Inside Janet Jackson's Comeback Gamble and the Hurdle of the 'Aging Diva' Stereotype
Ageism? hardly. With tour tickets selling briskly and a new album bringing major buzz, the 49-year-old bucks the trend.
Time can be cruel to the female pop star rounding 50. No matter how little her talent might diminish, under the spotlight’s glare, critics gleefully count wrinkles and listen for pitchy vocals in a way that rarely happens with male artists. Just ask Madonna, 56, or 45-year-old Mariah Carey, whose journeys into middle age have been challenging at best. Britney Spears, 33, Jennifer Lopez, 46, Celine Dion, 47, and Shania Twain, 49, already have taken the Vegas route. (Granted, Cher at 69 seems immune, but she’s the exception to most rules.) Can Janet Jackson, at 49, avoid the syndrome?
She’s off to a strong start. Since a May 16 online tease of “new music, new world tour, a new movement,” Jackson has rapidly reeled off news about the launch of her own Rhythm Nation Records (a worldwide partnership with BMG), her first studio album in seven years and the initial two legs of a world tour, starting Aug. 31.
Jackson’s new single, “No Sleeep,” rose to No. 5 in its second week on Billboard’s Adult R&B airplay chart -- her first top five hit on that tally in 11 years -- and the song will get added sizzle when the album version, featuring red-hot rapper J. Cole, goes to radio on July 23. But most of all, her 65-date Unbreakable Tour is selling tickets at a blazing clip. According to promoter Live Nation, 88 percent of the tickets on the trek’s first leg (Aug. 31 to Nov. 15) were purchased two weeks after going on sale; nearly 80 percent of the tickets for the second leg (Jan. 12 to March 9) were gone in two days.
After a long lukewarm period, it seems the world wants Janet Jackson back. Still, by diva standards, the Janet rollout has had a relatively low profile so far. Why? “I think there’s a desperation to a lot of the older divas,” says Jon Cohen, evp of recorded music at BMG US. “They’ve got to hit it out of the park. With Janet, if she doesn’t put out a cross-format smash right out of the box, people think it isn’t a success, but that’s not it. This was completely calculated.”
Indeed, initial talk of a “multiple Janet projects occurring simultaneously” goes back at least to 2010, according to one source who was working with Jackson at the time. Back then, she was managed by Kenneth Crear and it seemed that new music was imminent, having built up “so much good will” over the years that “you just had to mention her name, it didn’t even have to be anything of substance, and people would go ape-s---t.”
But then, following a 2011 No. 1s tour, Jackson effectively pulled a vanishing act, marrying Qatari billionaire Wissam Al Mana in 2012 and shelving those very endeavors for what, to longtime fans, seemed like an eternity. Enter Kathy Ireland. The model/businesswoman took a vested interest in Jackson’s career through Sterling/Winters, Jackson’s management company, which is owned by Kathy Ireland Worldwide and run by president/COO Stephen Roseberry. Sharing management duties are Jaime Mendoza and Jessica Davenport of JDJ Entertainment, who, as a group, negotiated with BMG to lock down a recording budget for Jackson (to the tune of at least $500,000, according to an insider) along with a sizable marketing spend.
Alternative financing models are becoming the norm even for heritage artists once used to grandiose paydays. Jackson herself landed a record-breaking $32 million deal with Virgin Records in 1991. Nine years later, Carey commanded an $80 million contract for four albums. But Carey signed to Epic earlier this year for a more modest advance of $2 million, according to sources. Speaking to Billboard in May, Epic chairman L.A. Reid laid out the lay of the land: For Carey "to even be on the radio at this point in her career is a huge accomplishment," he said. "Because radio doesn't cater to veteran artists or legends. Radio caters to in-the-moment stars."
So what is a Janet Jackson album worth in 2015? She’s one of the most successful artists in pop history, having sold some 20 million albums in the SoundScan era, which began five years after her 1986 breathrough, Control. During that time, she's also notched 10 Hot 100 No. 1s (through 2001) and 27 top 10 singles overall, tying her with Carey and Elton John. Her last album, 2008’s Discipline, has moved a respectable but hardly blockbuster 456,000 units, according to Nielsen Music. Her Number Ones package released in 2009, meanwhile, has moved 273,000 units.
BMG, which is providing marketing and promotion while the singer retains ownership of the recordings, declines to reveal specifics about Jackson’s licensing deal, but an insider familiar with the company’s contracts says BMG tends to favor “small-money, short-term deals.” In Jackson's case: no advance but an attractive back-end (a 50/50 split).
The investment saw the singer through the last seven months of round-the-clock production with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for an album that is eyeing a late September release.
Adds Cohen: “The project needs a level of money to protect it. Janet and her camp are extremely aware that it’s 2015 -- everyone is realistic about what record-selling and streaming mean in this era. Janet was very fair about the deal.”
It’s about the long view, says former Virgin president Phil Quartararo, who has a hand in steering Jackson’s current career path as a member of her extended “team,” and that means life for an artist beyond the “pop silo.” Jackson, he says, “has had such a vast career in music, TV and film; she’s not your average pop star. We’re going to work this record for a long time. It’s not something that’s going to come and go.”
A version this article first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.