The soft-spoken young woman responded quickly when asked what kind of person Janet Jackson was based solely on what she's read and heard about her.
"I'd think she was a girl who got where she was because she was a Jackson and that she had enough money to bring in all these hired guns to shape her music and image for her. I'd probably think, 'I could be doing the same thing if I had her money.' "
Janet Jackson then paused and stared across the hotel suite, reflecting on her own tough assessment of herself. Clearly, she is troubled by what she considers the perception of her as some sort of pop puppet.
Known for years as simply "Michael's little sister," Jackson, 23, was supposed to have graduated to a stronger identity in 1986 when her "Control" album sold 6 million copies worldwide and established her as one of the queens of dance pop.
But it didn't work out that way. Because her two earlier solo albums had been so forgettable, it was easy for outsiders to assume that the success of "Control" was due solely to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the former Prince allies who produced the album and co-wrote most of its songs.
Jackson's image suffered another blow last year when Paula Abdul, who had choreographed some of the promotional videos for "Control," emerged as a star herself. The tempting assumption was that Abdul was the real talent--and that Jackson merely benefited in the videos from Abdul's extraordinary dance sense.
In a separate interview, Rene Elizondo, Jackson's boyfriend, gave his analysis of her image problem. "Anybody who has been around Janet for any period of time will tell you the same thing . . . that she is humble to the point of fault," he said.
"She will not take credit for the things she is responsible for. . . . She will always say, 'We did it' instead of 'I did it.' That's what we've been trying to point out to her. It's the way she was brought up. I've told her, 'Part of the perception people have is your fault because you won't tell them what you did.' "
Confronted with this in the interview, Jackson said, "It sounds so selfish to say I, I, I. But it bothers me that some people think someone gave me an image or told me what songs to sing or what clothes to wear. I'm not a robot. I want people to know that I'm real."
When I was 17, I did what people told me
Did what my father said
And let my mother mold me
But that was long ago . . .
Now, I'm in control.
--"Control," by James Harris III
Terry Lewis, Janet Jackson
The more than 15,000 fans in the sold-out Centrum arena in nearby Worcester, Mass., were on their feet cheering as Jackson opened the 17th show on her first-ever concert tour with "Control." The enthusiasm of the young audience continued through the nearly 90 minutes Jackson was on stage.
Tickets sold so well for the first Worcester date that a second was added. It too sold out. Additional dates had also been added in other cities, making the Jackson swing one of the hottest tours of the new year.
Her five Southern California dates--Friday and Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood, April 23 at the San Diego Sports Arena then back to the Forum on April 25, 26--have been sold out for weeks.
"To be honest, no one really knew how the tour would do because Janet had never toured," said Roger Davies, who has been managing the young singer since last fall. "She never toured during the 'Control' days despite the demand, so that built anticipation for this tour.
"But you never know exactly who's going to buy tickets on someone's first time out until you put them on sale. We're probably going to be on the road most of the year . . . Europe, Japan, more U.S. dates, maybe even Australia." The additional U.S. dates will include a return to Southern California in June.
If the box-office demand was hot from the beginning, reviews were initially cool. Writing about the tour opener in Miami, Rolling Stone magazine's Sheila Rogers said the singer "has a long way to go in making the leap from tape to live." The Boston Globe's Steve Morse was even harsher.
But the show has gained considerable strength since Miami. The tough-minded Village Voice praised Jackson's Madison Square Garden performance, and the Globe's Morse, reviewing the show again in Worcester, was impressed.
"Janet Jackson is getting her wings in a hurry. She floundered . . . a month ago in Miami where she seemed scared, defensive and downright lost. But she was a different person last night. . . . She loosened up, took control early and whipped the capacity crowd into a frenzy."
If Morse was surprised by Jackson's improvement, those who have worked with her since the "Control" period aren't.
"She's probably one of the hardest-working and most determined artists I've ever been around," said Diana Baron, executive director of publicity for A&M; Records. "She has incredible strength and focus. She's willing to put in all the work to achieve her desired end. All this talk about her being a 'pop creation' couldn't be further from the truth."
From certain angles on stage, Jackson looks remarkably like her famous brother. There's the same quick, childlike smile . . . the same twinkle in the eye . . . the same shy downward glance that gives them both a doll-like quality.
Like Michael, Janet tends to be uncomfortable during ceremonial gatherings, such as meeting with dignitaries backstage or accepting awards on TV. She is soft-spoken at such occasions, at times answering questions in little more than a wisp of a voice.
Only when you talk to her and to those around her is it apparent that Jackson shares her brother's intense ambition. According to several people who know and/or work with her, she participates in virtually every decision affecting her career.
"I've studied the best . . . Michael Jackson, who was just down the hall," she said, wearing a sweater and jeans, and slouched in a straight-back chair in the hotel suite the day after the first Worcester concert. "I'm not saying that just because he's my brother. I really feel he is the best. I saw how hard he works, his ambition. It's so strange to read things about him, because people just don't understand Michael much."
