By Greg Carannante
City & Shore PRIME
So you figure you’re holding up pretty well. Sure, by now you may have tiptoed a decade or two past the halfway mark, but, hey, 60 is the new 40, right? And then this little reality check sneaks up and bites you in the cerebrum:
Janet Jackson just turned 52.
That tomboyish 10-year-old you first saw on The Jacksons variety show, that adorable teen you watched 40 years ago on Diff’rent Strokes, that beat-atific young rhythm soldier lockstepping right off the screen back when you used to watch MTV videos — yes, she’s now closing in on her golden years. But based on her recent concert tour and Billboard Music Awards appearance, the golden years never looked so … golden. She is the new dynamic of a sophisticated lady, one so thoroughly contemporary as to have given birth to her first child at age 50.
True, her dancing during her BMA mashup was less animated perhaps than the move-a-millisecond choreography she busted when she originally performed Nasty, If and Throb some three decades earlier. But you could see she meant business. And she still commands that rare, mesmerizing magnetism that renders one incapable of looking away. Remind you of anyone?
As the first black woman to receive the BMA’s Icon Prize, Jackson’s appearance on the show was of course a celebratory rewind of unparalleled laurels — i.e., her 18 consecutive Top 10 entries on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart is the record for a female artist. But her first live TV performance in nine years was also a coming-out party for the next leg of a tour that hits Miami’s American Airlines Arena on Aug. 5, following its July 8 liftoff atop the bill at New Orleans’ Essence Festival.
Despite being MIA on the charts since 2015’s Unbreakable album — its tour was suspended before and after the birth last January of her son, Eissa, with her now-separated third husband, Wissam Al Mana — she returned to the spotlight in September with the revamped State of the World Tour. And even more sharply, she took a stand in the heat of the current Me Too moment in May with her BMA acceptance speech.
“I believe that, for all of our challenges, we live at a glorious moment in history,” the performer said. “At long last, women have made it clear that we will no longer be controlled, manipulated or abused. I stand with those women and with those men equally outraged by discrimination, who support us in heart and mind.”
Reverberating between the lines was the fallout she endured from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, when guest performer Justin Timberlake “unintentionally” exposed Jackson’s right breast to 140 million viewers as he tore open her costume — and simultaneously a hole in the societal universe. It’s hard to imagine this causing such a commotion now, but almost 15 years ago it was perhaps TV’s most scandalous fiasco, with the novel phrase “wardrobe malfunction” blowing up both on the internet and in the lexicon. Jackson bore the brunt of the blame, backlash and even blacklisting — a double-standard whose Time’s Up resonance was only magnified by Timberlake’s return to the Super Bowl halftime show this year.
It wasn’t the first time that Jackson — and, specifically, her bare breasts — had raised eyebrows. Eleven years earlier, she embraced her own sexual liberation with janet., an intimate departure from the funk-rock bombast and big themes of independence and social injustice that carried the first two releases of her genre-defining trilogy, Control and Rhythm Nation 1814. In the full-length version of janet.’s cropped cover photo that appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stone, Jackson made the artful sexuality of her new direction undeniable. She faced the camera topless, with the hands of her then-husband René Elizondo Jr. reaching from behind to cup her breasts.
“For the first time, I’m feeling free,” she said in the RS interview. “I love feeling deeply sexual — and I don’t mind letting the world know. For me, sex has become a celebration.”
My, what that celebration has wrought! Jackson became an instant sex symbol and, ever since, mainstream pop and R&B have been hooked on a rhythm jones fixed with the feminist sexuality of the artists on whom she left her mark. From Beyoncé to Britney to Nicki, the motion has become as major as the emotion. As Essence magazine put it, Jackson “established the singer-dancer imprimatur standard in pop culture we now take for granted.”
Jackson’s legacy, however iconic, is a work in progress. Her tour tramps to 15 cities this month and next, and she’s at work on a new album in her home base of London. Reports have her collaborating with Bruno Mars, who in Jackson’s introduction at the BMAs recited a litany of accolades for her and her family. “Music’s royalty,” he called them.
And still there exists a subculture of apologists who claim that Jackson’s legacy continues to be shorted, who decry her snubbing by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who argue that she, not Madonna, is the true Queen of Pop — and that such claim to regality is not merely as King Michael’s little sis.
If she be the Queen, one thing is royally clear. Despite the continual procession of pop’s pretenders to the throne, despite being a 52-year-old single working mom — Janet Jackson is not even thinking about abdicating.
Long live the Queen of Pop.
O N L I N E B O N U S 1
A conversation with Dominique Nicole, a dancer for Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour.
A dancer for Janet Jackson’s State of the World Tour coming to Miami’s American Airlines Arena Aug. 5, she is doing exactly what her mother wanted to do when she was a young dancer.
