Rock music: Janet Jackson gets lost in her own limelight
Sunday 07 June 1998
Janet's concerts are the pop equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie, with all the explosions, special effects, ersatz sentimentality, gratuitous cleavage and emphasis on spectacle over coherence that the term implies. You want thrills and chills? How about that creepy routine that went with "You", in which the dancers wore masks on the front and back of their heads? You want titillation? On "Ropeburn", Janet made one fan's fondest dream and worst nightmare come true at the same time. He was plucked from the audience and strapped to a chair so that a semi-clad, pole-dancing Janet could give him a close-up of her Wonderbra. The nightmare? The entire audience was given a close-up of his anguished, ecstatic face on the screens.
Speaking as someone who believes that there's no pop concert, from Tony Bennett to The Fall, that wouldn't be enhanced by a line of dancing girls and a firework display, I was worn out by this numbingly relentless multimedia onslaught. There were no dynamics, no chance for us to catch our breath. At one point, Janet announced that she was going to slow down the pace, and she sat on a stool, with a man next to her who was cradling an acoustic guitar. You don't have to have seen many arena concerts to know that stools plus acoustic equals the MTV Unplugged part of the set, in which songs are stripped down to their vulnerable essence. But, as we've already seen, the phrase "stripping down" holds just one meaning for Janet, and this isn't it . As the ballad started, the spotlights shifted to the back of the stage, where five other musicians and two backing singers emerged, ready to weigh in and drown out the poor guitarist's every note.
They drowned out Janet as well. As on her last tour, she appeared to be almost as overwhelmed by the distractions around her as I was. Her voice was all but obliterated by the whipcrack drumming, and any vaguely authentic emotion was crushed under the heel of the military Jacksonfunk, as inflexible and joyless as the choreography.
It might have helped if there had been a few more tunes and a few less gasping pseudo-raps. The songs on which Janet did have a melody to work with, particularly the classic "Together Again", proved just how brightly she can sparkle when she lets the visuals enhance the music instead of replace it.
Funnily enough, Janet Jackson is a not too distant relation of Garbage (not literally, thankfully for them). Like her, they make finely calibrated, armour-plated, futuristic pop music, sung by a woman with a seething, sadomasochistic persona. The difference is that at the Brixton Academy on Thursday, that persona dominated the gig rather than vice versa. Shirley Manson didn't have a chorus line and half a dozen flamethrowers to contend with, but she gave the impression that she would have relished the challenge.
Manson has grown into a unique frontwoman: sleazier, more aggressive, but also cooler and more controlled than any of her peers, with a voice that gets mightier all the time. She never stays still. When she's not singing, she's snarling anti-London comments; and when she is singing, she's also playing the guitar, out-raunching Janet with her dancing, or marching around her territory, restless as a boxer, before a backdrop that appears to be a sheet of giant bubblewrap. She is the person that Kylie Minogue dreams of being.
The rest of the band just about keep up with her, with Steve Marker threatening, if not to steal the show, then certainly to borrow it without asking. He has shaved his head, donned goggles and a black T-shirt, and metamorphosed from the rather podgy nerd of yore to a menacing, burly bouncer. It's quite possible that the exercise he gets from wrestling with his guitar was the only work-out required to complete this transformation. He and his fellow Garbagemen, Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and a part-time bassist, made music that was a white-knuckle, virtual-reality rollercoaster ride. Any advertising executive worth his expense account should get on the cellphone right away: his worries about finding a soundtrack for his latest quick-cut trainer commercial are over.
I saw Garbage at their first ever UK gig, and if you'd told me back then in 1995 what they would be like three years later ... well, I don't suppose I would have been at all surprised. Thursday's show was the first in a European tour to promote Version 2.0 (Mushroom), and as the album title as good as admits, they've refined the blueprint that their first of their four-million-selling debut draws up - piling on yet more instruments, effects, loops and samples - but they've stuck to that blueprint none the less.
The songs sound pretty much like those on the first album, and the songs on the first album sound pretty much like each other. In concert, they could swap around the running order, swap around lines of lyrics, even swap whole choruses and it wouldn't make a great deal of difference. As much of a blast as their show was, I knew what it would consist of before I went. Three years before I went, roughly.
Janet Jackson: Wembley Arena (0181 900 1234), tonight & 17 June. Garbage: Manchester Apollo (0161 242 2560), tonight; Wolverhampton Civic (01902 552121), Mon; Portsmouth Guildhall (01705 824355), Tues.
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