Janet, Back Witchu Again

"It feels good to be back after being down a little," the recuperated Janet Jackson told a passionate but under-capacity Verizon Center crowd. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

Having risen up like Lazarus in gold lamé, Janet Jackson was so happy to be back onstage Wednesday night at Verizon Center that she looked as if she could've cried.

Of course, the 42-year-old pop singer is nearly -- and, sometimes, actually -- moved to tears at the same point in every one of her tightly scripted concerts, that point coming at about the midway mark, immediately following her 1997 hit "Together Again."

But this was different, right? Wednesday's performance was Jackson's first since a Sept. 28 show in Toronto, after which she was stricken with a mysterious illness that forced her to postpone seven consecutive dates on her Rock Witchu Tour. (Her reps finally explained this week that the singer had been suffering from migraines that created the sensation of vertigo.)

So here she was, reunited with her adoring public, performing "Together Again," the gloriously tuneful disco-pop anthem that was written as a celebration of friends who had died of AIDS but was taking on new meaning in the context of the comeback.

As the song concluded and the crowd roared, Jackson wrapped herself in her own embrace. The video camera zoomed in for a close-up; Jackson's eyes were welling up. "I love you so much, D.C.," she squeaked, sounding downright verklempt as the not-exactly-capacity crowd cheered ever louder.

If Jackson was still suffering symptoms of her vestibular migraine, then mainlining all that approbation seemed to cure her: After appearing listless and lethargic during parts of the show's first half, she was more energized down the stretch of the nearly 2 1/2 -hour pop spectacular, which featured eight costume changes, nine dancers doing tightly choreographed routines, and plenty of pyrotechnics.

"It feels good to be back after being down a little," said the singer, whose cascading mohawk made it appear as though she'd plopped a black Pomeranian atop her head.

Visually, the show was a bizarrely conceived mess, with an inconsistent, incongruous array of costumes (Jackson's lithe dancers were dressed one minute as sailors, another as extras from "The Mummy") and a stupefying mishmash of themes -- "Star Wars" and S&M among them.

Indeed, there were head-scratching video interludes featuring two different versions of Jackson's disembodied head (Good Janet and Evil Janet, presumably), the latter coming across like some sort of Sith Lord. Call her Darth Damita.

And when Jackson emerged in a dominatrix outfit to perform the cooing "Any Time, Any Place" and the new "Discipline" -- and, also, to bring one supplicant fan onstage for an interminable sadomasochistic skit -- her dancers, in their leather collars and facial harnesses, appeared to be heading to San Francisco's infamous Folsom Street Fair for an after-party.

From a musical standpoint, though, the show was generous -- so long as one overlooked the fact that the "band" consisted of just a drummer, a keyboardist and a guy who alternated among bass, keyboards and what looked like a laptop. Where were those guitars, horns, rhythmic fills and background vocals coming from? During a fiery version of "Black Cat," rock guitarist Dave Navarro provided the obvious answer, contributing pealing licks via a recorded video.

As always, Jackson also did plenty of apparent lip-syncing, as her mouth movements didn't exactly match all the vocals. (What, you expect her to sing and dance? Remember: She's Michael's sister, not Prince's.)

The set included at least parts of 37 songs from Jackson's catalogue, dating all the way back to her self-titled 1982 debut, from which she performed the innocuous "Young Love" and "Say You Do" as part of a medley. She was big on medleys, even opening the concert with one made up of songs from her breakthrough album, "Control."

Jackson covered just about all her hits, the best of which (the spry "That's the Way Love Goes," the swaggering "Nasty," the breathy ballad "Again") featured memorable melodies that made her newer, more tuneless material ("So Excited," "So Much Betta") seem all the less appealing.

Remember when it was okay for artists to hold dual citizenship in both the Rhythm Nation and the Melody Nation? Ah, those were the days.

Perhaps that's why Jackson's star has been fading. Or maybe it's just that sustained relevancy is simply an impossibility in the pop space. Whatever the reason, Jackson's last two albums -- "20 Y.O.," released in 2006, and "Discipline," which came out in February -- have sold barely 1 million copies combined, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Those are paltry numbers for an artist who once released multimillion sellers with regularity. But those who remain in Jackson's corner seem to love her unconditionally -- so much so that I saw several of them crying during the concert. Pretty sure that wasn't scripted.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company