There was a time when if you told your friends you were going to see a “Janet concert,” they knew without further explanation you were going to see the leader of the Rhythm Nation, or Miss Jackson if you’re nasty. As the years went by, the world seemed to forget that they had once stamped their passports and went away on an “Escapade” and let themselves get swept away by the choreography, talent, and remarkable singing voice of the one of the most prolific and influential female artists of our time.
Those memories were bustled to the forefront when the audience at the Comerica Theatre saw the silhouette of Jackson behind the curtains as the voice of Missy Elliott introduced “BURNITUP,” her collaboration with Jackson on her Jackson's album Unbreakable. In the 10 minutes that followed, Jackson, clad in a black leather outfit that not even Justin Timberlake could remove, strutted with her extraordinary J-Tribe dancers, and performed a medley of her hits ranging from “Nasty” to “Miss You Much” at a relentless pace. A case of the Mondays was swiftly cured by the party taking place. When it ended, Jackson just stood there for a minute to soak up the applause.
This tour, like other performances by artists of her regal stature, serves two purposes: to remind people how much they love Jackson’s previous work and to play new material to prove she's still current. She's had to fight for prestige twice as hard as anyone. Not only did she have to find a way to branch out from her talented family tree, but also from similar-styled female artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, who used their sultry pipes to win over listeners. Even now, she has to compete this week with Madonna for an audience, as the Material Girl arrives in Phoenix on Thursday.
As the 49-year-old launched into another medley of classics, I realized that Jackson continues to be a strong influence not only on pop music but the female artists who followed in her footsteps. It was reported that Beyoncé took her daughter Blue Ivy to see her hero Friday night in Los Angeles. Unbreakable, which was self-released by Jackson on her Rhythm Nation label, debuted at the top of the charts three weeks ago. The next week brought her a nomination into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Truthfully, Jackson never really has gone away, but she retreated from the public eye for a few years.
If the first half of the 90-minute concert was an attempt by Jackson to reassert her dominance over the pop music landscape, the second half showed that she is still a sensitive artist. The Queen of R&B moved to the softer side of her catalog, letting the audience take the first verse of the ballad “Again” in unison. As Jackson sat on a stool listening, she appeared vulnerable and grateful to enjoy the moment, trying to hold back the emotions as the crowd cheered her on.
Jackson ushered in her seductive side with some selections from her janet. album, along with a video appearance from J. Cole on the new track “No Sleeep.” Jackson performed the duet with the rapper’s portion of the song projected against the stage curtain, similar to the collaboration with Elliott that opened the show. It’s a tough choice to decide how to pull off a song with someone who isn’t actually there. Jackson’s decision to sing with a video wasn’t distracting or cheesy. Even when she sang her duet “Scream” with her brother Michael’s voice, it felt like the right call. Jackson is such a captivating artist that going the hologram route would have felt inappropriate.
A rousing rendition of “Rhythm Nation” closed out the set. She returned to the mic pumping her fists for the track “Should’ve Known Better” as heart-tugging pictures of the poor and homeless flashed onstage, showing a philanthropic side that was synonymous with Michael’s output. She thanked the audience for the love and support for every member of her talented family as she closed with the title track from Unbreakable. Jackson proved that she never really left the Rhythm Nation.
Last Night: Janet Jackson at Comerica Theatre
The Crowd: Every demographic equally represented.
Random Notebook Dump: “This interlude with her DJ is long. This had better be some costume change.”
Overheard in the Crowd: “I could have watched her dancers all night!”
Personal Bias: It’s easy to forget Jackson’s dominance over pop music until “nipple-gate” forced her to hide from the spotlight for a few years. I didn’t realize she had a new album out, but her return couldn’t be more welcome. I cannot recollect a time in my concert-going history seeing a show with so much going on at once: dancing, lights, and costume changes. It was amazing to see it done by a master.