In a concert tour-de-force that ultimately felt like a certain farewell, legendary Janet Jackson gave fans at Atlanta’s Philips Arena everything we love her for last week — deep grooves grooved-to exceptionally, sensuality bordering on (often diving headfirst into) sexuality, and a light heart unafraid of dealing a heavy hand.
…except Janet ended up not being able to make it to Atlanta for that date of the tour. She’d missed most of her tour dates thus far as her personal life demanded her attention and would not wait. By the time we were hoping to see her here — she was expecting a child.
Warning: This article uses profanity and discusses topics of sexuality.
Janet ultimately cancelled the remaining schedule of Unbreakable, and took a year navigating her multiple life-status changes while many disturbing events rocked the United States. She came out the other end changed. Ms. Jackson recommitted to this tour, but renamed it State of the World.
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | Intro
The difference between the set lists for both versions of the tour is in no way subtle. While her most recent album, Unbreakable, was the promotional purpose, Janet opened SOTW with two songs, “The Knowledge,” and “State of The World,” both from her twenty-eight(!) year-old fourth album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (here forth referred to as Rhythm Nation).
The opening video collage for SOTW contains clips and graphics expressing passionate concern about disturbing events fueled by racism while promoting the importance of welcoming immigrants and equality for all, including the LGBTQ. The intro named the names of many unarmed American black men killed by police and called out violence perpetrated by right-wing extremists. It demands justice, and that we should all refrain from silence.
Janet emerges alone on a bare stage. There’s nothing but her, her legacy, her determination, and the words of two songs revealing Janet aghast at, well, the state of the world. These songs, along with the later-included, “Rhythm Nation,” depict a person re-issuing her call to arms, acknowledging a simultaneous hope and despair, a helplessness and a certain strength in numbers.
While the show then shifts gears into party mode, the intro was not the only stark divergence from the previous tour’s iteration. When a song is capped at the end with stillness, silence and an assertive final statement, “This right here. This is me,” one replays the previous moments. To the content of “What About,” Janet’s dancers had physically depicted scenes of domestic violence, and I had tried to not let the lyrics bring up my own experience with domestic domination, manipulation, and entrapment.
That’s what art does when it’s not simply tapping into purer emotions of joy, rage, lust, or sorrow. It brings up our shit. And Ms. Jackson made it crystal clear that “What About” was absolutely about her own shit, shit much more recent than The Velvet Rope’s writing twenty years ago. I’m not at all surprised she had missed so many dates during her last marriage. Nor am I surprised she had child in the middle of it. Life, and marriages, are complicated. Janet’s a very private person. If you’re respectful of that and unfortunate enough to understand the message she’s sending, this performance that had not been included in The Unbreakable Tour, was enough of a window.
Thankfully, while honoring and in appreciation of the seriousness expressed within SOTW, there was relief from the darkness in the form of many many damn good jams.
As as a girl-child of the 80’s steeped in pop culture, Janet Jackson’s album, Control, hit me, MTV audiences, and the charts like a welcome ton of bricks. She was gorgeous, a proud and determined feminist, and my body couldn’t help but move to her music. I credit Janet Jackson (come on, try not to smile watching Janet in “When I Think of You,” I dare you), her and my mom too actually, for instilling in me a non-stop smile when I’m dancing. That’s unless I’m trying to be cool, but that cool doesn’t last for long.
Later, in 1994, I dragged my kid-brother to the janet. World Tour. Though he doesn’t listen to this kind of music anymore, he still thinks she’s (still) super hot, and don’t tell anybody, but in private he admits he’d had a damned good time. We partied down at the (then) Blockbuster Pavilion and I was just in awe at her showmanship.
Later still I’d be part of the company that built a web application for Blackglama, a luxury fashion brand, right when Janet was its (first ever!) two-time icon model of the year (2010, 2011). That smile was part of my day for months, lucky me. And now I’ve got a framed poster on my wall of her with my SOTW Tour Press Pass affixed to it. Squeee!
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | Act I
For fans of her music, a THIRTY-SIX song career-spanning production like this one is a tour through our own lives, and all the ways we felt understood, or were comforted, or bolstered by her music. It felt like family in that arena. We know what a hit “Burnitup!” is (on the Unbreakable album), even if the charts didn’t, and we went crazy (while I made my way out temporarily).
