Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Another sign I'm getting old: my introduction to Janet Jackson didn’t come through her music or directly due to her well-known lineage as the youngest Jackson sibling. No, I first became acquainted with Miss Jackson through her role as Penny, the abused child on Good Times. Alas, it was to be a brief stint; she didn't come to the show until 1977, and Good Times dropped off the air by May 1979. From there, she played supporting roles on even lesser TV shows like Diff'rent Strokes (as Willis's girlfriend) and Fame. Apparently at the urging of her father, Janet embarked on her recording career in 1982.
After two albums – 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984's Dream Street - of mediocre and undistinguished dance pop, Janet appeared to be just another Jackson sibling who failed in her attempt to ride the wake of brother Michael's enormous success with Thriller. Only older brother Jermaine had gone anywhere, as he enjoyed a few decent hits such as 1980's "Let's Get Serious" and 1984's "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming", the latter boosted by a duet with Michael.
By 1986, Janet looked like she resided in the same boat with sisters Rebbie and Latoya; their famous lineage got them into the studio, but their work went absolutely nowhere. Nonetheless, Janet continued to plug away and in 1986, she released her third album: Control.
With that landmark effort, Michael no longer remained the only successful solo Jackson. Control rocketed up the charts, where it remained for many months through a continuous string of hits. With tracks like "What Have You Done For Me Lately," "Nasty," "Control," "Let's Wait Awhile," "When I Think of You," and "The Pleasure Principle", Control enjoyed a chart presence for well over a year.
Three years later, she proved that lightning can strike twice with the even more successful Rhythm Nation 1814. This album produced a list of hits akin to that of the prior album and it also stayed on the high end of the charts for many months. This time Janet produced seven hit singles: “Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, “Escapade”, “Come Back to Me”, “Alright”, “Black Cat”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”.
Following Rhythm Nation, Janet took another career leap. In the spring of 1990, she embarked on her first concert tour. I saw this show, and while it wasn't a poor effort, Janet's lack of stage experience clearly showed. She looked very uncomfortable and awkward and she deferred to the supporting performers far too frequently; she didn't seem to understand that we had paid to see her, not some anonymous dancers.
Janet got her stage legs pretty quickly, though. In June, 1993, she released her next effort, the even more successful janet. Yup, another big list of hits and a long stay at the top of the charts. The following fall, she began another concert tour. This time, she looked much more at home on the stage. Janet still tended to defer to her dancers too frequently, but nonetheless she more closely resembled the star that she had become than she did during her initial tour.
At this point, the contrast between the careers of Janet and Michael became fairly apparent. While she never approached his raw sales numbers or worldwide popularity, nonetheless Janet by then clearly had become the more popular and respectable Jackson. Too much plastic surgery, too many bizarre stunts, and the persistent rumors of pedophilia had made Michael into a fairly pitiable figure, more the butt of many jokes than the idol of millions.
On the other hand, Janet seemed to be the normal Jackson. Granted, no one who grew up in that family could really be called "normal," but she appeared to be a much more down to earth person that Michael or Latoya, that was for certain. As the 1990s progressed, Janet had established a full decade of musical success with virtually no downturns.
Whenever someone enjoys continued good tidings, you can be sure that many people will attempt to exploit any sort of chink in that armor. After many years of smooth sailings, Janet finally got her comeuppance from the media in 1998. In the fall of 1997, she released her sixth album: The Velvet Rope, which was followed by a world tour the next summer.
By most standards, both enterprises were commercial and artistic successes. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the impression you'd get from the press. The Velvet Rope only moved about three million copies, and the tour sold respectably but not phenomenally; in cities where she filled arenas for multiple shows in 1993-94, she had trouble selling out single performances this time.
Janet's career must be on the wane, all the critics declared. That seems to be a major overstatement. Yeah, The Velvet Rope didn't move units like her previous releases, but three million copies makes for a more than acceptable showing. As for the tour, it ended up selling better than Rolling Stone proclaimed; it simply took longer to get there. The fact that most of the tickets cost $75 probably didn't help matters. In 2002, $75 seems reasonable, but that was a steep price in 1998. Drop that down to $50 a seat and I doubt that Rolling Stone would have had much material.
Artistically, The Velvet Rope show documented on this DVD release made for a good but not great concert. Personally, I preferred the janet. show from 1993-94, but The Velvet Rope nonetheless made for a compelling and entertaining performance.
Overall, the show balanced old and new material nicely. The songs from The Velvet Rope got a wide airing; nine of the album's fifteen songs appeared in the 121-minute concert. As far as the older hits went, Janet performed a whopping sixteen of them during the show. Unfortunately, eleven of those were spliced into medleys; only "If," "Black Cat," "Alright," "Rhythm Nation" and "That's the Way Love Goes" appeared in their entirety. I don't much care for medleys, but I certain appreciate the dilemma that her ongoing success creates for an artist like Janet; either she drops a significant number of hits - thereby disappointing fans - or she takes the less artistically satisfying but more practical path with the medley. I probably would have preferred that she went the former route, but I won't knock Janet for doing what she did.
The staging of the concert works pretty much the way you'd assume a Janet Jackson show would go. Janet supplemented the band with a bevy of dancers, who add a little excitement to the atmosphere. I still think Janet defers to them too much; though she's improved, she doesn't quite seem to understand that they are there to complement her, not to substitute for her. Janet's band works competently but not with any particular spark. All in all, it's a solid and professional show from a woman who has developed into a very good live performer.
The October, 1998 Madison Square Garden concert depicted on the Velvet Rope Tour DVD originally appeared as a live broadcast on HBO. I saw Janet three times during the tour, and this performance didn't stand out as different from any of those. As for the broadcast itself, it covered the show well. Too many directors try to jazz up concert broadcasts with lots of MTV-style cuts and silly special effects. Thankfully, veteran director David Mallet knows how to film a show so that the content comes through accurately; a film will never substitute for the experience of actually being there, but Mallet usually brings concerts to video well.
If you notice a lack of enthusiasm here, that’s because Janet doesn’t provoke a great deal of zeal with her live performances. While she clearly offers stronger concerts than most acts, she doesn’t warrant attention as one of the absolute best. Professional and competent, she puts on a strong show, but not an exceptional one. Nonetheless, The Velvet Rope provides a reasonably lively and entertaining piece.