The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “Doesn’t Really Matter”


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Eddie Murphy has been nominated for an Oscar exactly once. In 2007, Murphy was up for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Dreamgirls, and he lost the award to Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin. (I think former Number Ones artist Mark Wahlberg, up for The Departed, was the best of that year’s nominees, but nobody listens to me on this stuff.) At the ceremony, Murphy famously left after he lost. Conventional wisdom has it that Murphy torpedoed his own chances by making Norbit, an ostentatiously stupid movie that came out a few weeks before the Oscars.

Eddie Murphy has made a lot of ostentatiously stupid movies, but he should still have more Oscar nominations than that. For much of the ’80s, Murphy was arguably the most bankable and charismatic actor in all of Hollywood; he could turn a middling script into a hit single-handedly. Over the years, Murphy has done a lot of great work, and the Academy Awards wouldn’t have sullied their name if they’d nominated Murphy for 48 Hrs. or Coming To America or Dolemite Is My Name. My favorite argument is that the Oscars should’ve recognized Eddie Murphy for his work in 1996’s The Nutty Professor, a massive blockbuster that absolutely wouldn’t have worked if anyone else had been in the lead.

In The Nutty Professor, a remake of a largely forgotten Jerry Lewis flick from 1963, Eddie Murphy played seven different characters. Murphy had access to the best makeup effects that the mid-’90s had to offer, and he definitely overworked the whole fat-suit thing over the years. But in The Nutty Professor, Murphy deserves credit for finding an easy familial chemistry with himself and using profoundly inorganic means to develop an off-the-cuff improv-comedy energy. He took a ridiculous premise, and he made it work.

Eddie Murphy was actually nominated for a Golden Globe for The Nutty Professor, but the Oscars weren’t biting. 1997 was the year that Geoffrey Rush won for Shine, a movie that I’ve never seen. I don’t know who Murphy would’ve bumped from that year’s list of nominees: Woody Harrelson for The People Vs. Larry Flynt? Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade? Ralph Fiennes’ similarly prosthetic-heavy turn in The English Patient? But the world would be slightly more fun if Eddie Murphy had been up for the big award that year. (Eddie Murphy, incidentally, came very close to becoming a Number Ones artist himself. Murphy’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Party All The Time,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

In any case, Eddie Murphy probably didn’t need the Oscar, since The Nutty Professor returned him to something close to his ’80s box-office peak. After 1992’s Boomerang, the film that gave us Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road,” Murphy made three straight flops: The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire In Brooklyn. The Nutty Professor reversed that slide. The film racked up about $129 million at the domestic box office, making it the #8 movie that year. (It made slightly more than The Birdcage and slightly less than The Rock.) Murphy went back to making flops soon enough — his follow-up was the extremely forgotten action-comedy Metro — but The Nutty Professor reminded the world of why Eddie Murphy got famous in the first place. Its sequel was a different story.

I’ve never seen 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and I’d mostly forgotten that the movie had ever existed. The Klumps cost a lot more than the first Nutty Professor, and it still made money, though not as much. (On the list of 2000 box-office hits, The Klumps sits at #16 — below Traffic, above Big Momma’s House. Popular tastes are wild.) Critics hated The Klumps, and the film promptly disappeared into the memory-hole. Today, The Klumps only really has one historical distinction going for it: It’s got the second-ever cinematic performance from Ms. Janet Jackson.

Janet Jackson had started out acting in sitcoms as a kid, before she found pop stardom. Once she became mega-famous, Janet turned down a lot of movie roles before playing opposite Tupac Shakur in 1993’s Poetic Justice. Poetic Justice was the second movie from John Singleton, the young auteur who’d just made the hugely successful and important Boyz N The Hood, so it was always going to be a big movie. In retrospect, Poetic Justice is notable for its quiet, graceful naturalism — for Singleton refusing to make another grand and splashy statement. But it’s a good movie, and Janet is good in it. (Poetic Justice also featured Janet’s ballad “Again,” which went to #1 and landed an Oscar nomination.) By just about any measure, Poetic Justice was a hugely successful film debut. Then Janet Jackson waited another seven years to make a movie, and that movie was goddamn Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.

