It’s been nearly 30 years since Janet Jackson called on “a generation full of courage” to join her on a march toward paradise — but the closer we get to “Rhythm Nation,” the further away it feels.
Maybe Jackson was always prepared for that kind of slog. Countless songwriters have written odes to wonderland, but “Rhythm Nation” never tried to delude us. We can dream of a better world, but then we have to build it. “This is the test,” the song goes. “No struggle, no progress.”
So when Jackson sang that 1989 hit at Washington’s Capital One Arena on Thursday night, it almost sounded as if she had penned it earlier that afternoon. The aptness of her lyrics and the determination in her voice aimed straight into the center of this ugly American moment. As for the rest of the show, it posited the 51-year-old as one of our greatest living pop stars, a singer whose zero-gravity falsetto can make heaviness feel light and lightness feel heavy. As a stylist and a utopian, she’s a bridge between Parliament-Funkadelic and Beyoncé — or maybe a bridge into a future that still awaits us.
So why hasn’t Jackson had her name chiseled into the marble of the canon? For at least two reasons. First, she did her greatest work — exuberant in the ’80s, sultry in the ’90s — in the shadow of her older brother, and we’re still catching up. Second, her public image took a massive skid after Justin Timberlake tore a piece of her costume during a Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. (In case you haven’t heard, Timberlake has been invited to perform at the 2018 Super Bowl. Jackson has not. Unreal.)
But on Thursday night, Jackson’s greatness was confirmed by her dancing alone. Each gesture was designed to punctuate the sounds hitting our ears, yet Jackson hit every mark as if she were making it up on the spot. Has any pop star ever paced the stage with more confidence? Her step was light, but she exuded complete control, and I’m not sure her feet ever touched the ground.
For the rest of us, dancing is a response to the beat. We hear something, then we tell our bodies how to move. We follow the music. Onstage, Jackson’s music seemed to follow her — especially during “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a slow-burner from 1993 where the singer’s easy swivels and understated pivots seemed to dictate the rhythm of the entire thing. On top of that, she managed to whisper the song’s desirous melody with the intimacy and urgency of a 3 a.m. phone call. Hot and cool, playful and masterful, all at once. Wow.
Jackson’s brighter songs seemed to flow like tap water — “Escapade,” “Control,” “The Pleasure Principle,” “Together Again” — but her voice often evaporated as it traveled up toward the nosebleeds. Murky acoustics occasionally threatened to derail the show, but there was something oddly enchanting about hearing this precision-minded vocalist working in a blur. Jackson has always inhabited the firm architecture of her songs like a diaphanous mist, and here, those extremes were pushed to the fore.
But everything snapped into complete focus — body and sound, melody and rhythm, past and future — during the second verse of “Rhythm Nation,” when Jackson stood upright like an exclamation point and threw a clenched fist into the sky. “It’s time to give a damn,” she sang, her voice shooting up an octave, then floating back down to earth. “Let’s work together!”
The message fell like strange confetti: We still have time.