There are few experiences in my life that I would call “life-altering.” Yes, I’ve been exceptionally blessed to be able to see some artists I adore and others I’m just discovering for the first time. Each of these experiences has enriched my life in some way. However, to be truly life-altering means I’ve been forever changed in a way that shifts my conceptions about life, music, art … everything.
I can say with great ease that was the case when I stepped into the Colonial Arts Center on Saturday, Dec. 16 to see the one and only Ms. Janet Jackson and took my seat to the left side of the stage.
Already there’s an air of theater about the show: viewing screens set up on either side of the stage. The theater goes black, and the screens come alive with the gruesome realization of the devolution of the United States into something horrid and frightening, something one could almost consider primeval if it weren’t so entrenched in the fabric of the country (but that’s another rant for another day). She gives us from moment one the reason for the tour, the very tour’s namesake with these flashing images and her monologue from the breakdown of “Scream.”
From that moment forward, the audience knows … I know that we’re about to go on a journey — on through time, space and history. Our conductor, the illustrious Ms. Jackson, sweeps in garbed all in black to give us “The Knowledge.” Just as the concept album from which the song came, she opens on power, on something confronting in both image and sound.
We’re then given a ride through her discography, and the entire crowd is alight with love, adoration and a sweeping wave of nostalgia. Some of us have been there longer than others, some have been there from the beginning. No matter our place in this universe, we are all part of it. Janet makes that clear.
She flows naturally from “Rhythm Nation” era pieces to her dance hits from “Unbreakable,” “janet.,” “Damita Jo” and the less socially heady elements of “Rhythm Nation: 1814.” Let me tell you! This woman has lost zero of her style, precision, and sass. She flings her hair around, stomps with fury and dances harder than her younger dancers. She does it all in full voice without a crack or a tumble.
What makes a Janet Jackson concert experience so unique, however, is how she can make even grand set and showcase seem incredibly intimate. More than just the moment when she comes out in her sweats and denim jacket and sits on a spotlight stool in the middle of the stage. Her voice is incredibly tender during the ballad section, giving us all the emotional weight of those songs (beginning with “Come Back to Me” and ending with “Twenty Foreplay”). But more than that, she embraces her audience. She takes multiple moments to just pause, gorgeous smile on full display, then blows a kiss in every direction.
It was an emotional night, a night where we see Janet at her most vulnerable after what was a time where she felt complete powerlessness. Fans of hers will remember the moment in 1998 during the VH1 Fashion Awards where she completely snapped. Instead of doing what many would’ve expected (either “Together Again” or perhaps “Go Deep”), she debuted track “What About,” a song that tells the story of a woman who’s dealing with domestic abuse and finally finds her voice.
Well, she brings the song back, her dancers portraying different relationships in violent turmoil. At the song’s bridge, she breaks down, unable to sing a song whose lyrics she’s recently lived herself. Once she’s acted out her own freedom on one of the dancers, the music comes to an instant stop and she pauses, attempting to keep some modicum of composure only to break down again. After almost thirty seconds, she takes a breath and reveals, “This … this is me.”
It’s moments like this, and when she pays homage to her brother (first at the break of “Together Again” where she proclaims, “I miss you so much, Mike”; secondly when she actually performs her duet with her late brother, the iconic “Scream,” his image and verse from the music video projected in the background), that we see Janet for everything she is.
There are truly glorious moments of cinematic brilliance during the concert (as in the video intro to the utterly heartrending performance of “What About”), moments of incredible poignancy. But ultimately, the concert is a celebration. It’s also a declaration of unity — during the call-and-response war-cry of “Nation!” at the break in what’s become her fans’ anthem.
Janet Jackson proved on this night that she’s still one of the most amazing performers to ever do the thing. She gave us a night of beautiful memories. It was a blessing that she came through Columbia, SC. It’s not one of the more prominent places people come for their tours. It was also happenstance that this was her penultimate performance before the end of “State of the World” tour. I can honestly say that after having sat in utter dismay for the last ten years (gutted at missing the opportunity to see her during her “Velvet Rope” tour), it was absolutely well worth the wait.