As I was running to dump my pro-equipment in my car, I thought, is that Missy’s voice? Live? Atlanta, and only Atlanta, got some mad respect from Janet, when she welcomed Missy Elliot to the stage for her rap in “Burnitup!”, and raised the roof sampling “Lose Control”.
Then, if not before, Janet’s medley of “Nasty” (Control), “Feedback” (Discipline), “Miss You Much” (Rhythm Nation), “Alright” (Rhythm Nation), and “You Want This” (janet.), reminded us all that Ms. Jackson is in as tight physical form as she had been in (the 30+ year-old!) “The Pleasure Principle”! You know how long she’s been on this earth. You know she’s a recent mother. You know that woman is absolutely, and always has been, one of the hardest working people in show business. Incredible.
The next medley featured “The Pleasure Principle’, and others off Control, “Control”, and “What Have You Done for Me Lately”, with “When I Think of You“ too in the next medley. The old-school “What Have You Done For Me Lately” diss track emphasized with a sample of the current chart-crushing “Bodak Yellow” (Cardi B). Janet knows. We died.
Speaking of figures –because bodies are what we’re looking at during a live production where the primary visual attraction is the dancing– we love love love the plus-size dancer in the troupe. Allison’s presence was startling only because of the unusual inclusion. No wait, also because she is a provocative, slammin’ jammer. When Ms. Buczkowski is introduced at the end of the evening, the crowd went f’g wild. Not the least because us big people and large-figure lovers see ourselves in her, are inspired by her, and are so thankful Janet chose right here.
Meet Allison and the rest of the Unbreakable/SOTW Tour dance troupe here.
Janet barely paused through the joyful “Escapade” (Rhythm Nation) / When I Think of You (Control) / “All For You” (All For You) medley, to “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” (Damita Jo), and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” (Rhythm Nation), before they all took a seriously well-deserved break.
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | 1st Intermission
Not gonna lie, I didn’t appreciate DJ Aktive’s turn here. It’s great that he mixed “What’s Your Name,” from Discipline (which is the only post-Control album of hers you annoyingly can’t get on Spotify; somebody do something about that!), and “Enjoy” (20 Y.O.), and “Together Again”, but…
He kept shouting, “sing it if you know iiiiiiitt!!!” Frankly, “Together Again” was so heavily reconstructed, that in the cavernous venue with Janet’s soft tone, I could barely make out that it was one of her songs at all, let alone sing along. And I’m sorry, but while 20 Y.O. initially charted well and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B album, it didn’t make waves in popular culture, and (until writing this article), I couldn’t have sung along with “Enjoy” if I tried. Clearly most of the arena and I were in the same boat.
Repeating this and “get your hands up!!!” seemed to be Aktive’s hype-man schtick, but dude, if you have to repeat yourself that much, maybe consider we might need an intermission too after all that Janet Jackson buffet.
Last but not least, did he really need to tell us to sing it if we know it as the “Again” (janet.) video was played for us? Really? We can sing it in our sleep and do, and we were going to anyway. No instruction required. So we did, and even though Janet was leaving us all alone with it this time, it felt goooood, and so bitter-sweet, as always. We knew she’d be back. And with a costume change.
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | Act II
Where Act I was fairly PG-rated, barring “All For You” (oh, and “Feedback”…and… I give up) Act II is for consenting, carnality-fearless adults. Janet brought the room down and slid into “Twenty Foreplay” (a promo release for Design of a Decade: 1986–1996), perched on a stool alone with her microphone. Gentlemen, listen up! It’s a perfect anthem for how the feminine sexual response actually works. Foreplay totes starts many hours, even days before happy sex.
The sweet love ballads “Where Are You Now” (janet.), and “Come Back to Me” (Rhythm Nation), were medlied with the smoothly sexy, “The Body That Loves You” (janet.). Then “Spending Time With You” (Damita Jo) got it it’s first tour performance ever. Nice.
Janet got up for… I got up for… we all got up, and her dancers came out, for “No Sleeep” (Unbreakable). It’s the kind of song you wish you could “slow-dance” and make out to at the same time. I’m sure many do. This version (as in the video) features J. Cole, present if only via projection, performing the complimentary rap while Janet’s hips rock. Mm-mmm. My favorite of the album.
