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Pop Music Review

Free From the Knots

Janet Jackson tells her own story of personal growth and professional triumph in the lavish Velvet Rope tour.

August 22, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Welcome home, Janet.

This greeting isn't a reference to the Janet Jackson Velvet Rope tour finally reaching Southern California, where the singer has lived for most of her 32 years.

The comforting image of home in this context involves Jackson's new attitude on stage, a place where she once seemed so anxious that she appeared at times to be in foreign, if not downright hostile, territory.

Thursday night at the Great Western Forum, with a wide range of celebrities--from Earvin "Magic" Johnson to Ice Cube--on hand to help celebrate, she didn't just entertain with a production so lavish that Broadway comparisons are inevitable, she also opened up at key moments in ways that suggest she is finally at ease behind the spotlights--and, by extension--with her professional identity.

Given the oppressive shadow of the famous Jackson family, that's no small accomplishment--a sign of personal growth that gives her tour a stirring and liberating edge.

From "Control," the striking 1986 album that made her a pop star, to "The Velvet Rope," the stylish 1997 collection that serves as the foundation of this tour, Jackson has been most effective when she is telling her own story. It's a process she mastered to a degree on record but had trouble fully completing live.

On record, she has shared everything from the traumatic declaration of career independence in "Control" to sexual awakening in "janet." to hard-fought self-affirmation, the theme of the "Velvet Rope" album.

Elements of the theme began surfacing even before Jackson stepped on stage Thursday--as one Motown hit after another was played over the sound system during intermission after the well-received opening set by Usher, part singer and part Romeo.

The series of records--by such artists as Stevie Wonder and (of course) the Jackson 5--served as more than simply a tip of the hat to an era.

Whether intended or coincidental, the Motown tunes brought to mind the almost suffocating show-biz expectations facing Jackson when she began following in her brothers' famous footsteps some two decades ago.

In the velvet rope image, Jackson found a universal symbol to use in exploring issues of insecurity and self-worth. At some point, everyone is on the wrong side of the velvet rope, excluded because of race, social status, age or some other division.

Jackson isn't a premier singer or writer. She expresses herself more in the themes she chooses to write about than in the originality of the lyrics. She also relies a lot on aggressive background vocal support on stage to deliver the power that some of the energetic numbers require.

Yet there is a clarity and purpose to her songs, and she sings both ballads and upbeat tunes with a winning naturalness and warmth.

Her real gift, however, is her sheer determination and desire. Those traits are evident in everything from the precision of her dancing to the high standards she sets for every element of presentation--from the invention of her battalion of dancers to the spectacular punch of her six-piece band.

There were slow spots in the show, especially when she brought a fan on stage to help her act out the erotic fantasies of "Rope Burn," a song from the latest album. She put him in a chair, tied his arms to the side as she danced teasingly around him. The problem was the sequence had no real tension because it was obvious nothing was going to happen, and the deceit worked against the honesty that she was trying to convey in the rest of the production.

Far more seductive was "Throb," a song that combines the high-tech energy of the British band Prodigy with the sensual disco fever of Donna Summer. The number's vitality was captured spectacularly on the video screen above the stage--one of several outstanding displays during the show.

But the highlight was near the end, when Jackson actually tried to turn the vast Forum into her home of sorts by showing childhood photos as she sang "Special," the most personal song from the new album. It's a lovely statement of self-worth, and she performed it with disarming openness and tenderness.

If "Special" was the show's defining moment, the house party atmosphere was revived when she closed with "Together Again," a song that re-creates all the lilt and joy of the Motown classics. In that moment, and in the body of the concert, Jackson no longer seemed to be intimidated by the Motown-Jackson tradition but to be a proud part of it.

* Janet Jackson performs Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. 8 p.m. Sold out. (714) 704-2500.

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