Janet Jackson has been a superstar so long, it’s profoundly easy to forget she was once a little girl from Gary, Indiana, trying to make her mark and move out of the influence of her father and the long shadow of her successful brothers. Her career started in 1976 as part of her musical family. Ten years later she asserted her independence on her breakthrough smash Control. When everyone wanted her to play it safe, she took a big risk, stood her ground and made the politically charged Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (aka Rhythm Nation) in 1989. The world was in turbulent times as nations grappled with the last vestiges of the Cold War, uncertain relations with Russia, tensions with the Chinese government over the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, and, at home, school shootings, crime, poverty and drugs on the street.
And there was Janet, 23, taking it all in, synthesizing her social consciousness with irresistible beats and inviting the world to come along with her. It’s a neat trick, and one that still works well if you have the talent and appeal. In 2018, Beyoncé carries that mantle, but Janet was woke before the first cracks appeared in the Berlin Wall. She’s played many roles over the years-daughter, sister, mother (just last year), wife, divorcee, superstar, sex symbol…icon. Now she’s 52, times are as hectic as ever, and she’s still holding out hope that things can work out for the world. After over forty years in the game, Janet is equally adept at holding an audience rapt in her palm or taking them by the hand and getting them go along with the ride. And last night she did both masterfully.
A DJ warmed up the crowd with old school jams (including a few from The Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson) as I looked around wondering who makes up Janet’s audience in 2018. The answer is – everybody. It was a diverse mix of ages, races, genders and (given the size of the crowd and probabilities) political backgrounds.Giant video screens were moved into place and projected videos wasted no time in spelling out Janet’s view on the current state of the world. Images of guns, violence, discrimination, white supremacy and the rallying cry of “We Want Justice” flickered as she took the stage to huge applause. You know someone’s a superstar when she can open with that stark message, meld it with a B side from an almost 30-year-old album and get the crowd instantly on their feet. “Skin Game Part 1” is a rejected Rhythm Nation track that sounds like something James Brown or Prince would have done back in the day. The bracing and funky sound immediately set the pace for the first set.
Janet’s been a performer (including TV and movie acting) for a lifetime and she knows how to structure a show. The evening played out loosely like a play in three acts:
Act I: Origin story and breathless rush to stardom.
Act II: Artistic growth and mastery. Introspection and loss.
Act III: Triumph and redemption. Revisiting of origin themes. Reboot.
The first song had barely faded when she dug into a powerful version of “The Knowledge”, calling for education as a way to end prejudice and freedom. Wary of pushing too hard too quickly, as the song ended her recorded voice asked in no nonsense tone, “Get the point? Good. Let’s dance.”
The rest of Act I was a rush of energy. A banging version of “Burn it Up!” with video and vocal accompaniment from Missy Elliot was followed by medleys of several of her biggest hits (including “Pleasure Principle”, “Nasty”, “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and “Miss You Much”). It felt like she was acknowledging the massive importance of her early catalog, but not dwelling on it too much. It was also an effective way to keep things moving and get the songs out of the way early so the audience could focus on her latter-day material. The energy never flagged and she put her troupe of back up dancers and her band through their paces. She looked strong, confident and beautiful as she stalked the stage, long hair flying, warm smile beaming as she connected with her fans. The classics sounded as fresh as ever and she injected new energy into them. During “When I Think of You” her face flashed up on the video screens and she grinned like a little kid filled with pure joy. The first set ended with “Doesn’t Really Matter”. As the original video played behind the band, Janet looked delighted as she and the troupe danced in synch with her younger self.
After a short interlude, Janet returned and took center stage alone for Act II. She banked a huge amount of good will in the first set and used it to allow herself the freedom to perform some more reflective songs. It was canny to match up “Trust” and “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)”. Played back to back, they sounded like part of one long song with the younger Janet warning her older self to slow down:
“Listen, I had a career before, now didn't I?
I had lots of friends before, now didn't I?
And I had my fans before, now didn't I?
And I had my family before, now didn't I?”
“I don’t know where it all went
Time passed us by
Just when it seemed the fun began…”
After the energetic first Act, these slower songs could have easily been lost in the big venue, but her vulnerability drew the crowd in. Songs from The Velvet Rope were given prominence and the dynamite highlight was “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”. Everything combined perfectly – the glowing red stage lights, Janet’s aching voice, the synchronization of the backup dancers (powerful but not distracting), and the pulse of the band as they pushed the slow groove of the song. And through it all, the sad hypnotic looping of Joni Mitchell singing “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” capping the feeling of reflection and loss.
The sound in the second Act managed to be thick and thin at the same time (in the new season of Luke Cage, one man calls that “svelte”). Her band did an impressive job of melding a stomping, percussive bottom with overarching lightness (sometimes via her crystal honey voice or the occasional snarling guitar riff). It all fed a sense of propulsion and motion. Hearing her last night highlighted that even though Janet’s presence, at least musically, has ebbed and flowed over the years, her influence on her peers and the next generation has been consistent and undeniable. Sometimes it’s obvious (Janelle Monae, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Bruno Mars, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake), sometimes oblique (Sleigh Bells’ lead singer Alexis Krauss cited Rhythm Nation’s creativity and diversity as a major influence in how she approaches song structure). Many of those artists were toddlers or still in elementary school when Control came out. Lady Gaga wasn’t even born yet.
If the second Act started slowly, it built up throughout and finished strong with rousing versions of “So Much Betta” and “Throb”. But Act II was also about loss and Janet ended it with a video tribute to her father. Given her conflicted feelings about him, it was hard to read the emotion behind it. As Janet prepared offstage, an older black and white video of her almost in tears dramatically smearing her make up played on the screens. Draw your own conclusions.
In Act III, she took control again with a harrowing version of “What About”. The song is about an abusive relationship and it was brutal to see her exorcising her demons onstage and practically screaming, “What about the times you said no one would want me? What about the times you yelled at me?” The crowd erupted into applause when she stood pinned in twin spotlights, stared defiantly and said, “I’m done with you”.
After a few more numbers, she found the strength to dig deep and bring the night full circle with a trio of powerful songs: a blistering cover of “Scream” (the crowd roared when the video with her brother Michael started) and two of the most politically aware songs from Rhythm Nation: “Rhythm Nation” and “State of the World”. The selection and sequencing were intentional and it was bracing how relevant the lyrics still are today. The plea for release from seemingly unrelenting pressure on “Scream” (“With such confusion / don’t it make you wanna scream?”) was balanced by the hopefulness of “Rhythm Nation” (“With music by our side to break the color lines / Let’s work together to improve our way of life / Join voices in protest to social injustice / A generation full of courage, come forth with me”).
Every stomp and crack of “Rhythm Nation” landed with military precision and she harnessed the same urgency she did as a young woman. That elastic mix of industrial clang and New Jack Swing still works well as a soundtrack to a world in turmoil. The band and dancers worked it hard as Janet pushed even further, pushing everyone to their limits and feeding off the energy of the crowd.
The night closed with an encore of “State of the World”. It’s a song that is (lyrically) downbeat and resigned, but still lets some hope shine through. Buoyed by the irresistible beat, the crowd moved with her as she sang: “Can’t give up hope now/Let’s weather the storm together.”
Janet wrote that almost thirty years ago and still manages to hold out hope. The least we can do is go along for the ride together, even if it’s only for one night.