People, we are reaching a Janet Jackson underappreciation level of epidemic proportions.
At her concert Tuesday at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, the entire lawn was closed off. A crowd of 9,000 isn't shabby, but no fans whatsoever on the lawn of a 20,000-seat amphitheater? Seriously?
We're living in a post-Prince, post-George Michael, post-MJ world. Jackson's up there with Madonna as pop torchbearers from her era. She released three diamond-level masterpieces in seven years (Control, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet; go ahead and tack 1997's The Velvet Rope on there if you like). And her show on Tuesday was a reminder of her prowess, a relentless blitz of sharp, confrontational pop, R&B and New Jack Swing that left barely a moment to breathe.
So what gives?
Jackson's an enigma, is what gives. Resolutely private in her private life, even on stage, she barely engages with her audience in any meaningful way. Oh, she works it, for sure – her choreography, with eight dancers in tow, was precise and ferocious, all snapping limbs and stomping feet. Rarely if ever was Jackson, 52, not in motion.
There were moments, mostly at the very beginning and end, when Jackson waded briefly into the politics of the modern world, flashing graphics on screen that referenced border wars, Sandy Hook, Black Lives Mater and the specter of totalitarianism.
And then, between songs, there was little else
To be fair, the phrase "between songs" barely applies at a Janet Jackson concert. So many of her classic songs were mashed into medleys: Control, The Pleasure Principle, What Have You Done For Me Lately, Nasty, You Want This and more. Those that weren't mashed up simply ran from one into the next, like a commercial-free pop block on your FM dial.
Never did the nonstop approach work better than at the end of the night, when Jackson's soft voice turned emphatic and ferocious on What About, and the booming beats of If gave way to Scream (complete with video accompaniment from Michael) and the show-stopping, wholly embodied Rhythm Nation and State of the World.
Occasionally Jackson would take a breath – after the Pleasure Principle medley, she stood still in the spotlight, hair rippling in the breeze, to huge cheers. And midway through the set she took the slightest of breathers with a set focusing on slower jams: The sparkling soft focus of I Get Lonely; the glistening yacht-pop of Any Time, Any Place; the smoothly jazzy Got 'til It's Gone and That's The Way Love Goes. And occasionally she'd hand the spotlight to a disembodied voice like Missy Elliott, Q-Tip or J. Cole, rapping from the speakers behind her.
How much was Jackson herself actually singing? Let's not put a number on it. She sang sometimes; others, she clearly didn't. The fact that she sang into a microphone on Any Time, Any Place while simultaneously wearing a wireless mic strapped around her sculpted chin was perhaps a tip-off, But hey, that's the way pop goes.
More notable was the one time she seemed to inject real personality into the set.
"I want to celebrate life!" she exclaimed before the up-with-disco Together Again, during which she splashed family photos of her recently deceased father, Joe Jackson, across the stage.
"This one's for you," she said, pointing to the sky.
In a concert of deliberate , mechanical execution, it was a human touch that served to remind that Janet Jackson is still a person in there, behind all that impersonality. The world needs to appreciate her while it can.
— Jay Cridlin