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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Janet Jackson's Dance of Community

April 23, 1990|CHRIS WILLMAN

Reclusive by nature, like her mega-star brother, Janet Jackson is no Greta Garbo but rather, as the song says, "not the kind of girl who likes to be alone."

Conceptually, Jackson's latest album and current tour are big on community , stressing social consciousness for a young target audience and proposing a prejudice-free "rhythm nation." And, in practical terms, her show--whose Los Angeles premiere was at the Forum on Friday--puts Jackson's money where her mouth is by consistently making her part of a larger team on stage.

If the dancing in Janet's tour is even more enthralling than that of brother Michael (who can still best her in pure technical proficiency), it's because she spends so much of her stage time working with six other dancers as part of a hip-hop chorus line. It represents the pinnacle of what can be done in the popping 'n' locking style--a rapid-fire mixture of rigidly jerky and gracefully fluid movements.

Nor does the prospect of being alone loom heavy from a crowd-size point of view on this very first, very sold-out tour from the young woman who is arguably the most popular of all current female singers. There's a point early in the show when Jackson takes a long break, chiefly to catch her breath after the first three exhausting dance numbers, but also to beam and bask in the deafening praise, which would presumably go on just as long as she's willing to stand there and take it.

Luckily, she doesn't stand around for long in this revue, which is in town for five Southern California arena dates this month and returns for at least five more in June. It's designed as a dance extravaganza of major proportions. In no way did it succeed on any sort of genuinely musical level, but that's not what this show is about.

Rather, it's a chance to really see if Jackson can sustain that remarkable rhythm through an entire tune, or series of tunes, without any video editors to splice and spoil the fun. She can, and does, through most of the numbers in this 80-minute set, happily radiating utter confidence and engaging cheerfulness.

And so one supposes we really shouldn't mind if that probably isn't actually Janet singing a lot of the time. Even a classically trained vocalist would be hard-pressed to maintain any sort of level of volume--or, more appropriately, "Control"--while bounding up and down stairs and whipping limbs in unnatural directions at impeccable, breakneck speed.

The use of technological enhancement only becomes obvious when the dancing stops and Jackson does sing live, as she did early on in the ballad "Let's Wait Awhile," and pitch presents itself as a real problem. Truthfully, probably no better solution exists than the uneasy mixture of present-tense and pre-recording.

The band is another story. If most of the music probably was in fact "live" to some degree or another, it might as well have been synced to the records, so precisely did the arrangements hew to the original productions. And this exactitude drained all the fun out of the music.

Neither did the Prince-inspired pretensions of many of Jackson's thematic conceits from the "Rhythm Nation 1814" album--like the computerized voices spouting socially conscious bons mots between numbers--weather well in being brought unexpanded to the stage.

The way Jackson divided the set in two, singing first from the self-centered pleasures of "Control" before moving on to the outward-bound social sermons of "Rhythm Nation," made far less sense than did Prince's division on his last tour between oldies and the spiritual "Lovesexy" material.

But who was listening to any of this? Just as a tune like "Alright" blends into the digital woodwork as a so-so album track, only to take on its own life months later as the sound track for a terrific video, strong and weak songs alike here served mostly as backdrop for an enervating procession of swell dance routines.

At 23, Jackson remains a long way from being the significant artiste she aspires to be, but, sophisticated message or not, already she's able to provide more pure entertainment value for your dollar than just about any elder on the market. It's no wonder we want to keep her company.

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