Even before Janet Jackson hit the stage for her Saturday (July 28) night performance at Panorama (which, because of the weather-related Friday cancelation, made her the first 2018 headliner to actually perform), it was clear this wasn’t going to be your typical music festival headlining set. As audio snippets of newscasters talking about white supremacists and domestic terrorism rushed out of the speakers, the names of unarmed black men killed by police appeared on the screens flanking the stage.
When she did emerge, it wasn’t to deliver one of her Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s or an instantly recognizable, beloved hit — it was to sing “The Skin Game (Part 1),” a nearly 30-year-old b-side. In an Instagram video posted a few weeks ago, Jackson explained why she was changing the opener of her State of the World Tour to a song she acknowledges only “diehards” know — it’s a song about racism, and it’s sadly still relevant today. It’s also a reminder that at this point in her career, Jackson isn’t worried about playing it safe with her message or her setlist — she’s a bona fide legend who’s been through more than her fair share of rough times, and in 2018, she’s going to sing and say what she damn well pleases.
And that freedom of expression even extended beyond her catalog. With video interludes to allow costume changes and snippets of others’ material worked into her own songs (Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” and Nicki Minaj’s “Chun-Li” make brief appearances), Janet’s State of the World feels more like a collage than a straightforward setlist. It’s far more than a pop star singing the hits — it’s a living exhibition of an artist’s lifelong output, from 1986’s statement of liberation “Control” to 2015’s J. Cole-featuring “No Sleeep,” with tons of hits that range from sultry bedroom fare (“Any Time, Any Place”) to funky dancefloor anthems (“If”) to message songs (“The Knowledge”) to message songs that are also funky dancefloor anthems (“Rhythm Nation,” which prompted a massive sing-along on the chorus). There was also a touching moment where she paid tribute to her late father Joe Jackson, who died last month at 89. Dedicating “Together Again” to him, Jackson flashed pictures of herself as a child with her dad on the screen behind her. After the song, she extended her arms outward and then pointed to the sky. “I miss you — both of you” (Michael also made an appearance on the screen, with footage from the “Scream” video playing during that song).
Admittedly, by the time a festival headliner goes on, everyone is usually a little tired from standing in the sun for hours. But if there was one performer at Panorama whose unstoppable energy made you feel stupid for whining about your feet, it was Jackson. Turning out flawlessly executed choreography for over an hour and a half that puts pop stars half her age to shame, Jackson is an unstoppable dynamo on stage. At one point in her set, she stopped dancing and stood looking out at the crowd with a regal gaze, looking very much like a conqueror surveying her new subjects — and after watching Jackson perform, you certainly feel less like a casual observer and more like a worshipful follower. The state of the world might be fucked, but at least Janet’s State of the World Tour is a joyous testament to the music, message and jaw-dropping moves of a living legend.