Back to the Grind

The dude on the other end of the line wants to know what she’s going to wear on her upcoming tour, a Wiffle Ball of a question, lobbed underhanded.

Janet Jackson takes a good whack at it anyways.

"Clothes," she says with a chuckle on a conference call with journalists from Vegas to Detroit, her voice soft enough to curl up and take a nap upon.

"I’m sorry for being so silly," she purrs. "It’s very early for me right now."

It’s a bit past 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning, and Jackson is hunkered down in rehearsals, girding herself for months on the road, never-ending bus rides and less sunshine than an Alaskan winter.

It’s the life of a vampire, albeit one in high heels and tight, epidermal black leather.

"You live in a box, you don’t get to see the day, unless you want to at lunch — you can take lunch outside," Jackson says of the day-to-day grind of the road. "Normally, you have your catering, you eat inside the venue, and you only see daylight when you’re on your way to the venue. You get air when you’re on way back to the hotel. That’s it."

Not that Jackson is complaining. This is her first tour in seven years, though she never planned on staying off the road for so long.

Jackson had intended on touring for her previous album, 2006’s "20 Y.O.," but her new record company had other plans.

"I was actually in rehearsal for the tour," Jackson says of her concert preparations, which took place while she was in Atlanta shooting a role in the Chris Rock film "Why Did I Get Married?" "On my days off, I’d run into rehearsal. But the label at the time, Island/Def Jam, asked me if I would wait. They really wanted to get an album out at the end of the year or the beginning of the new year. And I did. I waited. The (dancers) were so bummed out. It was pretty sad. We had our little crying session. But that was the big delay. I wasn’t going to postpone this one for anything."

In hindsight, the decision was a wise one.

Whereas "20 Y.O." was a solid, albeit backward looking effort that largely mined the frivolity of Jackson’s past, her latest disc, "Discipline," released earlier this year, is a more sleek and modernist disc meant to hit the dance floor hard enough to leave craters.

It’s a libidinous, suggestive album, taking a cue from the overboard salaciousness of 2004’s spotty "Damita Jo" and making it work in a new context.

Whereas veteran collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis oversaw much of "20 Y.O.," on "Discipline," Jackson teams up with a younger set of producers (Ne-Yo, The-Dream, Stargate), and the result is an album that feels like an update of the self-empowered pop that first brought Jackson to prominence beginning with her breakout 1986 smash "Control."

At the time, Jackson galvanized a nation of young women with her feminine assertiveness and pronounced independent streak. "Got my own mind, I wanna make my own decisions," she sang on the title cut to the album, which mixed a slick pop production, an electronic veneer and hard beats with radio-friendly R&B to modernize contemporary urban music and rack up massive sales.

Since then, Jackson’s moved more than 25 million records in America alone, though in recent years, her sales have dipped, as her well-heeled pop heirs (Beyonce, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera) have built upon her themes of sexual emancipation to increasingly bawdy fashion.

At times, Jackson has seemed like she’s struggled a bit too hard to keep up — witness the backlash that ensued after her racy, breast-baring Super Bowl performance.

But these days, Jackson says she’s not engaged in any sexual arms race.

"You do your thing," she says. "I’ve already been there, I’ve already done all of that, it’s not a matter of keeping up. I hope that doesn’t sound cocky, because I don’t mean it to sound cocky, by any means. It’s not a matter of trying to keep up with any current trend, it’s about being you. Music has changed, my music has changed. It will continue to evolve."

Still, the best pleasures tend to be the simplest ones.

Jackson knows this — there’s always been a primal edge inherent in her repertoire, right from the start.

And on her latest tour, Jackson’s keeping things as elemental as the carnality that’s long defined her.

"It’s about dance," she says. "It’s about forgetting your troubles, your worries. It’s a really difficult time for everybody right now, with the economy and all. It’s really about just getting out and having a good time."

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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