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Review: Janet Jackson, unbound, preaches her gospel of sex in Las Vegas

Review: Janet Jackson, unbound, preaches her gospel of sex in Las Vegas
Janet Jackson onstage during the opening night of her "Metamorphosis" residency at Park Theater at Park MGM on May 17 in Las Vegas. (Farrenton Grigsby / Getty Images for JJ)

The most revelatory moment of Janet Jackson’s new Las Vegas residency, “Metamorphosis,” didn’t come from anything the notoriously private pop icon said onstage, but instead from what she allowed herself to do.

For the first time in what felt like ages, Jackson performed sensual, even provocative choreography; she ground and writhed into the stage, teased an audience member with a titillating chair routine and gyrated in sync with 14 dancers who emerged from various shadows of the dimly lighted stage during a segment of her concert featuring songs squarely focused on female pleasure.

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The 100-minute production, which launched with two sold-out shows this weekend at the Park Theater at Park MGM and runs through August, could have very well been labeled “The Pleasure Principle,” given the extra consideration Jackson gave to her most alluring musings on desire, intimacy, sex and sexuality.

From uninhibited, provocative tracks buried deep in her catalog like “China Love” and “Moist” (both receiving their live debuts) to more famous entries in her gospel of sex — “I Get Lonely,” “If,” “Throb,” “You,” “Any Time, Any Place,” “That’s the Way Love Goes” — Jackson, 53, performed them all with newfound vigor.

Before “Metamorphosis,” Jackson’s commitment to indulging the carnal pleasures she’s explored in her work vis-à-vis the live spectacle, which once defined her concerts, had been missing in action. There was speculation that her more conservative turn in recent years was for religious reasons, but Jackson has never been one to indulge our intrigues about her outside the music.

In her first concerts since being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she made it clear that the “Miss Jackson, if you're nasty” side of her onstage persona wasn’t gone for good.

“Metamorphosis” was conceptualized as an autobiographical tracing of her “path to self-love, empowerment, motherhood and activism, amidst the challenges she faced along her personal journey” — a statement that would be dismissed as saccharine until you consider what Jackson has endured in the 15 years since 9/16ths of a second scandalized her career and altered how she was seen.

You know the moment. Jackson was attempting to cover her exposed breast as Justin Timberlake, mouth agape with horror, held the piece of fabric he’d just ripped from her chest during their half-time performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Now consider how America — and much of the world — absolved him and blamed her. Jackson, a black woman, faced career ruin while her white male counterpart — a participant or perpetrator, depending on your reading of the “wardrobe malfunction” — saw no consequence.

In an instant, Jackson was no longer viewed as the trailblazing performer who disrupted pop music, innovated an era of contemporary R&B and inspired generations with a suite of seminal, sonically adventurous albums in the ’80s and ’90s.

Instead, she became a punchline, her vilification as a Jezebel supported in part by a catalog that celebrated uninhibited sexual pleasure and autonomy of the body.

We now know that some of the damage to Jackson’s career after the Super Bowl can be attributed to the efforts of then-Chief Executive and Chairman of CBS Les Moonves. While Moonves was at the center of sexual misconduct allegations (he was ousted from the network last year), a Huffington Post report tracked his alleged years-long vendetta against the singer that reportedly included barring her music from Viacom networks.

She’s long moved on from the moment that nearly ruined her, and between the passage of time, a cultural shift ushered in by the #MeToo era and reappraisals of Jackson and her seminal works (“Control,” “Rhythm Nation,” “Janet” and “Velvet Rope” all recently had landmark anniversaries), a great deal of power has been restored to her name.

The 40-song set covered the transcendent records that established her outside her famous siblings; in fact, there were only slight references to her lineage during the show. She worked in Jackson 5 choreography during a run of “Rhythm Nation,” and she recalled, through tears, her stage debut some 46 or so years ago with her brothers on the Strip.

The only actual glimpse behind the veil came toward the show’s climax, where she appeared on-screen draped in gold fabric like the African goddess Oshun, as the coos of her son, Eissa, are heard off-screen.

At a time when her peers are either slowing down or struggling to remain relevant, Jackson is in the midst of a rebirth. She’s touring more than she has in years, and her Rock Hall induction, after 10 years of eligibility, is a necessary and important step toward the mass recognition of Jackson as a musical genius, on par with any of her peak-MTV peers.

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“Metamorphosis” is neither a revival nor a creative reset — it’s a celebration of a pop icon who’s finally getting the due she deserves. What’s more pleasurable than that?

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