Janet Jackson’s “State of the World” tour touched down at a sold-out Little Caesars Arena on Sunday, but Jackson only skimmed the surface on today’s state of affairs during the mostly upbeat 105-minute show.
The show opened with the sound of news reports, sirens and mentions of environmental disasters, Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville, domestic terrorism and white supremacy. Images of blood ran down three scrims on stage, as chants of “We want justice” were piped in. Not exactly happy-go-lucky stuff, but hey, neither is the world today.
Jackson hit the stage wearing a long black coat, her hair pulled back in a long ponytail, and opened with “The Knowledge,” a track off of her 1989 album “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.” “Prejudice... no! Ignorance... no! Bigotry... no!” she sang, her words ringing with a relevance she probably didn’t expect they’d have nearly 30 years later.
She rolled into “State of the World,” also from “Rhythm Nation,” and its chorus — “drugs and crime spreadin’ on the streets, people can’t find enough to eat/ now our kids can’t go out and play, that’s the state of the world today” — still rings true. She could have slightly tweaked the words to address issues of the day, and at this point she seemed poised to re-purpose the entire “Rhythm Nation” album as a mirror to today’s society.
Except that’s not what happened.
“Get the point? Good. Let’s dance,” she said following “State of the World.” The statement is also an interlude from “Rhythm Nation,” and in fairness, Jackson was never one to pour on the politics. But it seemed awfully early in the night to abandon the concept of giving the show some thematic heft, especially when she has the content to back it up.
But it was time to party, and Jackson spent the majority of the evening performing medleys of hits from her massive catalog, from which she has charted 40 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Those hits piled up quickly — “Nasty,” “Miss You Much,” “Alright,” “Control,” “Pleasure Principle,” “Escapade” — and were a time warp to Jackson’s chart supremacy in the ’80s and ’90s. Ringing out throughout Little Caesars Arena, the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis productions hit with the pulsating bounce of Minneapolis funk.
Backed by a five-piece band, two backup singers and a team of nine dancers, Jackson moved briskly across the stage, mixing live vocals with a backing track. She was more low-key than in past tours, dressing conservatively and working at her own pace; during one section in the show’s middle, she wore long, baggy pants, a plaid shirt around her waist and an oversized jean jacket.
She appeared refreshed and somewhat relaxed, and didn’t seem to be caught up in the breathless world of celebrity or pop stardom. That could be reading too much into her stage demeanor, but she seemed unburdened and at ease.
She acknowledged Detroit’s long relationship with the Jacksons — “you have shown so much love to my family and we have so much history out here, I just want to say thank you for all the love,” she said late in the evening — but didn’t get too personal. A few Halloween shenanigans from her band members (who came out for the encore wearing masks) threw her slightly off her marker, and forced her to pause and recognize “the silliness” going on behind her.
There was another moment where things touched on the world beyond her own catalog. During “What About,” a track from “The Velvet Rope,” she took on domestic abuse, as her dancers acted out various scenarios of man-on-woman violence. It was another powerful point in the evening that showed Jackson’s impact beyond her hits, and showed the substance that has always been in her material.
A few more of those instances sprinkled throughout the night would have made everything else more potent. It’s called for, given today’s state of the world.