makers that can be traced in large part to the risks of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below paying off so handsomely. (“Hey Ya!” now seems like a natural on the pop charts, but when I accompanied the duo to premiere the video on BET, we were met with stunned silence and snickers.)

Like Usher’s “Yeah,” LCD Soundsystem’s “Yeah” sounds titanic on a big sound system. But led by a neurotic white downtowner (James Murphy) best known for putting down both himself and his scene on “Losing My Edge,” this “Yeah” takes a very different route to the dance floor. “Everyone seems to be talking about it,” Murphy sings sarcastically, over a loose bass line and a cowbell’s clatter, “Nobody’s getting it done.” The song’s chorus—“Yeah yeah yeah yeah”—confirms the mock malaise, but each repetition of the word increases the tension until “Yeah” comes undone. Murphy’s dispassionate yeahs turn into a frenzied yelp and he’s submerged by the serrated synths of the Roland 303 (a piece of equipment whose hallucinogenic sounds gave birth to acid house during the late eighties). It’s a perfect end to a song about defeating hipster skepticism: death by 303.


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