Janet Jackson's appearance in New Orleans Friday night showed that Control and Discipline are more than album titles. Opening the Essence Music Festival in the Louisiana Superdome, Jackson performed for the first time since her brother Michael died a year ago, and she did so with a rigorous self-possession that kept the show from becoming too joyful.
The night started with Jackson dancing with herself. As she sang "The Pleasure Principle," a second and third Janet flanked her via holograms, each synchronized to mirror her moves. She followed with "Control" and "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" -- two songs that began the night's balancing act: Jackson celebrated her career throughout, but with a distant, austere undercurrent.
One example came during a costume change when the video screen showed highlights from her acting roles. The montage that included clips from Diff'rent Strokes, Poetic Justice and The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps was bookended by two emotional sequences -- her debut on Good Times in a scene where the terrified Penny unsuccessfully begs her abusive mother not to punish her, and a sequence from Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too where she's so angry that she trashes an apartment, smashing everything glass with a golf club. These scenes darkened the show's tone and called into question some of the buoyant lyrics of the ballads that followed.
Control and discipline were most literally dramatized when she entered the stage with four crawling men who were on leashes and dressed in bondage gear. Jackson wore a black fur gown, which she shed to reveal a flesh-colored body stocking with black fabric strips in strategic places. A fan was brought out of the audience and strapped into a harness so that Jackson could tease him while singing "Any Time, Any Place." She pulled his face to her bosom and squatted over him, simulating sex without coming too close. During "If," Jackson was similarly familiar, grabbing dancers' crotches, pushing their faces into her crotch; the scene suggested familiarity without intimacy, sex without pleasure.
The night's payoff came when Jackson performed an ecore of "Together Again" as photos of her and a teenaged Michael appeared on the video screen. The song provided her least guarded moment and likely spoke as eloquently as she could about his death to a crowd of more than 50,000 people. The photo tribute allowed audience members to feel her loss and join her in mourning.
In the end, the show left more questions than answers. Did Michael's death account for the set's relatively subdued tone? Was the S&M sequence telling us something new, or was the dominatrix just another acting role?
Whatever the case, it was hard not to walk away and wonder about the high cost of being a Jackson.
1. The Pleasure Principle
3. What Have You Done For Me Lately
5. You Want This
7. Miss You Much
9. Come Back To Me
10. Let's Wait Awhile
12. Doesn't Really Matter
14. Love Will Never Do (Without You)
15. When I Think Of You
16. All For You
17. Got 'Til It's Gone
18. Call On Me
19. That's The Way Love Goes
20. I Get Lonely
21. Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)
22. Any Time, Any Place
24. Black Cat
27. Rhythm Nation
28. Young Love
29. Say You Do
30. Make Me
31. Together Again