Saturday, March 30, 2013

"I'm Gonna Have You Naked by the End of This Song"

February 1, 2004 is a very sad day in music history for me.  That marks the date (Jesus, almost 10 years ago) of the Superbowl half-time Nipplegate fiasco featuring two of my favorite pop stars of all time, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.  While dueting on "Rock Your Body," Justin pulled off Janet's top and there it was:  a pierced Janet nipple, for all the world to see.  Oddly enough, Janet had to withstand all the moral burden for the silliness that ensued.  FCC fines and of course an obliteration of sanctimonious, over-the-top bull-shit about how children watching the Superbowl were scarred forever.  Janet I don't think ever recovered public-relations-wise.  She had to apologize for her sins. 

Justin did just fine.

Now here comes Justin with a new hyped-up album called The 20/20 Experience.  And it is a blissful, gorgeous assault, a tour-de-force of electronic-soul artistry that makes you want to get up and dance and also just sit on the floor in your room and swoon.  It has an elastic sense of play, and a gravitas in some areas that allows you to feel beyond the confines of plain old pop-music, or at least you get to run around Justin's mansion for a while feeling completely at home. 

Favorite tunes: 
  • "Tunnel Vision" has a growl and interstellar flow to it, as if Justin is pulling in the innocent/sophisticated rush of the Micheal-Jackson-on-Off-the-Wall.  The song zooms through your skull like a comet doing disco somersaults.
  • "Don't Hold the Wall" is a dance song that somehow blossoms into a kinky, soaring world-music ballad, without slowing itself down to pay tribute to the little people.  It's all synthetic and sinful, the way true pop music should be. 
  • "Suit and Tie," at first seemed to me to be the wrong choice for the first single, but once you get hold of the album you totally understand.  Justin is introducing his new Thin-White-Duke phase, replacing cocaine and white-fedora'ed androgyny with bourbon and Tom Ford.  The whole album's aesthetic power seems to fall out of that tune, brisk and staged at points, slow and improvised at others.
  • "Blue Ocean Floor" comes off like a Radiohead song written by Stevie Wonder.  You want to climb inside it and have a little cry, like a baby-alien missing its astronaut mother. 
Ironically enough, all that I just wrote about 20/20 I could revamp and revise and write about Janet's 1997 masterpiece The Velvet Rope.  Listening to 20/20, in fact, made me totally nostalgic for that album, a brilliant pastiche of soul/electronica/trip-hop flourishes that transcends "pastiche" and opens up into pure originality every time you listen to it.  Janet's open-hearted lyrics and playfulness solidify into stream-of-consciousness anthems like "Free Xone" and "Together Again," but there's also a burdenless, almost hilariously mean-spirited sense of funk in "Go Deep."  Q-Tip on "Got til It's Gone" does the same work for Janet that Jay Z does for Justin on "Suit and Tie," entering the song politely and then somehow making the tune seem even more itself by rapping around and into the interlude until there's a perfect connection between melody and beat.  Velvet's penultimate ballad, "I Get So Lonely," is one of those songs, like "Tunnel Vision," that you can listen to over and over and find new pleasures inside it every time. 

Pop music doesn't have to be stupid, or even people-pleasing.  It just needs to be pleasurable in ways that reinvigorate what you've thought you've always wanted to hear.  Janet proved this in 1997, and Justin is proving it again in 2013.  I just wish more people understood that Janet is the master, and Justin the apprentice, and that what happened in 2004 still needs to be apologized for.  And the apology needs to come from someone other than Janet.