I wouldn’t dare try to argue with someone who thinks Janet Jackson’s concert at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion was the thrill of a lifetime. Because to a large extent, they’d be right.
Where else could you have gone on Friday night — or on any night in recent memory, for that matter — to be in the midst of an artist whose ouevre includes so many No. 1 songs (note: she has 10; only eight acts in history can claim more, with one being her legendary brother Michael), and then to get lucky enough to see her perform almost all of them?
What other 52-year-old do you know who can blitz through a series of frenetic choreographed group dances while appearing to barely break a sweat despite it being yet another muggy summer evening in the Southeast?
And how wild is it that those socially conscious songs she wrote nearly more than a quarter-century ago still feel as current as ever?
Her “State of the World” tour — which has a title that plays off both the name of the second track on Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” album and on, well, the current state of the world — leverages all of those strengths.
Before we even got our first glimpse of the headliner on Wednesday, we got a montage of newsreel footage and sound bites, featuring everything from the Syrian conflict and the Sandy Hook massacre to the Charlottesville protests and the epidemic of unarmed African-American men being shot and killed by police officers.
As the names of dozens of victims of police violence filled three giant vertical video screens, so too did a graphical representation of blood dripping down over them. Then the screens went white, then the band started playing the opening strains of “The Skin Game (Part 1)” (off “Rhythm Nation 1814”), then Jackson appeared in silhouette in a spotlight to the left side of the stage, then the audience began screaming — and we were off.
The lesser-known song about the uneasy racial climate in the U.S. circa the late ’80s in fact felt very ’10s, but she barely got halfway through it before pivoting directly into “Knowledge,” another strongly worded message from the same album: “Insight to what’s going on / Information keeps us strong / What you don’t know can hurt you bad / Take it from me you’ll be walkin’ around sad...”
At the bridge, everyone in the audience knew their part. She called out “Prejudice,” the crowd shouted back “NO!” She called out “Ignorance,” the crowd got louder: “NO!!!” It gave the same response, louder still, to “Bigotry” and “Illiteracy.” (That song was abbreviated, too, by the way.)
For the first two numbers, Jackson had gone it solo for all of her strutting, hip-shaking, fist-throwing, and hair-whipping. But on Song 3 — “BURNITUP!,” her blazing, Missy Elliot-supported 2015 club-banger — the video screens retreated up into the rafters and her eight backup dancers stepped into view.
What came next was a bit of a blur. As Jackson and the very-capable, very-diverse dance team relentlessly kept pace with each other in a flurry of synchronized motion, bits of hits washed over fans like the downpours Charlotte’s been seeing all week. “Nasty.” “Feedback.” “Miss You Much.” “Alright.” “You Want This.” “Control.” “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” “The Pleasure Principle.”
If you looked down at your phone to post that concert selfie on Instagram, there was a good chance you missed a favorite song. If you ran to refill your drink, there was a good chance you missed four. Twenty-five minutes into the show, Jackson had already covered an astonishing 11 songs.
But is that kind of approach exhilarating, or frustrating?
Medleys certainly provide adrenaline rushes in rapid-fire succession, as fans revel upon recognizing the first note or two of each hit the artist launches into, then feel that feeling over and over again every 60 seconds or so as the tune changes. That said, would you rather hear pieces of 30-plus songs (which is what Jackson has routinely delivered on this tour), or get 17 or 18 full ones?
I didn’t hear anyone in Charlotte complaining about Jackson’s decision, or much of anything, on Friday night. Twitter was blowing up about how incredible the concert was, so it almost feels blasphemous to say this, but: I found the whole experience rather uneven.
On the one hand, as the songs got shorter and shorter — only 60 seconds of 2001 ballad “Truth” (normally a nearly seven-minute song) here, only 45 seconds of 1999 hip-hop cut “What’s It Gonna Be?” there — the show started to feel very rushed.
On the other, given how much she was trying to cram in, having her, say, stand around bobbing her head while J. Cole rapped his entire part in 2015’s “No Sleeep” on a video screen felt like an awful waste. (We could have heard another verse and another chorus from “Miss You Much” in the same amount of time.) Or, as another example, her choice early on to soak up the cheers from the crowd for a full two minutes theoretically could have cost us “Escapade” (which was relegated to a pre-recorded track the DJ played during a costume change).
And while I’m not going to sit here and say I wasn’t impressed by her dancing, and by the choreography, it did somehow feel a little mechanical.
Part of this simply might be due to the fact that this is Show No. 67 out of 71 on a tour that started nearly 11 months ago. Jackson can no doubt smell the finish line, and there were a couple of hints that she’s rushing to get there: 1) In other cities, shows have reportedly lasted two hours, while in Charlotte, she was done in just 98 minutes. 2) Though it was hard to keep up because she moved through the set list so quickly and because several of the songs were so severely abridged, a close examination of set lists in previous cities revealed that a couple of her typical mainstays didn’t make the cut here.
Still, there were several memorable moments. “What About” — her dark, angry meditation on domestic violence — was accompanied by a powerful depiction of abuse by two pairs of her dancers (and in the end, by Jackson herself). Her tributes to the father she lost in June (“Together Again”) and her late brother (their 1995 duet “Scream”) were both tinged with sadness but also full of joy.
And the one-two closing punch of “Rhythm Nation” (“Things are getting worse / We have to make them better”) and “State of the World” (“Can’t give up hope now / Let’s weather the storm together”) returned the focus to the rise-up message she started with.
You’ll get no argument from me: There was plenty to love in Jackson’s show Friday night. I just wish there’d been a little more.
Janet Jackson’s set list
1. “The Skin Game (Part 1)”
2. “The Knowledge”
6. “Miss You Much”
8. “You Want This”
10. “What Have You Done for Me Lately”
11. “The Pleasure Principle”
12. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”
13. “When I Think of You”
14. “All For You”
15. “All Nite (Don’t Stop)”
17. “When We Oooo”
18. “Feels So Right”
20. “I Get Lonely”
21. “Any Time, Any Place”
22. “What’s It Gonna Be?!” (Busta Rhymes cover)
23. “No Sleeep”
24. “Got ’til It’s Gone”
25. “That’s the Way Love Goes”
26. “So Much Betta”
27. “Together Again”
28. “What About”
29. “You Ain’t Right”
31. “Scream” (Michael Jackson cover)
32. “Rhythm Nation”
33. “State of The World”