Janet Jackson, 51, is a better dancer than you’ll ever be. So there’s that.
There’s also, in this age of minutely parsed identity, the maddening fact that both her musical and physical skills have always been forced to take second place: to white women, perhaps namely Madonna, and to men, her brother Michael most obviously.
Janet is everything, which thousands of fans showed her at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Thursday night. Everybody danced and sang all the words all night, both when her mic was open, to prove she still has lungs, and when the prerecorded vocals were on, so she could focus on her footwork.
We appreciated her music, but also her resilience, perseverance and sense of self. These are the qualities one needs to survive in 2017 and Ms. Jackson has got them.
This was clear about three songs into her set, during Burnitup! from the 2015 album Unbreakable. Featuring the rapper Missy Elliott, who appeared larger than life on screens behind the exuberant dancers, the song is a jam, danceable, fun and fully of the moment, even though Janet delayed this tour two years in order to have a baby before divorcing her new son’s father, a Qatari billionaire.
It’s also a song that I hadn’t heard until this week, as I mainlined Janet videos in anticipation of the show. Like every other jerk, I had been more or less ignoring her since the 2004 Super Bowl controversy, when her black woman’s nipple so disgusted mainstream America that it ruined her career for more than a decade.
Janet has released three full-length albums in the meantime, and although I know every word of every song on every album she released in the 1980s and 90s, I basically didn’t notice them. This is partly because of the ennui that greets many mid-career artists, but also because of the media blackout and shunning that stuck to Janet after her “wardrobe malfunction.”
It’s beyond a shame, maybe even a sin, that Janet was sidelined for so long. Consider that, with the #takeaknee protests as a backdrop, her younger, whiter, more male partner in crime Justin Timberlake was just invited to headline the next Super Bowl halftime show.
This is exactly how stereotypes and assumptions have worked against Janet her entire career. She was almost an afterthought in the Jackson entourage: the youngest of nine kids, her entry into showbiz a given yet not especially nurtured, and sometimes still seen as secondary despite her undeniable magnificence.
On Thursday, I got loose alongside a friend of 20-plus years, both of us recalling being shamed in the 1990s for being Janet fans when the guys we liked were into punk, grunge and hardcore rap. Joke’s on them: Love has always been a harder sell than antipathy, but Janet got the full diversity of the Greater Toronto Area to sing along for five straight songs in a row this week. A girl snob might consider this solid evidence that R&B has more longevity than macho boy music.
Around here is the point where critics point out that the Jackson family is weird, to which I say, “Yeah? Well so are you.” Weirdness and malice are the State of the World, as the tour is called, and those who have truly been able to stay out of the fray may sing the first note.
Anyway, the main reason we were here is for a show, and we got one. We heard all of the hits, from The Pleasure Principle to the one with Q-Tip, and we saw Ms. Jackson and her entourage spin, bounce, kick and sweat their way through the night.
Twenty years later, If is still a song that imagines both a world with good sex and one where nobody gets hurt. Three decades on, Rhythm Nation still makes a convincing argument that courage and impeccable choreography could eliminate injustice.
Being seen, and valued, for your true self was a real possibility – at least for two hours, in the world where Janet reigns.