We still have a lot to learn from Janet Jackson.
In the mid-’80s Jackson’s proudly prerogative-stating Control established a fierce yet flirty template for declaring autonomy that female artists still follow today. But those early hits somewhat overshadow Jackson’s more nuanced explorations of sexuality in the ’90s on her albums Janet. and The Velvet Rope. There’s not a single 21st-century pop star who couldn’t expand the range of pleasures their music expresses by studying Janet’s vaporous yet tactile way of stroking a melody from within, her facility in alternately harnessing and submitting to the power of punishing electrofunk, and her determination to use a history of trauma and repression as a means of deepening rather than numbing her sexual responses.
That said, a live performance ain’t exactly the best place to learn those lessons. A reserved onstage presence, Jackson has that knack some shy people develop of creating mystique by publicly retreating into themselves, but it requires a rigorous commitment to original choreography in order to shine, and she ain’t dancing as hard as she used to. Then again, neither were the packs of near-contemporaries in attendance at Saturday night’s Treasure Island amphitheater show, and the laid-back lack of spectacle seemed to suit the retrospective mood.
To underscore this lack of flash, Jackson appeared in casual ’90s layers of baggy denim and flannel, Doc Martens and a faded Led Zeppelin shirt—Eddie Vedder couldn’t have worn it any better. She started off with the serviceable Damita Jo number ”All Nite (Don't Stop),” and followed up with the tough ’90s jams “If” and “You.”
“I’m not much of a talker,” Jackson said before entering into the sole speech of the night that proved the rule. She thanked Minnesota and Minneapolis "for allowing me to discover myself. It was here that I found my voice, and I met a lot of beautiful people who have been with me through my life and career."
Two of those people had already appeared briefly onstage before she made this speech, and characteristically, Jackson didn’t even introduce those two special guest stars. In their familiar black shades, hats, and suits, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the homegrown producers (now based in L.A.) who initially sculpted Jackson’s sound in Flyte Time studios, were instantly recognizable when they accompanied her on keytar and bass during “What Have You Done For Me Lately.”
Jackson zipped through the Control numbers early in the set, and they flew past in a blur of nostalgia. She seemed content to let them represent a fondly recalled past rather than jolting them into a new context. More satisfying was a slow jam portion that included perhaps the hookiest hit of her highly mnemonic career, “Again,” and the unfairly titivating cockblock “Let’s Wait Awhile.” A Janet Jackson ballad at its finest is that impossibly squared emotional circle: a lonesome yet satisfying orgasm.
Jackson sprinkled late career highlights in with her hits, most notably “No Sleeep,” from her underacknowledged 2015 album Unbreakable. These latter triumphs will always be bittersweet because her career growth was stunted by the scorched-earth vendetta waged by petulant scumbag Les Moonves, the since-disgraced and -deposed CBS exec (he’s allegedly a serial sexual harasser—go figure), who insisted on punishing her (but not a supposedly suitably penitent co-conspirator, Justin Timberlake) for her 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show “wardrobe malfunction.” So successful was Moonves’ crusade that it might be hard for anyone under a certain age to quite recall how huge a star Jackson was at her peak.
This tour has been touted as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, released at that curious post-Reagan moment when socially relevant statements were expected from pop stars seeking career longevity. The second-best thing I can say about “State of the World” and “The Knowledge,” which trade in fairly uncontroversial humanist concerns, is that they hit almost as hard as the bona fide classic “Miss You Much.” The best thing I can say is that Jackson’s commitment to them three decades later suggests she takes her responsibility as an artist seriously even if her her politically conscious numbers don’t always measure up.
No one could have such reservations about her set closer, “Rhythm Nation,” which melds Sly Stone, New Jack Swing, and the Minneapolis Sound into a righteous funk that stands tall up against the rock anthems that were its 1989 contemporaries, such as “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” or that song where Lou Reed complained about Kurt Waldheim.
For an encore, Jackson effervesced with the glossy “All for You,” before sending us back to our cars with a Latin-tinged new track, “Made for Now,” that moved nicely but hardly suggested inspiring future glories. That’s fine—the past glories still shine brightly enough on their own.
All Nite (Don't Stop)
What Have You Done for Me Lately
The Pleasure Principle
When I Think of You
The Best Things in Life Are Free
That's the Way Love Goes
Got 'til It's Gone
Come Back to Me
Any Time, Any Place
Let's Wait Awhile
Someone to Call My Lover
Come On Get Up
Rock With U
State of the World
Miss You Much
Love Will Never Do (Without You)
All for You
Made For Now