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The End of the Age of Innocence : Janet Jackson is pop's most material girl now. In addition to all her power and money, she's added a new component: sex

June 20, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Janet Jackson has plenty of time on the set of her new video to talk--about Michael, LaToya and a favorite new subject: sex.

The pop world's highest paid female recording artist--sorry, Madonna--has canceled the dance rehearsal at the Hollywood sound stage because of "female problems," she says. That leaves her afternoon free.

"Come on, I'll give you a tour," Jackson says, walking on the set of a futuristic Asian nightclub, a voyeur's delight complete with high-tech cameras and monitors that enable you to spy on the intimacies going on in secluded lovers' nooks.

The video is for "If," a song about sexual fantasy and desire from "janet.," the hit album that introduces a bold, adult Jackson, a Jackson who says such things as "If you like, I'll go down."

Lust, voyeurism, seduction? What has happened to America's most famous little sister?

Jackson is 27, with a broken marriage behind her, but to millions she is still the little girl who grew up in the shadow of her famous brother(s)--the girl with the cutest dimples this side of Shirley Temple.

That image may soon be erased.

Not only does her spicy new album talk about love and desire, but Jackson makes out at a drive-in movie in the opening scene of "Poetic Justice," director John Singleton's much-anticipated follow-up to his acclaimed "Boyz N the Hood."

"I know there will be people who will look at me now and think, 'God, what has she done? She used to be this innocent little girl.' Well, I'm still the same person, but there is a point where you grow up and this is the time in my life," she says.

Some feelings, however, are slow to change.

Conscious of being a role model to young fans, Jackson opens one song on the new album by whispering a safe sex reminder: "Be a good boy and put this on."

She is taken aback, however, when asked about another whispered line after a song about sexual desire: "Are you still up?"

"No, no, that's not what I meant," she says quickly. "It's tied to the theme of the album. It's supposed to be like . . . 'Are you still awake?' "

New image or not, Little Sister is embarrassed.

Jackson is radiant as she stands in the middle of the busy video sound stage, as workmen rush past her to put scenery in place. There was a time when she felt self-conscious around cameras because the baby fat in her face and figure could lead to unflattering photographs if taken from the wrong angle.

She's now comfortable with her appearance. She looks gorgeous in the cover photo on the new album--like a young Dorothy Dandridge, the '50s film star whom Jackson hopes to portray in a film.

Jackson is equally confident in other areas of her life--secure enough to accept the demanding lead role in "Poetic Justice," an inner-city drama about a young woman's fight for happiness and identity after seeing her boyfriend shot to death. The film is due July 23.

"I think life is about risks," she says pausing on the tour of the sound stage. "There were certain people that said to me, 'Don't do a black film, especially a drama.' They said it would be easier to do a musical or a comedy because people would accept me easier in those roles.

"But I wanted something that mattered to me. When I saw 'Boyz N the Hood,' I said, 'That's it. I want to do something like that . . . something that is real.' "

Her manner, too, has opened up.

Like Michael, Janet was soft-spoken, painfully shy and so deferential when meeting someone for the first time that it was hard to imagine her actually taking charge of her own career.

For years, she found it hard to give orders because she was so timid. She also was uncomfortable talking about herself, especially her accomplishments, because it sounded too much like what her mother always hated: boasting. The hardest words for her, a longtime friend once said, are I and no .

The Gary, Ind., native still worries about sounding boastful or cocky when she talks about show-biz aspirations, but she now speaks easily--even on topics like sex and family, which once caused her to freeze.

Don Passman, a high-powered music-industry attorney who has represented Jackson since 1989, says there has been a change in Janet's personality.

"She was always very open and warm when she got to know people," he says. "The difference is (that) her ability to be herself around strangers has grown enormously."

Cynthia Horner, executive editor of teen-oriented Right On! magazine, has interviewed Jackson since the mid-'70s and attributes the new-found confidence to the success of her albums and her $40-million Virgin Records contract.

"I think the high that she is getting from the success is making her more relaxed and open," Horner says.

No one ever doubted that Michael Jackson had remarkable talent. He dazzled everyone with his singing and dancing with the Jackson 5 for years before his solo career made him the biggest-selling artist in the world.

But Janet had to fight for pop credibility.

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