The show was undeniably impressive as Janet Jackson's "All for You" tour pulled into the United Center for the first of three nights Thursday. She has primed her rabidly devoted Chicago fans to expect nothing less.
But the balance was slightly off throughout the 90-minute-plus performance. The whiz-bang gimmickry often overpowered the music, distracting where in the past it had been used to enhance. I'm sorry, Ms. Jackson, but I am for real, and this show just isn't.
Longtime fans of the dance-pop-R&B diva had to feel as if they've seen many of the set pieces before because they have, as part of her last two tours.
The main difference was that Jackson upped the wattage on both the sex and the spectacle this time out. The part where she pulled the (planted?) male fan from the audience turned into a just-shy-of-pornographic S&M fantasy, complete with a rack, shackles and a shiny leather dominatrix outfit.
That sort of thing is usually more Madonna's style.
The video duet with Carly Simon on "Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)" was kind of cool, but the twisted toy box fantasy involving costumed characters, giant insects and floating puppets went beyond psychedelic into the positively surreal.
It was as if somebody had dosed the Cirque du Soleil, which just happens to be set up in the United Center's parking lot, with some very bad acid.
The neon Chinese street scene and the outer-space kabuki bits were slightly more tasteful. But the connection between these images and Jackson's music was a complete and utter mystery.
All of these shenanigans were especially disappointing because many of the songs from "All for You" are driven by powerful and cathartic emotions, reflecting the recent dissolution of Jackson's marriage. But little of this "real" Janet was ever visible onstage.
The closest the singer got to improvising came when she eschewed the traditional crocodile tears during the predictable drawn-out moment as she stopped performing and paused to silently bask in the glowing adoration of the crowd. But this might have been because critics have started mocking the routine's scripted nature.
The set list followed the pattern of alternating the new songs with medleys of older hits, a trick that Jackson's producer and mentor Jimmy Jam (who was in the house) learned from his old boss Prince.
The medleys showed the strength of Jackson's eight-piece band and the enduring appeal of her signature tunes, whether they were in ballad mode ("Come Back to Me," "Again," "Let's Wait Awhile") or more uptempo ("Runaway," "When I Think of You," "Miss You Much," "Escapade").
But having seen variations of the same energetic aerobics workouts, the "Miss Saigon"-style stage sets and the boutique full of costume changes three times now, I couldn't help wondering how much more powerful Jackson would have been if she dropped all of these trappings and concentrated on the music.
She has to know the fans would follow her anywhere. It's a shame that after all these years, she still isn't secure enough in her talents to take that chance.