In retrospect, the Super Bowl XXXVIII controversy, or as it would be called, the “wardrobe malfunction” or “nipplegate” seems tame and ridiculous now, some twelve years later. The hand wringing and condemnation all seem like absurd overkill, given that sex tapes are now seen as viable ways of either resuscitating a career or creating one. At the center of the absurdity were two pop stars: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. While Timberlake emerged from the manufactured controversy unscathed (a string of film roles, hit singles, three multi-platinum albums), Jackson wasn’t so lucky. A once bright career which was notable in its lack of controversy, was hobbled. She was booted from a Grammy tribute to her late pal Luther Vandross; a biopic of Lena Horne was shuttered; Disney World ejected a Mickey Mouse statue that was dressed in a Rhythm Nation outfit; Spike Lee slammed Jackson as media-hungry, forgetting that she dropped some coin to help fund Malcolm X; the FCC slapped the producers of the show with heavy fines, and most improbably, MTV boycotted Jackson’s new music, thereby dampening the expected hullabaloo that should’ve greeted Jackson’s then-new album, Damita Jo.
After the noise settled a career was in tatters. Damita Jo (named after Jackson’s middle name) opened to good sales, but they quickly leveled off as radio exposure was nil. Jackson then followed up with a string of albums – 20 Y.O., Discipline, Unbreakable – that continued a distressing slide in Jackson’s commercial fortunes. Since 2004, she has yet to break into the Billboard top 10 (she hit the top 20 once).
All of the swirl of media hype and stylized disapproval managed to bury Jackson’s strong album, Damita Jo. It’s a shame because underneath the controversy is a very good record. It was also one of her most diverse, as her long-time producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis shared production credits with a dizzying array of collaborators including Telepopmusik, Dallas Austin, Babyface, and Kanye West.
Opening with a disposable interlude (Jackson’s obsessed with them), the album essentially gets rid of the chaff pretty early: “Damita Jo” is probably Jackson’s stupidest song. Ripping off shamelessly from Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” (Lopez was a backup dancer in Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” video), “Damita Jo” is a loud and clangy mess that is supposed to humanize Jackson. It’s hard to imagine Janet Jackson as anything but a high-end, multi-platinum diva, but “Damita Jo” strives to convince her listeners that she’s just plain folks – despite selling millions of albums, sitting on a gargantuan pile of money, and having Michael and LaToya as siblings. Being humble is never a superstar’s strongest suit, and when superstars reach for humility, the results are usually disastrous.
But Jackson and company are smart in that they present the album’s sole piece of crap as the first real song. From then we jump into the sprightly “Sexhibition.” The title sucks, yes, but it’s a great song. Dallas Austin proves he has some real affinity for Jackson – he brings in some buzzy guitars and a weird soundscape of techno-funk, that may remind listeners of Jackson’s earlier work with Jam & Harris. Austin returns for the album’s best song (and first single), “Just a Little While.” The song should’ve been a hit. A mid-tempo pop song with a stuttering guitar and an insanely catchy chorus (there’s even a psychedelic-lite bridge), “Just a Little While” is light and airy – and it suits Jackson beautifully.
Aside from Austin, the other heavy hitter to come on board is Kanye West who helps to put together “Strawberry Bounce” an anthem for a pole dancer; the gorgeous, waltz-like ballad “I Want You” and “My Baby” in which he costars. “Strawberry Bounce” is a silly song that casts Jackson as a prodigious stripper – not the most edifying subject for a pop song, but it’s a charming ditty with Jackson employing her steamy, breathy vocals to full effect. “My Baby” is a laid back affair that seems tailor-made for a late summer song. But “I Want You” is majestic – a recall of those yearning Motown ballads, kind of like what Michael Jackson used to sob. Though Janet Jackson is only about a quarter of the vocalist brother Mike was, she’s still very effective on the swinging ballad. If the “wardrobe malfunction” never happened, “I Want You” would’ve been a monster hit.
Along with Austin and West, Jackson also hooked up with super producer, Babyface, the grand daddy when it comes to polished, elegant urban pop-soul. Babyface’s impressive resume includes Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna, three of Jackson’s biggest rivals for the title of pop queen. His trademark sound is mounds and mounds of soft, pillowy synths and sexy strumming guitars. “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex” is standard Babyface in that Jackson’s chirpy little coo is nestled in snugly in the swaths of sonic fabric. It’s all very classy and elegant, and the lyrics – regretful, sad, melancholy – would’ve have sounded right at home on his hit soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale.
And though Austin, West, and Face are the deep-pocketed names, Damita Jo also features the work from Sweden – particularly BAG & Arnthor, an electronic outfit that sculpt two EDM numbers: “All Night (Don’t Stop)” (which is helped by a well-placed sample of Herbie Hancock) and the house-spiked “SloLove.” Jackson’s strength has always been dance music, and these two songs – the former especially, show that if Jackson were to shrug off her commercial trappings and just indulge in some weird, esoteric IDM or EDM, she’d manage to carve out a new and exciting career.
As with the bulk of Jackson’s work, the lion’s share of Damita Jo is made possible by the contribution of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (along with some assistance from pals like Scott Storch or the Avila Brothers). The Jackson-Jam-Harris contributions show the trio’s strong and enduring chemistry. The are able to synthesize various elements of Jackson’s public persona, including her sex kitten identity, her affinity for soft-focus feminism, her giggly girlishness, as well as, her undeniable instinct for a mean pop hook. Jam & Harris are graduates of the Prince University of Funk, so they give Jackson’s shiny, glossy sound enough grit to easily stay clear of bubblegum territory. They also are highly sympathetic to her queerness and her magnetic-like draw to queerness and always remember to craft sturdy singles that would play great on a dance floor, as well as be ready-made for some heavy remixing later on. The ballads – while impeccable – always try the listener’s patience because they often meander and stretch out, feeling like they’re playing for days. Jackson often adopts a dozy murmur when she purrs over Jam & Harris’ slow number, making these songs definitely sleepier moments. But when Jackson and Jam & Harris look for radio material, their collaboration is rarely at fault: “R&B Junkie” is about as perfect as any funky dance-pop song can be – a nostalgic and affectionate nod to Jackson’s musical roots (I’m picturing her early appearances on Soul Train). “Island Life” is the kind of frothy, empty nonsense – pop music version of diet soda – that the trio can create in their sleep.
There is still a lot to find annoying with Damita Jo. The lyrics’ preoccupation with sex can feel a little one-note – especially in light of how sex-heavy her work had become at that point (And would continue to be until the release of the more wide-ranging Unbreakable in 2015). And those interludes are pretty stupid. They’re never profound and present Jackson as vapid and dull (and a touch dim).
Damita Jo entered and peaked on the Billboard album chart at number 2, the first studio effort of her’s not to go to number one since her 1986 breakthrough Control. It opened with over 380,000 copies (an astronomical number these days), but sales quickly tapered off and the album capped at about a million copies (again, respectable number these days if your name isn’t Adele). None of the singles were hits, though “Just a Little While” appeared on the pop charts at number 45, effectively severing her lengthy string of top 40 hits. For the next decade, Jackson would try to regain some of her commercial footing, but to no avail – none of her albums after Damita Jo would sell well, and her singles would fare badly too (except for a brief comeback when “Feedback” from Discipline managed to claw its way to number 19 on the pop charts). The album has been forgotten by now, a footnote in a long and illustrious career. It’s a shame because it’s the perfect example of a solid pop product which has been buried, unfairly, under a pile of unwarranted controversy.