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If Janet Jackson’s career ever careens more the way of brother Jermaine’s than brother Michael’s, she’ll be well advised to settle her hellzapoppin’ Velvet Rope show in Las Vegas. Of course, she might want to tone down that Mummenschantz-meets-The Story of O theme just a bit and focus more on song presentation; surely, the good gamblers of Sin City like a little substance with their smorgasbord of style, right?
The 32-year-old Jackson kicked off a massive world tour at the MCI Center last week, cramming 26 hits, 20-plus dance numbers, nine costume changes, four special effect-driven sets, constant pyrotechnics, and approximately 300 saccharine “I love you, D.C.”s into two-and-a-half hours of mind-numbing, summer-entertainment bliss. Hell, compared to this extravaganza of excess, Armageddon plays like Driving Miss Daisy.
Never mind that many of her more popular songs were wedged into quick, clunky medleys or that her eight-person backup band is late-night-talk-show quality at best. Jackson’s voice and footwork may suffer when compared with her cooing, moonwalking sibling, but the King of Pop has a legitimate challenger in the family when it comes to pure, no-holds-barred showmanship.
To call Jackson’s performance a concert would be missing the point, not to mention a terrific stretch. By blending equal parts A Clockwork Orange, Lewis Carroll, any B-movie starring Andrew Stevens, and Solid Gold, Jackson framed the big event as a lust-driven fairy tale, complete with a giant storybook (titled The Velvet Rope after her latest CD) that opened and closed the show. Her color scheme read like a consistently well-lighted explosion at the Crayola factory.
After erupting onto the stage, about 20 minutes late, Jackson, backed by eight male and female dancers (extremely fit and attractive enough for MTV), humped and bumped her way through “Velvet Rope” (a velvet rope of maroon and gold dangled like an huge anaconda over the stage), “If,” and “You.”
At the end of the grinding, metal-on-bass “If,” the performer, alone and surprisingly small in a spotlight, paused, motionless, and glared into the audience with her nastiest scowl for more than an uncomfortable minute. (Maybe this was Janet’s pre-emptive rebuttal to those who claim the Velvet Rope tour will be a multi-million-dollar flop.) But Jackson owns one of the cutest mugs in showbiz, making this early act of sexual aggression, completed when she quickly flashed the audience and teased “If I was your girl”, quite laughable (though more intimidating than when MJ does his badass routine).
Giving crowd and crew an early breather, Jackson took to a center-stage stool to warble “Let’s Wait a While” and “Again” with a strictly ornamental acoustic guitarist (whom you couldn’t hear over the syrupy keyboards). This would be the only time all evening that Jackson would attempt to connect personally with the sold-out crowd, a loud, raucous multi-culti blend of black and white, old and young, rhythmically adept and, well, me.
After a frenzied mess of “Control,” “Pleasure Principle,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” “Nasty,” and “Throb” (the last refreshingly samba-fied and, coincidentally, the show’s most rewarding musical moment), a red crushed-velvet curtain closed around the massive stage and a light-and-sound show of Close Encounters proportions, a clever set-change device, hinted at the deranged madness to follow.
When the curtain reopened, Jackson, in a jester’s headdress and red satin bustier, and her dancers, dressed as promiscuous daisies, randy Mad Hatters, and frisky gnomes, bounded across a blindingly bright, opium-induced set of inflatable moons, clocks, vases, and books (general reaction: “Huh?”) and worked through a much-too-happy mesh of “Escapade,” “When I Think of You,” “Miss You Much,” “Runaway,” and “Love Will Never Do Without You.” (There’s some press horseshit being murmured that the Velvet Rope show is actually a composite of Jackson’s life thus far, from innocence to depression to current sexual and emotional liberation, but if that’s really the case, Miss Jackson might want to lay off the psilocybin and erotic videos.)
After that hallucinatory display, Jackson changed the set yet again, the Through the Hookinglass set lasted a mere 15 minutes, this time into a steamy burlesque house. With Janet and dancers draped in gangster getup, more Guys and Dolls than Suge Knight, the show got raunchy with a sultry succession of “Alright,” “I Get Lonely,” “Black Cat,” and “Rhythm Nation.”
For the new “Rope Burn,” Jackson, acknowledging her darker, kinkier side, stripped down to a black bra and tight black pants, and ordered up a man from the crowd (stalking across the stage, stopping, pointing, demanding, simply, “You”). She proceeded to wriggle and purr in the lucky bastard’s lap, his back to the audience, his face almost planted in Jackson’s ample bosom, while two near-naked female dancers pole-danced in the background. The seemingly planned reactions of the “randomly” selected gent made you wonder just how spontaneous the moment really was, yet the choreography, planned or not, became the show’s highlight, more for Jackson’s lack of inhibition than the audience member’s wacky crowd glances. (Can this really be little Penny from Good Times?)
Former Gen. Colin Powell, dressed in geeky post-18 holes attire and sounding like the whitest man in America, introduced Jackson for the encore: “Does Washington love Janet? Does Virginia love Janet? Does Baltimore love Janet?” Jackson, who, with Powell, is involved with the America’s Promise charity to keep kids out of trouble, gave the soldier a nice friendly hug, then finished up the night with loose, slightly tired, who can blame her?, takes on “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” “Go Deep,” and current No. 1 hit “Together Again.”
By the time Janet & Co. were waving and blowing kisses to the house, eyes were ringing louder than ears, and it wasn’t clear that the show was worth the $50-80 ticket price. On the other hand, you’d pay almost as much taking a date to equally ridiculous blockbuster Lethal Weapon 4. And with Janet, at least you get good sex, and a helluva lot more explosions.