But there are important differences between Michael and Janet. Where Michael is a loner, Janet enjoys being around people. She is also less obsessed with maintaining a veil of mystery.
That may be why, unlike Michael, she speaks with surprising ease about her life and her career. She doesn't shy away from questions about her failed marriage or about her famous family.
During the hotel interview and a second one on the bus ride to Worcester, she seemed so eager to talk about the events of the last five years that she leaned forward at times, awaiting the next question much like a cooperative trial witness. One reason is that she thinks it's time to overcome her natural reserve and claim credit for her accomplishments.
"Sure, I heard all those things after 'Control,' " she said. "People said, 'She's just riding on the coattails of her brother' or 'She's just a flash in the pan.' All that just fueled the fire in me. It's the same with Michael.
"I remember the time he only got one (major) Grammy nomination for 'Off the Wall.' He was so disappointed. His eyes started to water. I felt so bad for him, but he finally said, 'You watch, the next album I do ('Thriller'), you watch. . . . I'll show them.'
"That's the way I felt too. . . . 'She's only successful because of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam . . . or Paula Abdul . . . or she's Michael's sister' or whatever. That really bothered me. I knew I was going to make another big album. There was no way around it."
"Rhythm Nation 1814," Jackson's follow-up to "Control," wasn't as big a hit as "Thriller," but it is past the 5 million sales figure worldwide and it is certain to eclipse "Control."
Manager Davies and boyfriend Elizondo had hoped that interviews in connection with "Rhythm Nation" would help clarify Jackson's role in her shaping of her career. But they both said in separate interviews that they felt her shyness led her to underplay her contributions in a variety of interviews, including a cover piece in Rolling Stone.
They said they've talked to her about trying to be more assertive--and it looks like the prompting has paid off.
Sitting in a rear lounge area on the bus, Jackson nibbled on wheat crackers as she tried to set the record straight--the only time she used "we" was when it was clearly relevant.
Jackson's career began at age 7 when she joined the Jacksons' family act on stage in Las Vegas. She was a great crowd favorite as she did a Mae West impersonation and dueted on "I Got You, Babe" with brother Randy.
Despite the early start, she rejects the idea that she was groomed for pop stardom the way her brothers were.
"I don't think groomed is the right word, but I think I did get some feel for show business by watching our brothers and all of the things they had done . . . all their success.
"There was a time when I did feel I missed out on my childhood, but now look what I have. If I were to do it again, I think I would do it the same way. There are a lot of things I missed. . . . Playing with the kids . . . because I was always working, the TV shows and finally the records."
Born Janet Damita Jackson in Gary, Ind., she moved to Southern California with her parents when she was 2. After a short time in Beverly Hills, the family settled in Encino, where she landed a role in the "Good Times" sitcom shortly after the Las Vegas debut. Acting, not music, was her early goal.
She only released one album in 1982--at age 16--because of her father's urging. She really wasn't into it, she said, and just sort of walked through it. She wasn't any more into music when she made her second album, 1984's "Dream Street."
She was falling in love.
First time I fell in love
I didn't know what hit me
So young and so naive
I thought it would be easy
Janet was 15 when she met James DeBarge, a member of a family singing group--DeBarge--that Motown Records promoted in the early '80s as the new Jackson 5. For years, Janet's best pal had been Michael. They'd go to the movies together, take walks, go shopping, watch television. But she found herself increasingly alone in the Encino house as Michael's career escalated with "Off the Wall" and "Thriller."
When she eloped with DeBarge in 1984, there were tabloid reports of the Jackson family being so upset that they threatened to disown Janet. When the marriage was annulled after less than a year, the speculation was that Janet had caved in to family pressure.
Jackson didn't wince when the marriage was mentioned.
"There was a lot of pressure, but my family eventually accepted the marriage. There were a lot of things involved (in the annulment). . . . My career, his career. We never had a chance to be with one another the way we wanted to.
"I wanted to be with him more, but I'd get up at 4 in the morning to be on the set," continued Jackson, who then was a regular in the "Fame" TV series, "and he'd just be coming home from the recording studio at that point. . . . The times we would be together, we were so worn out, we'd sleep the entire day."
"I'm sad about what happened, but it hasn't (soured) me on marriage. . . . I want to get married again sometime, but I don't know when. Right now, my music comes first."
Jackson does, however, wince when her first two A&M; albums are mentioned.
"I never really wanted to sing--at least not back in those days," she said. "I was interested in making movies. I really wanted to study, really get into it."
But things had changed by the time she made "Control."
Depressed by the failed marriage, unhappy with the "Fame" series and anxious about finding her own path after being so sheltered as a child, Jackson, still in her teens, spent several weeks in 1985 thinking about her future.
