Even if it hadn’t started the way it did, Janet Jackson’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl would’ve made an impression with its ending.
Surrounded by approximately two dozen dancers as she stood center stage, the pop star spent nearly 20 minutes Sunday night introducing the performers and embracing each with what looked like real warmth.
It was a striking display that felt only more exceptional for bookending a production that began with the words “Syrian death count” flashing across a giant video screen. But in this two-hour show Jackson weaved her hits into a narrative that touched on modern turmoil and communal healing.
And these folks, Jackson said, were definitely family — dancers she’d worked with at various points throughout her long career, often when the comings and goings of her famous brothers and sisters left her wanting for close connections.
Some had gone on to celebrity of their own, as with Tyce Diorio (of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance”) and Jenna Dewan Tatum (of NBC’s “World of Dance”). But Jackson showered them all with the type of attention and tenderness you rarely see in a let’s-hear-it-for-the-band moment.
The 51-year-old singer opened her set with “The Knowledge,” a hard piece of mechanized funk from her politically minded 1989 album “Rhythm Nation 1814.” And here the song was accompanied by images of war and violence and environmental destruction, as well as the names of black men killed by police in recent years.
“White privilege,” the screen read in stark lettering as recorded voices demanded justice — all the proof you needed that Jackson views her music as a vehicle for ideas and emotions of every kind.
“The Knowledge” demonstrated too that she hadn’t come to the Bowl just to go halfway.
Part of the singer’s “State of the World” tour (which picked up where her “Unbreakable” tour left off when she cut it short last year due to her pregnancy), Sunday’s concert provided a thorough overview of her expansive catalog, from the bracing pop-R&B of “Control” to the exuberant disco of “All for You” to the dark, humid soul music she was making on “The Velvet Rope,” a touchstone for some of today’s adventurous young artists that was released on Oct. 7, 1997 — almost 20 years to the day before the Bowl gig.
The volume of Jackson’s work led her to combine many tunes into fast-moving medleys like the one she made of “Escapade” and “When I Think of You.” (She also wove bits of other people’s songs into her own, as when she cleverly mashed up “That’s the Way Love Goes” with Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat.”)
“So many hits, you guys,” she said, offering a boast disguised as an apology.
But shortening classics such as “Miss You Much” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” didn’t diminish their impact; Jackson inhabited each song fully, putting across its longing or its resentment with her singing, which appeared to be mostly live, and her sensual yet witty dancing, which made you wonder if any major pop singer has thought more effectively about groove.
Part of this she accomplished with help from the audience, of course. Though they haven’t saturated culture the way hits by Madonna or Jackson’s brother Michael have, Jackson’s songs are felt extraordinarily deeply by her fans, who tend to take the music as a true reflection of her changing mind-set rather than as an exercise in brand development.
Has talking about herself far less than her peers made the very private Jackson seem more credible? For sure — that’s one reason Beyoncé has followed her lead in channeling what she has to say into albums, not into interviews or tweets.
Yet the frustrations in Jackson’s music have always seemed uniquely believable too. At the Bowl she talked about entering show business at age 7, and though she wasn’t looking for sympathy, it was easy to feel for a woman still paying a price for the notorious Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” that left hardly a scratch on her halftime partner Justin Timberlake.
The same went during the scene of domestic violence she and her dancers played out during her song “What About.”
“This is me,” Jackson said, as though referring — or perhaps not — to her recent split from a man whom her brother Randy has publicly accused of abusing her.
For all the trauma Jackson evoked in Sunday’s concert, she was equally convincing in an ecstatic rendition of “Together Again,” from “The Velvet Rope,” in which, over a gorgeous deep-house beat, she dreams of reuniting with a long-lost friend.
Then again, this was no idle fantasy: Jackson’s producer Jimmy Jam has said she wrote the song about someone who died as a result of AIDS — just another time she made room for both beauty and terror.