It’s not quite six o’clock when Janet Jackson appears on the Pyramid Stage – unusual, perhaps, for an artist of her renown. Jackson certainly seems to think so herself; perhaps unhappy with her position on the bill, she announced her appearance at Worthy Farm by doctoring the official poster. Media outlets gleefully reported Jackson’s team’s audacious decision to move her name to top left billing.
Jackson is a cultural powerhouse: both a veteran live performer and a match-fit one – it’s clear that today’s meticulously rehearsed performance comes after a run of acclaimed shows in Las Vegas. Despite a slightly late start, the show kicks off with business-like professionalism, Jackson rising through the floor of a raised platform on the (otherwise simple) stage. There’s something sleekly superhuman about Jackson’s stage presence: from her flaw-free skin (Jackson is 53, and gave birth to her first child at 50) to her micro-choreographed movements. Dressed in a heavy black cowl neck with patent leather shoulder detailing and enormous matching boots, she gestures with laser-like precision: every finger wag, head tilt and narrowed eye is deliberate.
Her back catalogue flirts with diverse musical styles. There’s the industrial beats on opener “Trust to Try”, the provocative funk of “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and the warm, bright pop of “All For You”. Janet glides through them all seamlessly, from the crisp, sharp and sexual choreography on “If” (including a moment where Jackson puts the head of a male dancer between her legs) to head-banging and bottom-lip-biting air guitar on “Black Cat”. Even her most recent release, 2018’s “Made For Now”, feels right at home, and proves as popular with the crowd as any of her classic hits. The setlist is front-loaded with some of her most famous songs thanks to a medley that includes “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, “Control”, “Nasty”, “The Best Things In Life Are Free” and “All For You”, but it’s a credit to Jackson’s career that she doesn’t run out of hits.
There are some issues, though. It’s a slightly thinner crowd than you might expect – probably due to an unfortunate clash with one of 2019’s biggest pop divas, Lizzo. At times, Jackson’s vocal is too quiet, struggling to be heard over the other tracks. She deals with technical problems with grace (and is perhaps the only woman alive who is able to make dabbing herself with a towel look more sensual than Rachel from Friends did), but it sometimes feels as though Jackson is so rehearsed that she’s merely going through the motions: a warm laugh at the opening notes of “Escapade” is a welcome flash of her human side.
Over the past few years, Jackson’s live performances and her oeuvre have been reassessed with new admiration and a sense that, until now, her many contributions to the musical landscape have been overlooked. In March, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are no mentions of her brother Michael tonight (their collaboration “Scream” is absent from the setlist), other than a brief moment where she references “my brothers, the Jacksons”, incorporating moves from the Jackson 5’s career and the “Thriller” video into a dance break. At the best of times, it’s a challenge to walk in the footsteps of a more influential sibling, even more so when their cultural footprint is being seriously reconsidered. But Jackson has always been able to refuse to bear the burdens of her family’s history, despite its enormous weight.
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