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    My need

    Happy Fourth, everyone.

    Ever since Michael Jackson died—don’t make a face, I have a very specific purpose in bringing him up one last time, and explicating it won’t take long—I’ve been listening to Janet. It was unconscious on my part, and when I did realize that I was playing Control for the tenth time, it brought me up short. (I may have posted about it on Facebook, actually.) Why would Michael’s death put me on a Janet jag? He made plenty of good music himself after all.

    But here’s the thing: Michael weenied out on his own life, and Janet didn’t. Here‘s the way she describes what happened after her second album:

    Following the release of Dream Street, Jackson decided to separate her business affairs from her family. She later commented, “I remember trying to tell my father I no longer wanted him to manage me. It would have been easier to have Mother tell him for me, but that was something I had to do for myself.” Jackson also stated, “I just wanted to get out of the house, get out from under my father, which was one of the most difficult things that I had to do, telling him that I didn’t want to work with him again.” A&M Records executive John McClain hired producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to work with Jackson. Within six weeks, Jackson, Jam and Lewis crafted Jackson’s third studio album, Control. Jackson recalled that during the recording of the album, she was threatened by a group of men outside of her hotel in Minneapolis. She stated that “[t]he danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street … Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like ‘Nasty’ and ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’ were born, out of a sense of self-defense.”

    Michael never did anything like that. He rebelled in compulsive bursts that flared up and died like meteor showers. He retreated into childish fantasies. He wanted to stay protected by other people. He didn’t test himself, in any purposeful and sustained way, to see whether he was better off without his minders.

    Now, yes, Janet is one of the most ridiculously rich and powerful celebrities on the planet. Her version of “autonomy” involves bodyguards, an army of personal assistants, and a house that probably has a better security system than most presidential palaces. And she entrusts herself to ace collaborators. (This is not post-Rick Teena Marie, alone at the controls making her singular visions into reality.)

    But collaborators, even collaborators of superior talents, are peers. When it mattered, Janet decided that she was a grown-up and didn’t need to be daddied anymore. And she didn’t take the easy out of getting Mom to tell him. I love her for that.

    Anyone who’s getting worried that I’ve decided Janet Jackson is just like Thomas Paine can relax. That’s not my point. The Founding Fathers thought and acted on a much, much higher plane, obviously. They made our current way of life possible; Janet did not. But for most of us, it’s within family and work that we have the opportunities to stand up or submit. (The way Washington’s developing, we may soon be getting a chance to do so at the federal-government level again, too, but that’s a topic for other posts.) What matters is whether you capitalize on them. For all the understandable talk about Michael this week, when I’ve wanted to listen to something that buoyed me, I’ve preferred “Control” or “Escapade” or “Enjoy.” Getting out into the world, testing your strengths, learning how to take care of yourself and use what gifts you have to enhance life for others—that’s America. Janet’s made quite a few missteps over the last decade or so, but you never hear speculation that she’s screwing up because she can’t get out from under her “handlers.” Her failings are as much her own as her long suits. And bully for her. If I’m going to be asked to countenance pop-star self-pity, I’ll take “There’s nothing more depressing than having everything and still feeling sad” over “Have you seen my childhood?” any day. Especially today.

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