Control is the ruling principle of Janet Jackson's career and, as far as the public knows, of her life.
Her 1986 breakthrough album bore the word as its title; 22 years later, her 10th studio release has the complementary name "Discipline." In concert, she's known less for powerful singing than for leading her dancers in sharp, demanding routines that leave little room for individual turns. And her hits often express contrasting forms of restraint: demure optimism in sunny songs such as "When I Think of You," and in more daring songs, the kind of role-playing sexuality linked to sadomasochism.
Sunniness and S and M both factor into the "Rock Witchu" tour, Jackson's first in seven years, which stopped by Staples Center on Wednesday. Still haunted by her single notorious out-of-control episode -- when her bra accidentally gave way to Justin Timberlake's tug at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime program -- Jackson has crafted a spectacle meant to help her finally recover from that incident and prove to those who say she's washed up that, at 42, she still deserves serious attention. Nine seamlessly executed costume changes are only the beginning. This show is all about dominance, and Jackson held the whip.
Given Jackson's fondness for lyrics invoking sex games, it was hardly shocking when she emerged in a black corset near evening's end, ready for a little bondage. She had her dancers pull up a male audience member and strap him into a harness; he was then suspended midair as Jackson teased him with a highly suggestive set of moves and the breathy soft-core porn of "Discipline's" title track.
The hapless guy seemed close to losing all composure, and his agonized ecstasy offered some frisson. Pleasure can be faked, however: A video://weblogs.variety.com/thesetlist/2008/09/janet-jacksons.html taken on the tour's previous stop in Oakland documents another "victim" being pulled from the crowd and reacting almost identically. A plant perhaps?
Not that it matters. In Jackson's world, well-planned moves are just as valid as spontaneous outbursts. Surrounded by her "family" of nine dancers -- two redheaded white women who were this black diva's equivalent to Gwen Stefani's Asian Harajuku girls, one male acrobat who did stunts during costume changes and six more anonymous men -- Jackson often focused more on executing tough moves than on vocalizing. With only a drummer and two keyboardists acting as the band, Jackson often used a prerecorded soundtrack as support. All that canned music had a distancing effect.
The elaborate set also made it hard to focus on the charisma of the night's star. The action was scattered around a large area, including a bi-level stage, several other platforms, a square catwalk and a giant screen full of vaguely sci-fi images. Sometimes that screen showed clips meant to add up to a narrative, with Jackson starring as both good and bad witch commanding her dancers to seek out and destroy . . . Janet Jackson?
It was painfully unclear and the worst part of the show. Here's a plea to blockbuster stars: Stop creating silly fictional frameworks to justify your shows. You're good enough without the trappings.
The screen was better put to use hosting virtual guests, including rappers Q-Tip and Nelly, and guitarist Dave Navarro, who "played" some blistering riffs on Jackson's 1990 hit "Black Cat." (LL Cool J appeared in the flesh as the night's opener, delivering a confident, crowd-pleasing set). At other times, flashpots exploded and dancers did solos or pas de deux or even pounded on huge drums -- all taking the heat away from Jackson, apparently happy to be part of a team.
But then, Jackson's hits are team efforts too. Her deceptively gentle singing has real presence, but it's most effective when it's interwoven with the ear-catching effects provided by her producers. She flew through dozens of hits Wednesday, but the hooks still jumped out from each one. Jackson might be incapable of big, chest-thumping notes, but her less obtrusive style has a different kind of effect.
It's one her fans appreciate. Several times, Jackson walked alone down the catwalk, commanding the huge space alone -- not unlike Kanye West on his recent “Glow in the Dark” tour. But whereas West used his solo performance as a way of asserting superiority, Jackson used those moments to connect with fans.
Whether singing old favorites like "Say You Do" ("I was 15 years old, amazing!" she exclaimed about that song), playing the chanteuse in a red dress instead of her usual dance-friendly pants, or simply standing back and receiving adulation, Jackson earned fervid applause from her elated fans. Letting them cheer, she relinquished control for a minute and just smiled at the pandemonium.