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Janet Jackson - The Velvet Rope Tour: Live in Concert Print E-mail
Tuesday, 24 February 2004
If the name Janet Jackson only means “Michael’s little sister” to you, her controversial halftime episode at this year’s Super Bowl must have given you a big shock. But had you already witnessed her “Velvet Rope” concert tour, this little moment of televised public nudity would have struck you as merely a natural progression, especially after judging it within the context of this new DVD concert document. Clearly, Jackson isn’t the only pop diva who is “not that innocent.”

Granted, Jackson is not a controversy-hound like Madonna, nor is she just another Madonna-wannabe, such as Britney Spears. But “The Velvet Rope Tour – Live in Concert” is evidence that selling sex is clearly already an established part of Jackson’s act. During “Rope Burn” here, for instance, after her dancers strip down to their undergarments for “Anytime, Anyplace” and stripper poles are lined up at the front of the stage, a male audience member is ceremonially strapped to a stage chair. Next, Jackson gives him what amounts to a barely-clothed lap dance. Little is left to the imagination during this particular performance, and the erotic “Throb” – performed earlier in the show -- is none too subtle, either.
It’d be a shame, however, if Jackson gets tagged as just another musical sex kitten, because elements within this concert prove that she has so much more going for her. For instance, her singing of “What About” is an emotionally moving slice of musical theater. The song’s lyric contrasts a partner’s promises of devotion with his much longer laundry list of his past misbehaviors. While Jackson is singing it, her t-shirted male nemesis sits in a chair and visibly drinks himself into oblivion, and nearby, her dancers simultaneously act out choreographed scenes of domestic violence. Later in the movement, a blue-suited police officer arrives to break it all up. And in the end, Jackson is left singing through her tears. This is powerful stuff, and the kind of artistic statement that would make any performer proud. But America is all about “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” to borrow one of Jackson’s own song titles, and her recent much-publicized instance of over-exposure will stay in the minds of the public for a mighty long time to come, and may likely blind them to many of her other much more edifying statements.

Another clear highlight of this show is Jackson’s performance of “Rhythm Nation,” which is a song that never seems to grow old. Credit is equally due Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her famous studio producers, for giving Jackson such an irresistible groove to vocalize over. But the whole live package for this song here – from her dancers’ Soviet Union-inspired military costumes, to their lock-stepped dance maneuvers – is a real feast for the ears and eyes. Additionally, the song’s lyric -- about fighting against racism – transforms it into a concert tour de force.

Elsewhere, Jackson lumps some of her best-known songs into two vastly different medleys. The first of these is called the “Control Medley,” and it includes a few bars of “Control,” “The Pleasure Principle,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty.” Her performance of this “Control Medley” is rather un-showy, though, compared to the eye-catching “Escapade Medley,” which follows -- in full-blown visual effect – later on in the concert. Included in this “Escapade Medley” segment are: “When I Think Of You,” “Miss You Much,” “Runaway,” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” All of these musical moments are placed within a stage set that looks a little like something out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Among its many props are a large-than-life half-moon face and an animated clock. The dancers, quite naturally, are all dressed in circus garb, and even Jackson gets into the spirit by wearing a jester’s hat.

What is particularly troubling about this innocent “Escapade Medley,” however, is how it so starkly contrasts with Jackson’s more sexualized image. The “Escapade” stage set was obviously created with a childlike vision in mind. In fact, many audience camera pans to capture children cheerfully singing along to Jackson songs throughout her show. The cameras don’t, however, focus on these same children -- with either mommy or daddy’s hands covering their eyes -- while Jackson is singing her overtly naughty stuff.

So who is Jackson trying to be, and which is her real audience? Is she “fun for the whole family,” a singing sex bomb, or more uncomfortably, a muddy mixture of each? Based solely upon this DVD, it’s hard to tell. Certainly, she’s not as weird as her brother Michael. (But then again, who is?) Nevertheless, she’s certainly quite conflicted, much like her older brother. Michael, as everybody knows, wants to be accepted as the King of Pop and a musical Mr. Rogers, all at the same time. (And that doesn’t even take into account his alleged sexual activities with young boys, which is a whole other matter.) The bottom line is that eventually an artist – such as Janet Jackson -- needs to make a choice: Either sing for the big kids, or simplify your art for the kiddies. But please don’t try and do both of these conflicting tasks at the same time, because that’s just too dang schizophrenic.

On a visual vs. sonic level, Janet Jackson will always be easier on the eyes than the ears. Her mere wisp of a voice is just not the kind of instrument that will ever impress too many purely musical people. Furthermore, her band is practically invisible throughout this DVD presentation. In between “What About” and “Rhythm Nation,” her guitarist, bassist and percussion section are allowed to perform a brief instrumental break. They are not introduced by name, however, which is the least one can expect from such a spotlight segment. Instead, it’s obvious that this instrumental interlude is nothing more than a break intended only for costume and stage set changes. In other words, it’s a concert time-killer.

If you’re seeking insightful extras from this package, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Except for a filmography and discography, there isn’t a whole lot of new information contained here. A documentary about Jackson’s choreographers would have been of great value to this package, for instance. There’s a lot of complicated movement going on during this show, so it must have been a giant job to pull it all together. Secondly, since the extravagant set design for the “Escapade Medley” outdoes even Rose Parade float construction in many places, a little more information about how it was achieved would have been equally helpful to the viewer. But frankly, the packaging of this DVD screams “budget release.”

Above all else, Janet Jackson is a fine dancer. Let’s face it: There are a lot of people making dance music these days, but few artists can step to the beat nearly as well as does Jackson. (Maybe it’s in the genes, I don’t know.) Nevertheless, such smooth moves make this DVD an entertaining throwback to the days when actors and actresses were expected to know how to sing and dance, as well as act. And when you add in the imaginative costumes of her fellow dancers, “The Velvet Rope Tour” amounts to a real visual treat in many ways.

However, such visual excesses underline the fact that Jackson can’t carry a show on her musical merit alone. One cringes at the mental picture of Jackson with just a microphone in her hand, because such a circumstance would give her just enough (velvet) rope to hang herself.

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