So close, yet so far away -
Janet Jackson tries to be the girl next door, but with money and choreography
When first glimpsed Thursday on the opening night of a three-concert stand at the United Center, Janet Jackson was standing on a pedestal, towering above the audience in fringe bell bottoms, halter top and white hat. Though Jackson soon descended and begin working herself into perspiration-soaked frenzy, she remained — as her 1986 breakthrough album emphatically declared — in complete control and left nothing to chance.
In contrast to Madonna, who remains a cool, unapproachable icon on her current tour, Jackson gives off a more vulnerable and down-to-earth aura. It is a stance that suggests to the audience that it is something more than just a collection of paying customers, and more like the singer's extended family. Of all the divas in the business, Jackson, at age 35, remains the most like the girl next door — albeit one who has enough dough to run through a Cher-like nine costume changes, as Jackson did Thursday in a 1¾-hour performance.
Jackson's accessibility is an illusion, of course, because she is as much an actress as a singer. But at a time when even the new breed of teen-pop performers is in a rush to grow up fast and establish a vixenlike appeal, Jackson brings out a parental affection in her older fans, and a bosom-buddy kinship with her younger, mostly female admirers. One senses that the audience cheers only because it isn't close enough to Jackson to offer her milk and cookies, or tuck her into bed with a favorite stuffed animal. Jackson manipulates these feelings into a show that tries to be both provocative and intimate.
In contrast to the melodrama of her two previous tours, which included crying jags and songs about child abuse, the "All For You" tour is an ebullient affair, with Jackson in a celebratory post-divorce mood after breaking off her longtime marriage to frequent writing partner Rene Elizondo. The opening burst found her roaming the singles bars in search of a man with a "nice package," as she trilled on "All for You."
A four-story backdrop of video screens, platforms for a seven-piece band and fireworks designed by U2-Pink Floyd-Rolling Stones stage guru Mark Fisher were multimillion-dollar window-dressing for the focal point of the show: Jackson interacting with an eight-member dance troupe in a series of futuristic ballets. The singer is a brilliant ensemble dancer and her thin voice held up under the demanding workout, though there were instances when it sounded artificially enhanced.
But then this wasn't about live music. The fans were more like voyeurs at a video shoot, and the show was a lavishly appointed theater: a lurid masked dance that looked like it was infiltrated by members of Slipknot on "Trust a Try," a cyber-drill team in latex for "Rhythm Nation," a "Through the Looking Glass" motif for a medley that included fine examples of the Minneapolis keyboard-groove sound Jackson forged with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on "Escapade," "When I Think of You" and "Miss You Much."
These precision-step numbers were broken up by more intimate interludes, including an acoustic medley of the ballads "Come Back to Me," "Let's Wait Awhile" and "Again" with longtime guitarist David Barry. But even here the moment felt canned, as Jackson lingered over a high note that cued the audience to applaud raucously. It brought the show to a dead stop so the singer could smile, giggle into her towel and whisper thanks.
Another unspontaneous moment of spontaneity occurred when Jackson pulled a fan from the audience, had him strapped to a bondage cross, and then "seduced" her willing victim with a dominatrix-style lap dance. In a sense the audience was much like that goggle-eyed participant: so close to the divine Ms. Jackson, and yet somehow just out of reach. In this singer's world, everything — from dance routines to emotions — is expertly choreographed.