As she reflected on that period, her already soft voice seemed to take on an even fainter tone.
"I can see where there's a good and a bad to being raised the way we were," she said, speaking slowly as if she were trying to figure out how she would rear children herself.
"I know my mother and father were trying to do what they felt was best for us--and the good side of being so sheltered was that we never got into the drugs and all the crazy things that go on out there.
"The disadvantage was we never got to really communicate with the real world, and you eventually have to live in that world and (the adjustment) can be a shock. Around the time of 'Fame,' I saw a lot of things that I had only read about suddenly right before my eyes."
She said that she wasn't tempted by the fast-lane lifestyle around her but that it left her feeling shaken and alone.
During this period of isolation and soul searching, she decided to make another album--but this time one that expressed her feelings.
She met with then A&M; executive John McClain, a long-time family friend, and told him about her goal.
"I told John there is so much inside me that I want to express," she said. "I want to let other children know about other people who I feel have gone through the things I did . . . and let them know they are not alone. . . . Because I felt so alone. 'Control' came from the heart.
"It was all about stepping out, taking control of your life. . . . A certain point in your life when you ask yourself who you are and what you want to do. That album was me going through all that."
When Jackson also said she wanted a funky, melodic style of music, McClain recommended the Minneapolis team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jackson went to Minneapolis to work on the record. It was, those around her said, a time of tremendous independence and growth for her. The producers played an essential role in translating her feelings to music.
When it was time to do some videos, McClain suggested Paula Abdul, whom Jackson had met briefly, as a choreographer for several of the "Control" videos, including the title song and "Nasty."
About their relationship, Jackson said, "I'm happy for her success, but I get upset when people write things like Paula taught me how to dance.
"You cannot teach someone how to dance overnight. All you can do is show them some moves. We worked on the choreography together. . . . Some things I deleted . . . some I added to."
Mary Lambert, who directed the "Control" and "Nasty" videos, recalled Jackson's involvement with all aspects of the productions.
"She is really driven to be--I don't want to say better than Michael--but to create her own image," Lambert said in a phone interview. "And it was a time of independence and growth for her. . . . It's like the song, 'God bless the child who's got his own.' She wants to have her own.
Jimmy Jam, who co-produced Jackson's two best-selling albums, seemed surprised in a separate interview that Jackson would worry about anyone suspecting she was some kind of pop creation. He, too, sees Jackson as a "strong, natural" talent.
"To begin with, when someone says, 'Well, she brought in a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,' you've got to remember that we weren't exactly (the hottest producers around.) We weren't Quincy Jones," he said in phone interview from Minneapolis. " 'Control' was our first . . . smash. The same with Paula. It wasn't like Janet was (hiring) Fred Astaire. You know what I'm saying? She took a chance on all of us .
"So, the question (can be debated): Who raised who to what level? I think everyone benefited. I know Janet has taken our songs and raised them to a new level of success. Bottom line: none of it would have happened without her."
Her confidence strengthened by the success of "Control," Jackson briefly considered doing a concept work about her family that she said was suggested by A&M;'s McClain, but she eventually rejected it in favor of the socially conscious "Rhythm Nation" theme.
The idea, she said, was based on what she had read of "nations" of young people, mostly black, in New York who gathered together for identity and support. It was again a collaboration with producers Jam and Lewis.
Said Jackson, "I was reading about all these clubs and I thought it would be great if we could create our own nation. . . . One that would have a positive message and that everyone would be free to join," she said.
The theme is not only expressed in such songs as "Rhythm Nation" and "State of the World"--a song about a homeless boy that she said was inspired by a TV news report on a homeless family--but also in slogans included on the album jacket and on souvenir T-shirts sold at the concerts.
Sample lyrics from the album's title number:
Join voices in protest
To social injustice
A generation full of courage
Come forth with me.
Those aren't sophisticated lyrics even by undemanding pop standards, but Jackson feels that the message of good will and social responsibility still comes across.
"I can just imagine what some people thought when they heard the album was going to be socially conscious . . . that I was trying to be Tracy Chapman," Jackson said as the bus pulled into the Centrum backstage parking area before the second Worcester concert.
"Well, I admire Tracy Chapman and bands like U2 a lot, but I am talking to a different audience. . . . I wanted to take our message directly to the kids, and the way to do that is by making music you can really dance to. That was our whole goal: How can I get through to the kids with this?"
When Jackson stepped on stage three hours later, the Centrum audience again cheered mightily. Jackson's not the frequently breathtaking performer her brother is, but she does exhibit considerable authority for someone who has only been touring a few weeks. On the other hand, Jackson has been performing, either on television or records, since she was 7. That might cause some people to feel jaded.
Not Jackson. "I feel like a kid still, like I'm must starting," she said during the bus ride to Worcester. "I'd like to produce some albums, do more writing, and I can't wait to get started in movies."