Janet Jackson turned down a lot of movie roles. Sometimes, she was even cast before dropping out. Janet could’ve been in Jerry Maguire or an earlier version of A Star Is Born. For a while, she was supposed to play Storm in X-Men. Most notably, Janet said no to the role of Trinity in The Matrix. That means there’s an alternate reality where Janet is Trinity, Will Smith is Neo, and Sean Connery is Morpheus. I try to picture that, and my brain just shuts down, like it was a Windows laptop playing the “Rhythm Nation” video.

Somehow, though, Janet Jackson did end up in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. She plays Denise Gaines, a DNA researcher who serves as the love interest for Eddie Murphy’s Professor Sherman Klump. (Jada Pinkett, who really was in the Matrix sequels, had played the love interest in the first Nutty Professor.) The role gives Janet the thankless task of acting like she’s attracted to full fat-suit Eddie Murphy — for his nice-guy soul, you see, not his body — even though she obviously looks like Janet Jackson. That dissonance is a bit much for one dramatic performance to convey, but it did give Janet the raw materials for another #1 hit.

The first Nutty Professor soundtrack had been a fairly big deal. It went platinum, and it had hits like Jay-Z and Foxy Brown’s “Ain’t No N***a” and Montell Jordan and Slick Rick’s “I Like.” (It didn’t have Aaliyah’s immortal “Are You That Somebody.” That one was on 1998’s Dr. Doolittle soundtrack.) The soundtrack for The Klumps went in a similar direction, and it featured a few big songs, like Jay-Z’s “Hey Papi” and Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends (Sunny).” Naturally, the movie’s producers wanted a Janet Jackson song for the soundtrack. I have to imagine that was one of the reasons why she was cast.

At the time, Janet Jackson was on a hot streak that had already lasted for a decade-plus. Janet’s 1997 album The Velvet Rope had been her artistically exploratory adult record, and those don’t always sell. But The Velvet Rope went triple platinum, and it had a few hits, including the #1 banger “Together Again.” Jackson had toured hard behind The Velvet Rope, and her 1998 live-show special had done crazy numbers for HBO. After The Velvet Rope, Janet had guested on singles like Shaggy’s “Luv Me, Luv Me,” from the soundtrack of 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and former Number Ones artists Blackstreet’s 1999 track “Girlfriend/Boyfriend.” (“Luv Me, Luv Me” peaked at #76. “Girlfriend/Boyfriend” peaked at #47. Shaggy will eventually appear in this column.)

In 1999, Janet Jackson had also scored her biggest-ever guest-artist hit. Busta Rhymes was coming off of a long string of twisty, excitable bangers, and he recruited Janet for the hook on his single “What’s It Gonna Be?!” Janet had never really done the hook-singer thing for a rapper, so her participation made the song an event. The wildly expensive sci-fi video probably helped, too. “What’s It Gonna Be?!” climbed as high as #3. (It’s a 6.)

In any case, Janet was down to do a Nutty Professor song. Director Peter Segal, who hadn’t made the first Nutty Professor but who had made 1995’s Tommy Boy, flew to Minneapolis to play a rough cut of the film for Janet and for Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her longtime collaborators. Jimmy Jam and drum programmer Alex Richburg put together a track and a melody. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam says that Janet was “totally underwhelmed” when she heard it. (Jimmy: “I always tease Janet because I don’t think she liked that record until it went to #1.”) Jimmy Jam and Janet both wrote hooks for the song, with Jam writing about “nutty nutty nutty my love for you” and Janet focusing on the theme that looks don’t matter. They ended up combining the two choruses, and the “nutty nutty nutty” bit somehow never comes off as obnoxious product placement, possibly because Janet sings it so quietly that it barely registers.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had been ceaselessly updating their sound ever since they first started working with Janet Jackson in the mid-’80s, and it’s pretty amazing how all of the hits that they made together fit their moments. R&B evolved a lot between 1986 and 2000, but those tracks never sounded like they were playing catchup. If anything, most of them were ahead of the curve. “Doesn’t Really Matter” isn’t exactly beyond what state-of-the-art R&B producers were doing around 2000, but it’s very much in line with the twitchy, spaced-out tracks that were coming from producers like Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins. Like those guys, Jam and Lewis were making complicated, layered tracks that pulled in lots of different directions and incorporated futuristic dance-music textures.

