Don’t be fooled, Janet Jackson has a clear and firm grasp on reality.
With 51 years of age under her belt, countless No. 1 albums, and dozens of accolades (including one BET Award, 13 Soul Train Music Awards, five Grammys and one Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award), Jackson has undoubtedly achieved icon status, permanently leaving her mark in the history books.
But even as she’s set the precedent on what a music icon’s career should look like and essentially hasn’t known a life outside of the limelight, she hasn’t seemed to lose sight of what’s real. Her State of the World tour, the eighth concert series of her career, was a clear reminder of that.
While State of the World was a history lesson in the form of a musical art performance, stacked with crisp choreography and pop hits that reflected the decades they dominated, it was also a subtle hint that she is well aware of our nation’s current social and political climate. Even more, the singer’s concert in Fresno, California, was a declaration of the state of Janet Jackson herself beyond the scandalous headlines and swirling rumors.
There’s absolutely nothing to do in Fresno. Aside from a couple of national park hiking trails, shopping centers and local bars, the nightlife in Cali’s southern city, seems almost obsolete. That was, until Janet rolled into town.
A bustling blob of concertgoers piled in between metal barriers outside of the box office of the Save Mart Center. It was a late Sunday evening (Sept. 24), but a majority of the crowd seemed to be hitting their mid-30s or at least old enough to name all ten of the Jackson Family kids quicker than they could name each member of the Kardashian-Jenner clan. Hence, even work the next morning wasn’t going to stop them from witnessing Janet in action.
With the kids tucked in for the night (and a few coming along), the middle-aged crowd, decked in vintage gear (Rhythm Nation varsity jackets, combat boots, distressed tees decorated with Janet’s face), hoarded large plastic cups of beer into the main arena, gulping them down in anticipation for the show to begin.
Showtime kicked off fifteen minutes past 8 p.m. following a short DJ set of ‘80s classics (with a couple of Bruno Mars joints thrown in the mix). The crowd was already oozing with excitement, but they were about to turn it up ten notches.
Unbeknownst to nearly all of the estimated 15,000 fans, Jackson opened with a video montage chronicling racism throughout America and referencing some of the unarmed Black men who lost their lives to police brutality, including Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Sean Bell. In many eyes, it was a bold statement in favor of the Black Lives Matter Movement and undoubtedly unlike any concert you’d expect from a veteran pop crossover artist. Not to mention, it’s timing was impeccable — if not deliberate — considering NFL players around the nation were taking a knee in opposition of white supremacy and police brutality. And that was just a dab of the themes Jackson would stir into her medley of hits.
While the singer ignited old flames in her fans as she rolled through her discography with songs like 1986’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and 1987’s “Nasty,” it was Janet’s choreography that was a particular highlight of the night. Jackson has always been commended for her tight moves and killer utilitarian styles. And at 51, she still has it. She didn’t miss a step when getting into formation during her rendition of “Feedback” and she still made men in the front row quiver as she grinded and bounced around to “All for You” and “All Nite (Don’t Stop).” It was her high energy and calculated steps that made this crowd feel that, despite the changing times and music, they could live a little longer (if not forever).
Janet is still regarded as a sex symbol in modern pop culture. And although she kept it rather tame in regards to her costumes and dance moves, she still managed to slip in a little sex appeal for her die hards. But this tour wasn’t about being anyone’s pinup girl. This was about opening a window into a more vulnerable and intimate side of her life. After directing the early portion of her career in a particular angle to rival the seductiveness of say, a Madonna, it was clear that it was important to Janet to show that, just like the culture and world, she has also matured and evolved.
Her performance of her 1997 track “What About” was particularly transparent. As Jackson introduced the slow burner at center stage with a single spotlight, her backup dancers reenacted scenes of abusive relationships. It was poetic and wonderfully sensitive, but what made it even more triggering was that Jackson began to cry towards the end of the number. It was almost hard to catch, as she simply sniffled with a faint stream of tears running from her eyes. “This right here,” she softly stated, “This is me.” The audience roared in support. It could’ve just been the overwhelming aspect of life on tour, but it seemed pretty personal. Just days before, the performer’s brother Randy Jackson alleged that his sister’s ex-husband, Wissam Al Mana, had verbally abused her during their nearly five-year marriage and often made her feel “like a prisoner in her own home.”
Things got deep, but quickly livened up as she rounded out her performance with “Rhythm Nation.” Her bashful and bubbly side was exposed when she introduced her band members and dancers and she kept the audience engaged even while performing her ballads.
Jackson received a ton of flack for going on the road, especially after she opted to suspend her 2015-2016 tour to have her first child. But despite the pushback and media headlines concerning her marriage and age, she was able to achieve what very little recording artists can in more than three decades after their start. Her singing was traditionally soft and sweet and her moves were on point. Her day-one fans still showed up and worshiped her as if no time had gone by.
But more importantly, the State of the World Tour was momentous for Jackson. In a time where things seem so fragile, she made daring statements that peeled off a layer to expose the person behind the legacy. Although her lens may be higher up, she sees the aspects of the world that are broken, bruised and oppressed. And like a true optimist, she searches for those glimpses of hope and love in each one of her fans. And that’s possibly all anyone could really hope from an artist with so much influence.
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(Photo: Farrenton Grigsby)