Thursday, August 18, 2011

Together Again: Janet Jackson’s Number Ones Tour

[Programming note: original article ran June 11, 2011. This piece is running to coincide with the upcoming August 26 concert in Vancouver.)

The Blogger recalls his first-ever concert. On June 9, 1990, he attended Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation Tour. It became, at the time, the highest-grossing debut concert tour of all time. The Blogger didn’t care that he was sitting far in the back and watching Janet storm across the stage as a well-dressed military ant dancer. He didn’t care that production values dwarfed in the unfortunately oversized stadium (there were thousands of seats still available). He was just so darned happy to be there!

The Blogger has had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty) live at least three more times since: on the janet. tour in 1994, the All For You Tour in 2001, and 2008’s RockWitChu Tour. Janet remains, Nipplegate or not, his favourite Jackson (sorry Michael). 

Ms. Jackson returned to the road this year for a scaled-down tour supporting her greatest hits double-disc set Number Ones, and showcasing her sets in a more toned-down setting. For those of us who grew up watching Janet dance out from under her brother Michael’s shadow and blaze onto the international stage on her own power, and watch her try to return from the Super Bowl Incident, any occasion to see Janet is a trip down memory lane. Here are five reasons why Janet Jackson still matters.

1. Janet dances her ass off. In an interview with her late, great brother Michael, he took one look at his sister in the 80s when she was heavier and said “lookit that butt!” Yes Michael, we can see it, but not because we’re ridiculing its size: we’re seeing it because she can shake whatever yo’ mama gave her. A Janet Jackson concert is an occasion for the world’s biggest dance party. Like Madonna before her, Janet made her name as a first-class dancer who happened to have a penchant for a great hook and melody. The fact that she has co-written every single one of her hits in her entire career speaks to her passion for the marriage of song and dance, and it’s her words – and therefore her conviction – that compels her to move. It’s guaranteed to make you move, too. 

2. Janet sings all her old hits in concert! Say what you will about her admittedly thin singing voice: Janet doesn’t lip-synch. She doesn’t need a back-up tape of her come-hithers and harmonies for those nights when she doesn’t feel up to it. You can hear every breath in her body and see every bead of sweat when she’s on that stage, and that’s from singing everything. This lady works hard. Janet has a vast array of nearly three dozen global Top Ten singles spanning the last quarter-century (it has been 25 years since her groundbreaking R&B album Control first stormed into the pop world). She understands that her fans have different favourites charting the span of her entire career, and she intends to give them the respect they deserve by singing every last hit, even if she has to blend them into medleys to fit them all in. 

The tour’s set list includes such early singles like “Nasty” and “When I Think of You”; iconic club-stompers like “Escapade” and “Rhythm Nation”; more mature work such as “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “If”; and sing-along favourites like “Together Again” and “Let’s Wait Awhile”. No one goes home from a Janet Jackson concert complaining about the songs she didn’t sing. And this time, with no new material to promote, the show is full of nothing but the hits! Everybody wins! 

3. Janet connects with her fans. This is the most crucial factor that gives her show a more intimate feel. Janet understands that vocally she’s no belter, but she sings beautifully and she makes all her fans welcome. It wasn’t uncommon for Janet to break down in tears during her famed ballad medleys at each performance. She’s known for being kind to her fans, engaging with them, and really connecting with them. Despite her religious upbringing, she became a massive gay icon by virtue of being one of the first major pop stars (like Kylie) to lend her voice to the advancement of LGBT rights. This includes lending her support to various gay-related causes, most recently the Trevor Project and the It Gets Better campaign. Lady Gaga has this down now and has taken it to the next level, by using the power of social media to reach her fans in an even more intimate way. 

On the aborted RockWitChu Tour, Janet didn’t appear to be enjoying herself anymore. The tricks were the same and the singing and dancing rather passionless. It was all well-executed but there was no warmth there. The idea behind the Number Ones tour and its smaller, more intimate scale is designed to reconnect Janet to her most loyal fans. The strategy seemed to have paid off, as the once-limited spring tour has been extended to virtually every major market in North America. Janet’s back doing what she does best: she puts on show, and no one can put one on like she can.

4. Janet doesn’t need to pull any (more) stunts to remain famous. Yes, Nipplegate was unfortunate. But the chronicles of her painful life, including recurring bouts with depression, a weight problem that she has struggled to control, two failed marriages and the loss of her tortured genius of a brother are enough drama to last a lifetime. She speaks about her troubles plainly and matter-of-factly in her revealing autobiography True You, but she doesn’t need to Tweet her problems or give a moment-by-moment account of her troubles. Janet is not a famewhore. She also doesn't sancitfy her own importance the way fellow R&B iconoclast Lauryn Hill does. Although she may share her problems with the public, she doesn’t do it purely for attention or to justify her mistakes. That’s what makes her the most vulnerable, and one of the most appealing, of pop stars.

5. Janet’s last name is Jackson. She comes from a musical pedigree. She wasn’t meant to be a music star. She had to fight her father for control over her own career, and gave the world Control as a result. Despite all the odds, and the nay-saying of her allegedly trading on her famous last name, she proved everyone wrong. Janet is her own woman, and she remains, thanks to her body of work, a great star.

Janet Jackson’s Number Ones Tour runs until September 1, 2011, and arrives in the Blogger’s home town at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on August 26, 2011. Click the tour page for more information. And how will the Blogger celebrate? He’s gonna dance.