In contemplating Janet Jackson’s first Rupp Arena concert in over 16 years, the title to one of her signature hits unavoidably comes to mind.
“What Have You Done For Me Lately?”
It’s an honest question to ask, especially given how the vanguard pop/R&B songstress has canceled more dates in Lexington than she’s played. Even the title of her current State of the World Tour is anything but new. It’s named after one of the socially themed anthems from what remains the singer’s most popular, innovative and career defining album, “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — a record that, for the record, was released in 1989.
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So what has the singer — “Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty,” as she so decisively instructed us over three decades ago — done for us lately? Well, that depends on who you ask. Her last album, 2015’s “Unbreakable,” may not have yielded seven hit singles the way both her breakthrough solo album, 1986’s “Control,” and the mighty “Rhythm Nation” follow-up did or remained on the pop charts for roughly 18 months the way those earlier triumphs managed to. But “Unbreakable” still debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 1 to become Jackson’s seventh chart-topping album, making her one of the few artists (Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen being two of them) to score a No. 1 in each of the past four decades.
It’s easy to dismiss a performer as being a relic when their music isn’t receiving never-ending airplay, as Jackson’s songs did between 1986 and 1990. But when top-selling platters are still being scored over 25 years later, your star power is being reinforced in a huge way.
But what of Jackson’s history in Lexington? That’s a little shakier. Of her three previous bookings at Rupp prior to Monday’s State of the World show, only one materialized — a July 2001 concert that showcased her then-current “All for You” album. An August 1990 show planned for Rupp was one of three canceled dates on her first headlining tour, which supported “Rhythm Nation.” A second cancellation came as recently as January 2016 when Jackson rescheduled and eventually called off numerous performances on her Unbreakable Tour ahead of the birth of her son Eissa last winter.
So here we are, the bulk of a year later, and Jackson has refashioned the canceled remnants of her Unbreakable Tour into the State of the World Tour, using the “Rhythm Nation” tune as a theme for shows that concentrate on her more socially conscious songs as well as four decades of hits.
What does that say for the now-two-year old “Unbreakable” that the singer would de-emphasize the record by titling a retooled tour after a 1989 song? Well, it’s not for lack of critical praise. Aside from its chart performance, “Unbreakable” earned high marks for re-teaming Jackson with the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the hitmaking crew behind “Control” and “Rhythm Nation,” among other Jackson records) for the first time in a decade. But many critics also saw “Unbreakable” as a return to form by the most commercially and artistically grounded female artist to define the art of the groove within pop-generated R&B for a pre-Beyonce generation.
“For most of ‘Unbreakable,’ she plays big sister — someone who’s happily in love, willing to offer advice and wishing for a better world,” wrote Jon Pareles in a review of “Unbreakable” for the New York Times. “It’s a benign role but a modest one, reinforced by the music.”
The question now is, in the age of Beyonce, does Jackson still matter? She unquestionably has the history to draw a concert audience the way any veteran performer can. But is your average Jackson fan — young or old — seriously invested in the music “Unbreakable” when the record clearly sits in the shadows of “Control,” “Rhythm Nation” and, in essence, a whole other pop era?
That, of course, is not a situation unique to Jackson. Just about any artist in any genre on the other side of 40 will have a tough time getting an audience to take the bait of new material when an entire hit-making legacy of music they know by heart is so available. That is why veteran acts pack concert venues but struggle for any lasting commercial reception to their current work.
Can you blame Jackson, then, for hitting the road without any real new product to promote and thematically altering her tour after a tune from a popular album from the past? I don’t know about you, but I can’t.
So as she returns to Lexington after a prolonged absence, that same question from the same vintage hit lingers — “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”
The answer, in Jackson’s case, is quite a lot. It’s just, not everybody has chosen to seriously listen to and accept it.