Superstar vehicles rarely have room for more than one star. Whether it's "An Evening with Elton John" or the latest Madonna extravaganza, the focus is always on the star, no matter how many other bodies happen to be onstage.
But Janet Jackson's "Velvet Rope" concert, which opened its U.S. tour before a capacity crowd of 15,069 at Washington's MCI Center on Thursday, was an ensemble act from start to finish.
Make no mistake: Jackson was clearly the star. Frenzied fans shrieked, "I love you, Janet!" as soon as she hit the stage, and when she was the sole focus of the production, there was no doubt that all eyes were on her, as with the dramatic pause in "If" that had her staring silently and ferociously into the spotlight.
Such instances, though, were more the exception than the rule, for Jackson rarely did anything by herself. In fact, she seemed so selfless that she almost disappeared into the crowd onstage.
When she sang, it was usually with the support of her back-up singers; when she danced, she was joined by her dancers. Even in the concert's most intimate moment, a medley of "Let's Wait a While" and "Again" performed without props or choreography, Jackson shared the spotlight with her guitarist.
It isn't that Jackson couldn't bear being alone, or had fallen prey to some form of artistic altruism. What Jackson's communal approach to this stage show reflected is the fact that her success owes as much to packaging as to the star herself.
On albums, Jackson's sound isn't defined by her voice so much as by the way her voice is framed by the lush, propulsive production of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. No surprise, then, that her concert took a similar approach, treating Jackson's voice as just one component in the overall spectacle.
To her (and the band's) credit, this was largely done live, with minimal use of samples and no obvious instances of Jackson relying on pre-recorded vocals.
But even though Jackson showed strength from time to time -- her singing on "Black Cat" was commanding enough to hold its own against the wailing electric guitar -- she's hardly a vocal powerhouse. Not only did her cool, whispery voice have trouble cutting through the heavily harmonized arrangements, but there were times, as in "Love Will Never Do without You," when she had trouble accurately delivering the melody.
Fortunately, there was so much going on around her that her deficiencies went largely unnoticed. "Love Will Never Do," for example, was part of a medley that Jackson performed in a navel-baring, red-and-purple jester's outfit on an Alice in Wonderland set, surrounded by happily frolicking dancers.
At times, there was so much stage business going on that the songs seemed almost like mere soundtrack. It was as if the whole thing were one big, live-action music video, an impression made all the more vivid by the huge video screen at the back of the stage.
Considering how much Jackson owes to video -- and how her fans are far more likely to see her on the small screen than on the concert stage -- it's hard to find fault with such videocentric tactics. This, after all, was the Janet Jackson most people expected: beautifully costumed, cleverly choreographed, relentlessly entertaining.
Granted, there were missteps. "What About," a strong, tuneful song about domestic abuse, inspired some of the evening's most impassioned singing, but its too-literal choreography seemed jarring after light-hearted romps such as zoot-suited "Alright" and the stomping "Control" medley.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the show was the way its sense of spectacle seemed to overwhelm Jackson's own charisma. Surround Madonna with eight dancers, two singers and full band, and she'll easily outshine them. Jackson, by contrast, came across as just another cog in a well-oiled machine, and while that certainly didn't diminish the effectiveness of hits like the buoyant "Together Again," neither did it leave a lasting impression of the star herself.
Pub Date: 7/11/98