Counter-intuitively in this act, with all this sexiness to share, Ms. Jackson and her troupe are dressed from neck-to-toe in baggy urban streetwear. No cleavage revealing, no body hugging necessary. It seems to me purposeful focus was put on her voice, the music, the groove. And it’s still sexy AF.
“Got ’til It’s Gone” (The Velvet Rope, featuring Joni Mitchell & Q-Tip) may have belonged in the gleeful Act I, but I’ll take it any way it comes, anytime, anyplace. Love this song, that unfortunately I have to agree was ripped from the Des’ree song, “Feel So High.” But “Got ‘til It’s Gone” while not entirely original, is gorgeous and it’s the one I listen to repeatedly. With that said, I’m glad Des’ree got the acknowledgement and the several mill she deserves.
The sexy got brought back as it always does with “That’s the Way Love Goes” (janet.), after which she took an exhausted seat with her dancers and proclaimed “I’m doing my best.” Honey, your best here was unexpected and all cherry and icing on top at this point.
She seems to know we can’t handle going from “No Sleep” straight into “That’s the Way Love Goes”, right into “Throb.” Not without having a coronary, or getting arrested for indecent behavior. So she stuffs the darling “Someone to Call My Lover” (All For You), before that last, to come up for air before getting back down to it.
Do you know what she’s saying in “Throb” (janet.)? Her voice is so soft, and it’s not that she’s not articulating, but with so many of her songs I listened for years without knowing that, like in this case, she’s saying something like, “Janet, made wet.” I think it’s that innocuous-seeming soft tone that allows for radio-play of songs of hers like “If” (“I can feel your smooth and shiny against my lips, sugar”). I think the censoring committees just assume that girlish voice couldn’t possibly be saying what it turns out she’s saying.
I’m not complaining. Go ahead. Sing how “I want to feel you move inside me” (“The Body That Loves You”), how “(You) Gotta nice package alright, guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight” (“All For You”), how “I don’t give a damn what they think, I want you now, I don’t wanna stop just because, You feel so good inside of my love,” (“Anytime, Anyplace”). Because these are things people think, feel, experience. If we don’t, we’re missing out, so thanks for letting us live vicariously through your art. Seriously, thank you.
It’s not weird at all that after the carnality that came before, the platonically-intended love song, “Together Again” (The Velvet Rope) then included the sisterly shout out, “I miss you, Mike!” Not at all. Because few among us don’t miss him (read: his music-making and showmanship). Way to throw our emotions around, girl.
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | 2nd Intermission
Janet and her band and dancers took their break. The arena stayed dark, then projected to the sorrowful and haunting “Idle,” by Spooky Black, was Janet’s image. She wore her hair pulled back, and makeup done glamorously, but over the course of the song, she looked right in the camera and little by little smeared that makeup all over her face. It ended with her voiceover, “Don’t ever let anyone try to control you, manipulate you, or abuse you.” And instantly, “What About” began.
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | Act III
“Idle” had a beautiful return at the end of the frankly rocking but often hard to sit with “What About.” It gave emotion a moment to settle for all in the room. But the song it bookended was an apt beginning of the “Never Forget I’m a Rock Star [my words]” section of Janet’s opus this night.
Then, my all-time favorite Janet Jackson song. “If” (janet.) kicks so-much ass, is Sexy A-so-much-F, and is properly honored as such with the addition of Arrow’s absolutely shredding, heavenly, indulgent guitar solo intro. And yes, I know all the lyrics and can (usually) keep up (if I’ve recently been working out). You try it. You’ll like it, but it’s not for the sheepish.
From my favorite of Dunk’s songs (I actually don’t think I qualify to use this nickname of hers, so I’ll refrain in future), to one of my top favorite music videos of all time. Including “Scream” (Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future), Ms. Jackson’s honors her brother, while solidly showcasing an exceptional piece of HERstory. And when she today says, “Stop fucking with me,” we know what she’s talking about. Or take your pick on what it might be referencing. Just give her a damned break already.
