janet jackson blew us away in l.a.

So many hits you guys!

by Michael Cragg
17 October 2015, 10:54am

It's a testament to Janet Jackson's star quality that her confirmation in May that she would be returning to the pop fold after a six year hiatus was greeted with panic and hysteria from fans and media alike. It's a testament to the quality of her new album Unbreakable -- a beautifully cohesive and personal collection loaded with bold pop moments -- that it became her seventh US number 1 and her first UK top 20 since 2001. All without a single interview and with little concessions made to the current chart climate. Teased via Twitter as a direct conversation with her fans, Unbreakable is a thank you for their unending support (the title track), as well as a rumination on the current state of the planet (Shoulda Known Better), racial inequality (Black Eagle), Michael Jackson's death (After You Fall) and the pure joy of being in love (Night, Dammn Baby, 2 B Loved). While some of her contemporaries seem intent on chasing trends until they lose sight of what makes them special, Unbreakable is that rare thing: an album made by a returning pop legend that feels comfortable in its own skin.

It's brilliance also meant she was confident enough to play around with the rules. So rather than wait until after the album was released, as per the typical pop guidelines, Janet decided to start a year long tour over a month before its release, stripping back the usual visual bells and whistles to focus on her back catalogue and a smattering of new songs.

With the tour stopping briefly in LA, i-D went along to the Forum to see if Janet's still got it (SPOILER ALERT: She really has). Here are five things I learned:

That incredible back catalogue is still a thing of wonder
While the show opens with new song BURNITUP! -- featuring another returning legend in the shape of Missy Elliott -- the focus of the Unbreakable setlist is on hits. Like, proper, era-defining hits. Not just a couple of bangers dotted here and there but basically every single song she's ever released. Hits almost drunkenly stumble into other hits; the whole thing is high on hits. Nine songs in -- after she's rattled through the likes of Nasty, What Have You Done For Me Lately, Pleasure Principle and and a unfeasibly joyous Escapade -- she catches her breath, ruffles her massive mane of hair and says, almost as if it's surprised her, "so many hits you guys". Just when you think she might be having a bit of breather she launches into When I Think Of You and the hit rollercoaster starts up again.

There's just no way she's 49-years-old
During the deeply underrated All Nite (Don't Stop), Janet sings the show's unofficial tagline: "I could dance all night". And she basically does. This isn't a show where the workload is carried by the dancers while the main star sits on some steps joining in with some arm choreography every other chorus. From BURNITUP!'s first elastic bass note she barely stops, mixing classic dance routines (the slide, dip and flick during What Have You Done For Me Lately!) with fresh updates. It's testament to her career that it's not only songs that are cheered or anticipated but dance routines too; during a smoke-filled If, the build up to the dance break causes palpable ripples of excitement, while the same thing happens during an emotional Scream ("sing it Mike" she shouts at one point). That she follows that up immediately with Rhythm Nation -- perhaps the night's most immaculate marriage of song and movement -- is almost obscene. It's exhausting just watching her.

The focus is on the songs
It's a bold move to launch a pop tour in 2015 with very little in the way of visual spectacle, but for the most part the Unbreakable tour keeps things low-key. It has its moments -- the little squirts of pyrotechnics during All For You, the plumes of smoke that engulf the stage for If, the screens full of projections for new song Shoulda Known Better -- but overall the focus is very much kept on her back catalogue. Usually a pop show devoid of costume changes and elaborate set pieces means there's no budget or a dearth of ideas, whereas here the songs bleed so effortlessly into each other that there's barely time for her to wipe a towel across her brow let alone change outfits. There's no conceptual framework here, other than 'Pop Music From 1986 - 2015'. Often the stage features Janet with just four or five other dancers (all female), while during the five-song ballad section it's just her and a stool. The only real thing distracting you from the songs and her performance are her low-slung tracksuit trousers -- the kind that make it look like you've had a terrible accident -- but even they're forgiven and forgotten after another trio of mega-hits.

She loves a medley
Medleys are the bread and butter of a good pop show. Michael Jackson would often just casually throw in a Jackson 5 medley into his shows to rightfully brag about the sheer length of his career. Same with Beyoncé and Destiny's Child. For Janet, who, like Madonna, can't rely on a songs from a previous group, the use of medleys is a subtle way of saying 'look you guys, I've got so many hits I need to squeeze some of them together otherwise this show's going to last about five hours'. So Miss You Much, Alright and You Want This are smashed together to make one six minute long hit hybrid, while her impeccable ballads flow seamlessly into one another, steadily building the tempo back up until That's The Way Love Goes blends into a remix of Together Again, which itself shifts into the dance-pop glory of the original version. Songs are also cleverly ordered, so Nasty flows into the actually nasty Feedback; All For You's fun and flirty girls-on-a-night out mutates into the hot and sweaty All Nite (Don't Stop), while the regimented hope of Rhythm Nation is followed by the more resigned Shoulda Known Better (key lyric: "I had this great epiphany, And rhythm nation was the dream, I guess next time I'll know better").

She doesn't have to prove anything but does anyway
Modern day album campaigns seem to fall into two categories; you either do a Beyoncé and surprise everyone or you trail it for so long that even the biggest fans start having doubts. Unbreakable's release campaign was an effortless, desperation-free zone, a refreshing tactic that's been reflected in the show itself. When a pop star is seen to be chasing their own tail or frantically trying to court controversy it shows in every element of what they do. Tonight it's undeniably clear that Janet is happy with the album, happy to be back on stage and more than happy to be cementing her legacy in the best way she knows how. This sense of contentment permeates the show; it's not that she doesn't work hard to deliver the songs, it's that she knows the fans are already there with her. There's nothing left to prove. At the end of the closing Unbreakable -- a glorious fan love-in -- her long-term producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis surprise her onstage with a bunch of flowers and a big framed picture of the Unbreakable cover. They tell the audience about how they met thirty years ago and how Unbreakable's just become Janet's seventh US number one. Suddenly shy, Janet tries to hide behind her bouquet and thanks the crowd again. It's left to Jimmy to sum up the show's unique brilliance. "This is about celebrating history and the right now," he says. This isn't a simple nostalgia trip; this is a celebration of pop.