For a split second during “Together Again,” it sounds like we might not be getting the radio-friendly universally loved version of that hit. But it’s only a split second. We do. I’ll try and steer this review from superlatives. Please note, however, that it’s hard because the hits are literally Unbreakable during this outing of Janet Jackson’s world tour of the same name, which began this September in Canada and will continue well into next summer.
It’s a challenge to recall just how many crowd pleasers turn the 17,000 pilgrims on Friday night (Oct. 16) into putty in Janet’s hands. Anthems spanning over three decades are sewn together seamlessly. There has always been a liquid nature to Janet’s music, fluid like her choreographed routines. Tonight, career highlights are assembled into breathtaking medleys which fluctuate between genre (jack swing, electronica, rock, soul) and tempo. I say “breathtaking” because there are moments when it’s hard to inhale.
For instance, “If” from Jackson’s 1993 self-titled album rages from the guts of the live band, then morphs into 1995’s “Scream,” that little duet containing the biggest MTV video budget of all time and featuring brother Michael Jackson. It’s met with mass elation as Janet looks to the heavens, puts her hands in a prayer pose and hollers “Sing it, Mike!” Then, just as you expect that single’s instrumental breakdown and iconic dance routine to kick in, Janet keeps the audience on their toes and leads instead into a totally different breakdown and iconic dance routine. The one from “Rhythm Nation,” the song that defined another era of Janet’s life.
As an increased army of backing dancers appears lifted straight out of the original 1989 (the year), the crowd’s hysteria peaks. “If” into “Scream” into “Rhythm Nation,” without blinking. It’s positively dangerous. “We are a part of the Rhythm Nation!” We sing, in unison, still “looking for a better way of life,” while gagging for oxygen.
It’s hard to imagine a solo star who’ll stand where Janet stands decades from now. Where Janet needn’t lean on a single non-solo venture, even Beyonce’s shows are bolstered by her Destiny’s Child medley. Rihanna has hits for decades but unlike Janet prides herself on being incapable of dancing. Perhaps Aaliyah was building a stable that has been cruelly stolen from the world. We’ll never know. Certainly, it’s an honor to see Janet back on top.
Friday’s series of medleys forms one overall relentless medley celebrating a career that a little over 10 years ago looked to have been derailed. When Justin Timberlake made a boob on live television and Janet took the blame, it seemed inconceivable that there’d be a moment like this when a battle-worn legend would take to the stage with a 7th No. 1 album (her first release in seven years), a nomination for induction at the Rock and Roll Hall and online think-pieces about why her legacy as a 49-year-old veteran pop idol surpasses that of Madonna.
“I lived through my mistakes,” she sings on Unbreakable‘s title track, one of only four new songs during a give-the-people-what-they-want spectacular. (Take note, Madonna). More fool anyone who doubted she had the fight in her.
Tonight, Jackson emerges surrounded by computerized birds, covered from neck to toe in black leather and chiffon. Naysayers have complained about the demure nature of her dress. Considering the subject material of most of her music, this seems misinformed. To quote Janet circa 1993 on filming intimate scenes with Tupac Shakur, “I was willing to get under the sheets. I was not willing to show my short and curlies.” Miss Jackson continues to exude sexual confidence while leaving something to the imagination.
She successfully makes the case for her mark on popular culture not via video montages but by still being able to deliver those shoulder-popping, hip-thrusting, neck-jutting routines. As an envelope-pusher throughout the ’80s and ’90s, she remains an inspiration to a limitless range of artists, including St. Vincent‘s Annie Clark who I spot on the way in. By not trying to keep up with the kids, Janet leans on a past that still sounds like our future. Even a six-ballad medley (including the perfect pop of “Again,” the innocence of “Let’s Wait a While” and the heat of “I Get So Lonely”) contains a blueprint for today’s avant garde R&B stars, like Miguel, Banks and FKA Twigs.
The connection Janet creates between megastar and audience goes way beyond music. She makes us braver. Take tonight’s stunning choreography for “Throb,” an orgasm-fueled song that predates the first aired episode of Sex and the City and yet still has the power to leave your cheeks red. Or the only interlude of the evening, which turns the Forum into an after-hours New York club as a live DJ scratches all the other hits JJ couldn’t fit in herself (“Go Deep,” “What’s It Gonna Be?” featuring Busta Rhymes, and ‘Luv Me Luv Me’ featuring Shaggy, which I’d forgotten even existed).
Jackson’s prowess as a pop star was about a movement as much as her chart records. It led her to fight for HIV/AIDS awareness, promotion of sexual freedom and also of Black pride. Tonight’s climactic performance of “Rhythm Nation” is as emotionally rousing as it is entertaining during a time when a song might not be able to heal a fragmented society, but could temporarily inspire. When Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam — her collaborators for 30 years — surprise her onstage during the encore with flowers and a message of congratulations, Janet giggles in her signature way, and is moved to tears.
It marks an evening of achievement and a consistency that comes with knowing yourself during times of greatness and, more importantly, weakness. Janet’s bold identity carries through her entire back catalog. There may be fewer snippets from later albums (she plays “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” from Damita Jo and the title track for 2001’s All For You) but this marathon megamix sees even those stand up to “Love Will Never Do,” “Got Till It’s Gone,” “Together Again,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free”… I could go on forever.
When “Pleasure Principle” melds into the fun hooks of “Escapade” the stage lights up purple, recalling Prince, her collaborator and influencer, another icon whose music has no rules other than to endure. When was the last time you saw an opening 15 minutes of a pop concert that included groin thrusting attitude (“Nasty”), toe-tapping pop (“Miss You Much”), Uptown funk (“Alright”), and the prototypical feminist pop anthem (“Control”)?
“I’m just getting started,” said Janet, accurately, with one hour left on the clock. You better believe she means it.