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Janet Jackson's Dungeon Master Chic

Why it's still as vital and revolutionary as ever

by Carol Cooper

Janet Jackson

Sure, Madonna repeatedly toyed with BDSM in her videos, but she never publicly admitted to breast and genital piercings like Miss Jackson did. So, in case you weren't tipped off from the Velvet Rope tour onwards, Janet's innocuous Dream Street ingenue had to die so a baby dominatrix could be born—one with enough foot-stomping power and petulance to bend bossy parents, nasty boys, and the pleasure principle itself to her indomitable will. Now, seven studio albums later, Discipline reiterates the premise of Control, but as its fully mature apotheosis. Back in 1986, her stylized defiance always sounded a little playful, like a Sesame Street routine. But 2008's Dungeon Master Janet delivers id-riddled pop-funk that's as serious as a heart attack and marks a truly impressive transformation. It's not every day that an NAACP Image Award winner outs herself as a genuinely kinky girl who believes that hard work and focus turn pain into pleasure.

Which is why, if Island Def Jam were anthropomorphic and properly submissive, I'd have whipped the label bloody for making critics wait long beyond its promised "6 p.m. sharp" start time for their Discipline listening party. Yes, sadly, rather than having hours to carefully audit the 22 tracks on Janet's latest opus, I attended an Ash Wednesday carnival featuring stiletto-shod whip girls, decadent finger food, and free drinks before being ushered into a movie theater for one high-volume spin of the whole album.

That said, I must admit that Discipline is the most cohesive deep-groove album from La Jackson since Control. Considering that none of her current producers (most notably Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Ne-Yo, and Jermaine Dupri) are particularly known for underground house anthems, the after-hours dance beats that jet-propel you through the first six full songs—from a blacked-out Britney-esque "Feedback" to the funky up-tempo ballad "Can't B Good"—come as a huge, disco-licious surprise. Still, the visual aesthetic here is Irving Klaw bondage chic filtered through Helmut Newton and vintage James Van Der Zee (!); the irresistibly priapic music is simply its sonic complement. The CD artwork and b&w video collage looped on-screen throughout the listening party was full of black PVC, Ohio Player playfulness, and pervy leather. Guest cameos by Ernie Isley on guitar ("Never Letchu Go") and Missy Elliott on vocals ("The 1") nonetheless blend better than you'd think they could under Janet's silky soprano and compulsive need to compete—and succeed—on her own terms.

Discipline's title track proves the most lyrically provocative: If you thought Prince was raw on Dirty Mind, Michael's little sister ups the ante with hypnotic meter and melody. As the show-stopping penultimate cut, "Discipline" reveals Janet "topping from the bottom" like the best little switch in the world, crooning: "Daddy I disobeyed you/Now I want you to come punish me." Those who worry that Janet's ambitious Rhythm Nation 1814 agenda somehow got lost in her own personal Story of O must remember that sex and social change are not mutually exclusive. To understand what motivates the former is to understand what motivates the latter. For Janet, this truth justifies her mapping the transgressive emotional territory that floats her boat; her masochism emerges from mysterious depths that she probes to better understand and control herself. Discipline suggests that by understanding and transcending physical and emotional pain, we can find the keys to unshackle ourselves from more destructive and abstract forces in human life—like racism. It simply takes longer to erase the color line than to overcome a pesky pain threshold.

Published in: Village Voice, February 26, 2008