If anything, Jam and Lewis might’ve been pulling in too many directions on “Doesn’t Really Matter.” The song keeps changing tones and tempos. At certain points, “Doesn’t Really Matter” is a woozy, fluttery ballad. At others, it’s a ticcy, syncopated dance track. There’s so much happening on “Doesn’t Really Matter” that you can’t really pick out the individual elements — the drum track that natters like crickets, the turtle-crawl bassline, the constant pizzicato string-plucks, the thunder sound-effects, the vwerping synths. It’s very cool to hear these guys pushing and pulling their track in so many different directions, like they were trying to turn the hyperactive Basement Jaxx style into pop-radio fare, but the song sometimes threatens to lose its center, to spin off into the ether. Janet Jackson keeps that from happening.

“Doesn’t Really Matter” is a nice example of why Janet Jackson is a great pop singer, even if she never had the pipes of contemporaries like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. For one thing, Janet’s rhythmic intelligence is off the charts. Even as “Doesn’t Really Matter” speeds up and slows down, she rides that beat wherever it goes. She sings softly enough that her voice almost becomes part of the beat, but she switches up her pitch and tempo, sometimes delivering words in a breathless rush that never feels effortful. Janet also brings a sense of emotional grace. She really does sound like she’s completely charmed by this person who’s nutty nutty nutty for her. I don’t know how Janet’s acting in The Klumps is, but she finds unshowy ways to convey a whole lot of feeling on “Doesn’t Really Matter.” That’s a kind of acting, too.

I don’t consider “Doesn’t Really Matter” to be one of Janet’s classics. It’s too frothy, too light. It doesn’t stick with me the way some of her songs do. But that frothy lightness is part of the song’s appeal. It’s what she’s going for. That Klumps soundtrack is funny. The movie is essentially a summertime kids’ comedy, but the soundtrack has guys like Jay-Z and Eminem talking all kinds of nasty shit. Janet was never afraid of nastiness, and you could read some extra stuff into the “nutty nutty nutty” part if you wanted. But “Doesn’t Really Matter” ultimately sounds like a song that Janet made for kids — one that wouldn’t make families uncomfortable if it came on a car radio.

The “Doesn’t Really Matter” video has very little to do with Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. Instead, it’s a big-budget futuristic spectacle from future Torque director Joseph Kahn. Early on, the camera swoops around Janet’s gleaming apartment while she spends quality time with her robot dog. Then Janet’s friends pick her up, and she hits the town in a kind of anime/Blade Runner cityscape. (One of Janet’s friends is Jenna Dewan. Dewan spent a few years as one of Janet’s backup dancers, and then she went on to star in the first Step Up movie and to marry and then divorce Channing Tatum.) The video cost millions, but like so many early CGI-fests, it feels weirdly chintzy now.

While “Doesn’t Really Matter” was sitting at #1, Janet Jackson opened the 2000 VMAs, giving an extremely choreographed performance of the song. A year later, MTV devoted a whole all-star special to Janet, naming her the channel’s first-ever MTV Icon. This made sense. Janet had become an MTV fixture when the network was only a few years old, and she’d never really lost that status. Janet wasn’t done making hits. We’ll see her in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10 - 

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