Political party: Janet Jackson brings strong message, original backup dancers to the Hollywood Bowl

Janet Jackson may have been passed over for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination this week, but the 51-year-old pioneer (celebrating a design-of-many-decades career and the 20th anniversary of her landmark Velvet Rope album) proved her relevance with a sold-out set at Los Angeles’s 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl Sunday — starting with a powerful political video message, and ending with a jubilant reunion of backup dancers from every single one of her past tours.


Back in May, when Jackson announced her renamed/rescheduled “State of the World” tour (originally slated for 2016, before she got pregnant — and before she surprisingly revealed that she was divorcing her husband of five years), she claimed the show was “not about politics; it’s about people, the world, relationships, and just love.” But already, much has changed in the past few months, and as Jackson took the Bowl stage, her visuals reflected the chaos and tragedy in the world right now.

The Bowl stage’s video screens listed, in slashes and flashes of blood red, the names of unarmed black men shot and killed by police (including Eric Garner and Michael Brown), and addressed famine in Africa, climate change, Charlottesville, white supremacy, and gay rights. “We will not be silent. LGBTQ rights. Peace not war. Black Lives Matter. Immigrants are welcome. Liberty and justice for all,” the screens blasted, followed by chants of “We want justice!” and “Prejudice: No! Ignorance: No! Bigotry: No! Illiteracy: No!”

Jackson’s first two songs were the fiery Rhythm Nation 1814 rallying cries “The Knowledge” (sample lyric: “If you wanna be in control/Ya gotta get yourself in the know”) and “State of the World” (“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”). It was a State of the Rhythm Nation address, so to speak, and both songs sounded as relevant and hard-hitting as they did in 1989. This was a welcome reminder that before Gaga, before Katy — before Beyoncé, even — Janet Jackson was the queen of woke pop.

“Get the point? Good. Let’s dance,” Jackson then stated, lightening the mood and doing just that —fantastically dancing like the MTV Video Vanguard winner she is — during a two-hour medley of nonstop smashes ranging from Control’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and “The Pleasure Principle” to sexy Velvet Rope cuts “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and “I Get Lonely,” to tracks from 2015’s Unbreakable, a critically acclaimed return to form that marked Jackson’s reunion with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. (“So many hits, you guys,” Jackson said, laughing. “We’re just getting started!”)

Most of the concert was upbeat fun, but the serious tone set by Jackson’s opener still permeated the set. It was impossible to hear Control’s feisty and feminist “Nasty” without thinking of that song’s Spotify spike following Donald Trump’s “nasty woman” comment about Hillary Clinton, for instance. And a passionate performance of The Velvet Rope’s “What About,” featuring interpretive dancers depicting domestic violence, was another intense message from the newly single singer. “This is me,” Jackson confessed, referring to the female dancers who had just acted out various abusive scenarios.


The show ended joyously, however, when Jackson brought out even more dancers — her old-school tourmates, dating back 28 years — for an epic and emotional “Rhythm Nation” finale. As she introduced every OG dancer and choreographer by name and gave each a moment to shine, a beaming Jackson embraced her extended “family,” which included familiar faces like Jenna Dewan Tatum and So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Tyce Diorio.

Jackson kicked off her “State of the World” tour on Sept. 7 in Lafayette, La.; she dedicated her subsequent show, in Houston, to victims of Hurricane Harvey and broke down in tears while performing “What About.” This coming Saturday, Oct. 14, she will play Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay, the site of the tragic Route 91 Harvest Festival shootings, for what is sure to be an especially emotional evening.