Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Rope Floats

Janet Jackson sails on

By Charles Taylor

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Janet Jackson has never shown the will to rule pop by the sheer force of personality in the same way that both Madonna and her brother Michael have. She has never occupied the position that they have, never been the sort of defining pop figure who dominates the country's popular imagination, whose very presence demands a reaction. She keeps a low profile between projects; her next move has never been the subject of wild speculation or fantasy or rumor. And yet, over the long haul, she's proven to be a far more interesting, far more durable, hell, a far more listenable performer than either of them.

Her rise to pop stardom -- beginning with the 1986 "Control" -- has been a case of seductive infiltration. There are certain pop hits, "She Loves You" or "Smells like Teen Spirit" to name two, that, the first time you hear them, leap right into the center of your consciousness, making you recognize that you've never heard anything like them before and that part of you has always longed for something just like them. Jackson works exactly the opposite way. Many of her best numbers, from "When I Think of You" to "Got 'Til It's Gone," can waft by like pleasant diversions the first or even the tenth time you hear them; by the hundredth you can feel the way Bruce Springsteen did when he heard Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin' " and wished he had it on a tape loop so it would never stop. It's the subtlety of Jackson's approach that, I think, accounts for her staying power. On The Velvet Rope (Virgin), one of the best mainstream pop albums of the decade, the layered production by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis combines with the quietness of her vocals to ensure that the songs don't lose their delicacy even as their hooks take root in your head.

Although she's given to conceiving of albums as encompassing statements, the message that comes through most clearly in Jackson's music is that of a young woman discovering her capacity to give and receive pleasure. With endearments delivered like murmured, nuzzling confidences, her love songs put a premium on relaxation, both in and out of bed, which is why they often seem to blur the line between lovers and friends. Her purpose often seems to be to explore the contours and erotics of a whisper.

Unfortunately that's just the kind of subtlety you can't get across in a hockey barn, the size of venue that a performer of Jackson's popularity feels duty bound to play. As choreographed shows with elaborate sets and effects go, her sold-out performance at the FleetCenter a week ago Friday (she returns to perform at the Worcester Centrum next Friday) was consistently entertaining and smooth, its rhythm broken only by the awkward pauses for set and costume changes. With the exception of an unsettling early moment when she stood on stage sternly and curiously regarding the crowd as if she were an alien encountering a life form she had no reason to believe would be friendly, Jackson proved a generous, ingratiating pro, with the loveliest smile in pop music. The tears that accompanied one ballad may have been a performer's trick, but there was nothing about the moment to suggest that it wasn't fully felt. Accompanied by a troupe of eight racially and sexually integrated dancers so tight and together that they virtually defined the phrase "in synch," she did the best thing the star of such a slick production could do: she communicated the constant feeling that she was having fun.

For the most part she avoided the edgier sections of The Velvet Rope, the furious, accusatory "What About" (hip-hop as it might be done by a riot grrrl) and her gorgeous version of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night" where she doesn't bother to change the pronouns. The show got no more daring than the very amusing routine that accompanied "Rope Burn," where a fellow from the audience was brought up on stage and strapped down in a chair while Jackson, attired in tuxedo pants and white formal shirt opened to reveal a black bra, performed a sort of clothed striptease, even stroking the guy's face and planting a long kiss full on his lips. (I don't think he was a plant, but if he was, he's the greatest actor since Olivier.)

What was lost was the floating delicacy of the songs on The Velvet Rope, and the light, quavering lyricism of her vocals. The best part of the evening was the final section, when Jackson and the dancers, simply dressed in black velvet cargo pants and black T-shirts, unleashed the pop punch of "Got 'Til It's Gone" and "Together Again." The stripped-down simplicity was the perfect setting for her playfulness and ease. Sustained over an entire set in a more intimate setting, it might have made Janet Jackson feel as close as she does when her voice is whispering out of your stereo.

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