"Excuse me," Janet Jackson says, "my neck is really tight." Janet Jackson is not asking me for a back rub. She can handle this one herself, thank you very much. She turns her neck slightly to the left. Pop! And then to the right. Pop! I wince. She giggles.
"When I was little, my sister LaToya used to crack my knuckles," says Jackson, as she reclines on a couch in a hotel suite just off Michigan Avenue, a rare moment of repose in a day spent promoting the release of her eighth studio album, "All for You" (Virgin), which arrived in stores Tuesday and is expected to enter the nation's sales charts at No. 1 next week.
"Then she started cracking all kinds of things all over her body, and I'd watch. Pretty soon I was cracking stuff too. So I've been doing this for a long time. It helps until I get a complete adjustment [from a chiropractor]. It helps relieve the pressure that I'm feeling."
Jackson is handling the pressure well these days, better than she was four years ago when we last talked. Then she was emerging from a depression so deep that she was canceling recording sessions and shedding tears before stepping on stage to perform--which is why her 1997 album, "The Velvet Rope," often sounds like the soundtrack to a therapy session. "All for You" picks up the story, and the mood is good deal brighter.
"I look back at pictures of myself from four years ago and I see the unhappiness in my eyes," she says. "But I'm in the greatest space now."
If Jackson feels as good as she looks, she should be on top of the world. Her 5-foot-3-inch frame is packed into blue jeans and a pink, sleeveless top, and the effort of working out 2 1/2 hours a day (boxing, running, weight training) four days a week is apparent. When her world tour begins in July, she'll step it up to six grueling workouts a week to stay in shape for a show that likely will be as much a dance marathon as a concert.
Still, Jackson says the physical beating she puts herself through is a breeze compared to the mental overhaul she underwent in recent years. Her more positive outlook was achieved even though her marriage to longtime companion and lyrical collaborator Rene Elizondo fell apart in 1999.
Last December, Elizondo filed a $10-million lawsuit against her in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking proceeds from her work after their relationship began in 1987. "All for You" includes a song called "Truth" that reads like an open letter to her estranged husband: "Don't act like you don't know the truth/Cause deep down in your heart you do/Let it go."
"That song is about us, and it's really me thinking out loud," she says. "It's saying, there is all this mess going on, let's forget all of it and get on with our lives, go our separate ways. I think a lot of things he did were done out of pain, out of ego, and wanting me to feel pain."
Jackson chokes a bit on the last word. Her eyes well up, but she continues to describe a relationship that began as a creative partnership, evolved into a secret marriage, and then deteriorated in an atmosphere of mistrust. "He [Elizondo] had to help himself before I could help him," she says. "It became too much for me. I felt so selfish at one point, but it was dragging me down."
Jackson refuses to go into greater detail, in part because she's still facing the lawsuit and a mountain of depositions as she tries to leave Elizondo behind and move on with her life. When her husband sued her, Jackson says she was stunned.
"It makes me wonder whether the love we had was really sincere, or was there an agenda from the beginning?" she says. "Because I knew where I was coming from, and what I was feeling, and what I was in it for, and that was nothing but love and support and to have an honest relationship. I hope it was, but I don't know."
Jackson is almost eager to discuss the latest turmoil in her private life. She comes across as self-effacingly sincere, the down-to-earth Jackson in a family famous for its dysfunction. She also knows that such controversy can only raise interest in the new album as she tries to reassert herself as the queen of the dance-pop divas. Since 1986, she has sold more than 36 million albums worldwide, and the title song from "All for You" recently became her latest No. 1 single. No wonder the 34-year-old singer asserts that the album's key track is one with a self-explanatory title: "Better Days."
"This album could have ended up exactly like 'The Velvet Rope' because of what's gone on in my life since then, like the divorce," she says. "But I believe we have choices and paths, and it's about choosing the right path, the promising path."
When she gets into specifics, however, the story takes a strange twist--the kind of turn that, sadly, has become a Jackson family hallmark in the last decade. When I ask who the right kind of people are, she mentions one man in particular, a tall, scruffy cowboy she met while riding horses one day with her friends in an unspecified desert.
Jackson claims she's kept in touch with her cowboy guru for four years. I am incredulous, but she is insistent. "It is strange. I know. And coming from a Jackson, I know you've got an eyebrow raised about this," she says, with a slight smile. "Is she telling us the truth? But it's the honest-to-God truth. We still keep in touch. He's the one who helped me through it all."
Jackson certainly sounds like a more balanced person, but at what price? One senses that this woman has sacrificed almost everything to fulfill her childhood destiny, as prescribed by her authoritarian father, Joseph Jackson, of Gary, Ind. She was essentially groomed from birth to entertain, starring in a network television show at age 10 ("Good Times") and recording her first album when she was 16 (a self-titled release in 1982). No wonder when she speaks about her famed but controversy-riddled older brother, Michael, she doesn't sound like a sibling so much as a fan.
"I spoke to Michael about a week ago," she says. "We don't talk to each other as often as we'd like, and people assume something is wrong. But we have a great relationship. We always have. He called me about his special [the Sept. 7 reunion concert of the Jackson brothers in New York], and wants me to participate, but I don't know if I really can because of this tour. But I've been waiting the longest time for him to get the brothers together again. Because I'm selfish--I am a big Jacksons fan, and I miss seeing my brothers on stage."
It's little wonder, because the stage might be the closest thing to home Janet Jackson knows. "My fans have been so loyal," she says. "They feel like I'm part of their family because they've grown up with me. And in a way, they are my family."