At Rogers Arena on September 26
Way back in the Dark Ages—the era before the Internet, cellphones, and the Kardashians—a young woman burst on to the scene. Like her brother, she harnessed the power of the burgeoning music video format and helped establish the group-dance presentation that became a template for numerous stars to employ, ranging from Paula Abdul to Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez.
While brother Michael rose to superstardom with his unique dance and vocal style, what set Janet Jackson apart from her competition was how she used fashion, moves, and music (not to mention a disciplined work ethic) to tackle identity politics, namely gender (such as with her 1986 album Control) and racial issues (1989's Rhythm Nation 1814).
The visual resistance to the male gaze that she conveyed by covering herself up head-to-toe (even wearing gloves) in a masculine-influence wardrobe she relinquished with her body-baring video for her 1990 single "Love Will Never Do Without You" as she thrust herself headlong into pushing the sexual envelope within the mainstream. Which unfortunately wasn't necessarily all that much different from what others were offering in a post-Erotica material world.
That didn't necessarily hurt her commercial success—until things went askew with her 2004 Superbowl scandal that disproportionately derailed her career (while her duet partner Justin Timberlake somehow escaped free of criticism, even despite his abandonment of her).
Her once-solid commercial and chart performance has been permanently uneven, and on the wane, ever since.
But her latest tour shows signs that Jackson's getting back in form (not to mention doing so after giving birth only earlier this year in January), and drawing upon her formative years of success for direction.
The shoulder pads (which have also been showing up in some of her latest videos) and blazer-style outfits from her tomboyish years are back. Her eruption of curly locks (sleekly tied back in a pony tail that she worked with Tyra-level fierceness) is back. Her unique key-on-a-hoop earring is back. And some of her politics, as indicated by the State of the World Tour name, are back too.
The latter was made more than abundantly clear in her kick-off: an in-your-face visual and aural montage of headlines and news anchor snippets about everything from greenhouse gases and terrorism to the names of black men killed in fatal shootings, all set against graphic visual representations of dripping blood.
Topical as those subjects are, for an introductory buildup, it hit too hard with its density of weighty material, stunning and shocking the audience into submission rather than riling them up into anticipatory cheers. Because who really wants to be caught applauding facist symbols or white supremacy references?
When a screen lifted to reveal Miss Jackson in a commanding, floor-length black coat carrying a cane, the screams were there. Launching into "The Knowledge" and "State of the World", tracks from her socially conscious concept album Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson was on mission. Or so it seemed.
But in what would recur throughout the evening, things shifted gears in a jarring, dissonant way. As if pandering to ADHD social-media attention spans which have become all too—hey, what's that over there?—Jackson hastily abandoned social politics when Missy Elliott appeared on screen to help Jackson burn it up in a medley of her tough-gal dance tracks: "Burnitup!", "Nasty", and "Feedback" (which in turn led into a New Jack Swing medley of fan faves "Miss You Much", "Alright", and "You Want This").
Another abrupt jump came midway when the uptempo wistfulness of the much-loved dance confection "Together Again" segued into a stark black-and-white video of Jackson appearing initially beautifully composed, but slowly devolved into images of her smearing her makeup across her face and conveying emotional distress. It served as an introduction to the indignant "What About", in which dancers illustrated Jackson's angry vocals with explicit, melodramatic scenes of domestic physical abuse. (Jackson puncutated the song by stating that was her, something that played upon the headlines about allegations of verbal abuse from her now ex-husband.)
Yet while that performance erred on the side of heavy-handedness, it served as an effective emotional setup for the guitar-rage of "If", which culminated in the aerobic dance break from the music video. (Legwarmers, anyone?)
Jackson may have never been meant to be a singer with her barely there voice (worsened by the lacklustre quality of the sound system to the point of incomprehensibility), but she proved she's still got game when it comes to working it all out on the dancefloor, which hasn't necessarily been true on some of her former tours.
Like the show overall, the choreography played it safe overall by mostly sticking to replicating moves from Jackson's music videos. But there were a few innovative new interpretations, such as butterfly hand movements in "Got Til It's Gone".
Speaking of doing the safety dance, unlike some of Madonna's or Kylie Minogue's tours, Jackson didn't radically restructure or reimagine her songs nor did she splash out on extensive sets or extravagant costumes—suggesting that she was working within budgetary limitations. Though not completely stripped down, it was somewhat back to basics.
That said, her female-independence-themed "Control" hit with concussive force, thanks to beats sharpened with updated percussion, and then hammering it home by following with the crowd-pleasing numbers "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and "The Pleasure Principle".
Yet, while her overall presentation was on par, things never attained levels of OMG reactions, suggesting that something wasn't always connecting with the audience on a visceral level.
For instance, a bubbly trio of Jackson's most carefree singles—"Escapade", "When I Think of You", and "All For You"—somehow didn't arouse the celebratory response it should have as Jackson came breezily skipping out on stage to the buoyant beats.
A similar good-but-not-quite-wow number was a track that marked when Jackson's horny stage of dirty pop (hey, remember Justin Timberlake? No? Presumably neither does Jackson) reached its climax: the hyper-sexual, club-oriented, romper-stomper "Throb".
As the theme song for Janet Jackson's unofficial Sexual Nation 1993, it was designed to make people come together through its carnal rhythms. Although the staged dance-off showcased dynamic solo moves by her dancers, it was too conscious, rather than primal, and didn't have the unifying tribal force that the thundering, seismic beats were calling for.
Speaking of dancing, Jackson has had a history of including dancers who defy expectations and often challenge the norm. On this tour it was plus-size dancer Allison Claire, who repeatedly drew the loudest cheers with her killer moves, as well as hard-working teen dancers Taylor Hatala (from Sherwood Park, Alberta) and Kyndall Harris.
When giving special shoutouts to Vancouver, Jackson mentioned that one of her former longtime dancers, Kelly Konno, hails from Vancouver. She also noted that this city was the launching pad for several tours, including her All For You Tour in 2001 (which was rescheduled to start in Portland, Oregon, due to technical problems), Rock Witchu Tour in 2008, and Unbreakable Tour in 2015.
Like some previous tours, the weakest point came with her ballads when she perched upon a stool wearing more layers than a mille crepe cake. Cloaked in an oversized jean jacket on top of an oversized t-shirt, worn over a black longsleeve, with a plaid skirt over striped exercise pants and boots, she serenaded the audience with downtempo hits like "Again", "Twenty Foreplay", and "Come Back To Me".
Unfortunately, like her outfit, the sentimental melange blurred into one big, formless wash. It became the aural equivalent of the fog machine that she sometimes got lost in when she positioned herself towards the back. ("Is she even on stage?" my companion for the evening asked more than once.) Things did pick up though once she progressed into her chilled-out, foot-tapping groovers "No Sleeep" and "That's the Way Love Goes".
With such an exhaustive back catalogue of hits, it would be impossible for Jackson to medley everything in, try as she might. However, some notable singles that sat out this round included "Black Cat", "Runaway", "Doesn't Really Matter", "Someone to Call My Lover", "Call On Me", "Rock With U", and "Make Me".
Yet there was a concept tour buried somewhere in there and, with such extensive material and experience to draw upon, there's clearly great potential for a much more cohesive, powerful story that could be told in the vein of the theatrical narrative that Madonna developed for her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. Let's hope Jackson finds a way to tell it at a time when it really matters to fight for what you've got before it's gone.More