The performances, live, for all including “What About”, and in the videos for “If”, “Scream”, and the last in this act, “Rhythm Nation,” demonstrate that Janet has always been a bad-ass rocker and is still a world-class dancer. Her dance abilities– athletic, crisp to the point of exactitude, emotive, and pioneering –are as inseparable from her pop persona as are her writing and singing voices. She’s one amazing, prolific piece of theater.
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | 3rd Intermission
During this break, the arena was left dark, while an excerpt from “Livin’ in a World” (They Didn’t Make) (Rhythm Nation), played, followed by the “Racism” interlude from the janet. These words are meant to be listened to.
“Living in a world they didn’t make
Living in a world that’s filled with hate
Living in a world where grown-ups break the rules”
…and… “And to a world that’s sick with racism, get well soon.”
Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour | Act IV
“Black Eagle” (Unbreakable) is one I would have left out. I love the ultimate message(s) of the song, “we all need to do better”, etc. But it seems rife with just too many different platitudes, and I’m not sure I get the animal totem part. But she sure has a pretty singing voice.
Pair that voice, and an agenda, with a great anthemic beat and melody, and I will eat something like “New Agenda” (janet.) up with a spoon. Love this song. “Our time has come to rejoice, a new [not to be redundant] agenda’s due.” So good.
Just in case we forgot, in the short time since “If,” six songs ago, that Janet Jackson is a sensuous, gorgeous, sex-positive woman, we get the funky-sexy “So Excited” (20 Y.O.), and the almost innocent-lyric’d yet inhibition-melting medley of “Dammn Baby” (Unbreakable), and “I Get Lonely” (The Velvet Rope).
The beautiful nostalgia-toned “Well Traveled” (Unbreakable) was Janet’s clear au revoir for the night. Whether the emotional goodbye she gave her dancers and band members when introducing them earlier was actually a goodbye to performing on this scale in the future — we’ll wait to find out. Her dancers love-piled her on her exit, and she exclaimed, “It’s all about love! We need one love, you guys! I love you so much, ATL! Good night!” And I’m spent.
My Greedy Set (Wish) List Additions
Who could ask for anything more? Well, all of us leaving the arena at the end of the night, right? It’s never enough. If you want more recs to sample from Janet’s catalogue, here are my choices, one from each album, Control-forward, for songs I wish she’d also performed here in Atlanta this year.
- “Let’s Wait Awhile” (Control) — Arguably one of the best R&B ballads. It’s message isn’t just for teenagers on the brink of deeply adult relationships, it’s also for adults on the brink of deeply adult relationships.
- “Black Cat” (Rhythm Nation) — I would have loved to hear this in Act III, right along with “What About”, “If”, and “Scream”. The first time we heard this heavy metal anthem in ’89, it almost wasn’t believable as being Janet Jackson. Believe it.
- “Anytime, Anyplace” (janet.) — The most sex-positive of all of Janet’s work? Perhaps the most overt. And I can’t get enough. Any time, any place. Especially in my car, my shower, or the trail (I’ll listen to it).
- “Go Deep” (The Velvet Rope) — I could rock on this groove on repeat all. night. long.
- “You Ain’t Right” (All For You) — Funky fantastic f’g funk rock. It crosses the line past diss track to something beyond. Somebody did something MESSED UP.
- “Just a Little While” (Damita Jo) — Omg! I love this bubblegum rock-pop sweetness!
- “Call On Me” (20 Y.O.) — Really because I’ve got a crush on anything Nelly does, and that’s enough. No, their chemistry in that video, too. Daammmn.
- “Make Me“(Number Ones) — It’s excellent, perhaps forgettable, disco. “Make me groove”, I don’t care, I’ll do it. But if you ever wanted more of the “Scream” video production values, check this one, it’s similarly futuristically stunning.
- “Rock With U” (Discipline) — I wanna rock with U 2, baby-doll. Ohhhh myyyy… Melodic EDM heaven.
- “Gon’ B Alright” (Unbreakable) — Including a sampling of something that sounds like a video game soundtrack (what is that??), this is a bubbly Motown-esque track in the vein of her brothers’ band, Jackson 5. It sounds great on her.
Yes, there is a LOT to love in Janet Jackson’s catalogue, just in case you forgot. Merry Christmas.
* These songs were performed in the Unbreakable version of this tour, perhaps cut to make room for “The Knowledge”, “State of the World”, and “What About.”