“It’s actually funny,” says the dancer, whose mother was her first teacher when she was growing up in Oakland, Calif. “My mom was actually a really big Michael Jackson fan. She went to all his concerts. She always thought when she was a little girl that she was going to be Janet’s best friend. She wanted to be Janet’s backup dancer.
“When I booked the Janet Jackson tour, my mom didn’t believe it because she had already spoke it into existence when she was little and I wasn’t even thought of. When I got it, it was a dream come true for the both of us.”
Dominique Nicole has been dancing with Jackson since 2015’s Unbreakable Tour and is one of three of the eight dancers on the current tour who contribute choreography to the show.
In a recent conversation with City & Shore PRIME, the dancer provides first-hand insights into the Jackson persona and legacy.
C&S: It must be a tremendous thrill to dance with her.
DN: Yeah, it’s just amazing. I love her energy. The group of dancers that we have is so natural and we all get along very well, so it’s just one big fun time.
C&S: But it must be quite difficult at times, too.
DN: The workload tends to be a lot — sometimes more than others. When it hits, it hits hard, but we just all buckle down.
C&S: What are some of the biggest challenges of dancing with Janet?
DN: Probably the physicality of trying to keep up with her, of doing your own steps, your own transitions. Trying to keep your breath the entire time, to live your life and give your absolute best from top to bottom — that’s the hard thing. Mentally it’s also very hard because, for example, if the band is off or if the music is off you just have to keep going no matter what, because then it’ll throw her off and her name is the one that’s on the marquee. So it’s like can’t nobody throw her off or the show is thrown off.
C&S: What do you enjoy most about dancing with her?
DN: What I love most about dancing with Janet, besides the whole dancing part of it, is that she has amazing energy onstage and we feed off of her, so dancing with her is literally ideal. We enjoy dancing with her because of her passion and love for what she does. And she shows us how much of a human she is. Sometimes we get confused if she’s a celebrity or not, because she’s probably one of the most normal people you’ll ever meet in your life. She’s so chill, she’s so laid back. She’s respectful, hard working, persistent, consistent. Really the whole situation is just ideal to be dancing with her.
C&S: What is it about Janet that has made her such a major influence?
DN: I think what makes her Janet Jackson is, like I was saying before, passion. She literally is the word itself. You can have passion, but she is passion, if that makes any sense. Every time I see her step onstage, something clicks in her head. She connects with the artistry of what it takes to entertain and grab the hearts and eyes of those who watch her.
Every time she walks up to us, she be like, ‘How you all doing today?’ We be like, ‘Good, how you doing?’ ‘I’m tired but I’m blessed. And I’m happy. We just gonna get this show done and then we gonna go out after,’ or something like that. She’s just really real, and I think that’s what makes her relatable to folks and what makes her the person that she is. I think that’s the brilliant thing about her.
C&S: What do you see of her in the female artists that have followed her?
DN: Any artist who is very selfless, bold, fearless, I feel like she’s birthed them in some way, shape or form. She’s like the water that helps the seed to grow.
C&S: Does that extend to sexuality as well?
DN: I definitely think so, because she was one of the first artists to be open and not be afraid of the backlash that would come to her. She was just like, ‘This is me and either they’re gonna accept it or they’re not. And those that accept it are going to see me for who I really am. And those that don’t obviously have some insecurities of their own that they need to work on. And I’m also here to show them that it is OK.’
Everybody has their own process to understand that it is OK to just 100 percent be yourself and be open and be vulnerable. That’s one of those things that people shy away from because it’s a little scary, so her appearing as somebody who’s comfortable in their sexuality, it’s bold and it’s very generous.
– Greg Carannante
O N L I N E B O N U S No. 2
A conversation with Janet Jackson’s choreographer, Gil Duldolao
Janet Jackson is a visual experience. In the post-disco, pre-Beyoncé world, she became the undisputed diva of dance as pop performance art — propelling the hip-thrusting family tradition into another sexually charged phenomenon. The way she moves has always been as much a part of her performance as the way she sounds — maybe more so. Still, almost 30 years after her record-setting debut Rhythm Nation World Tour, Jackson’s footprint on the entertainment terra firma remains indelible as, at age 52, she kicks off the second leg of her State of the World tour this month.
“If you think about a Janet Jackson tour, one thing you can count on is there being a lot of dancing,” says tour creative director/choreographer Gil Duldulao. The 39-year-old Hawaiian native began his association with her as a 17-year-old dancer on her 1998 Velvet Rope Tour and began contributing choreography on the subsequent All for You Tour a few years later. His first Jackson video was the influential All Nite (Don’t Stop) in 2004.
When Jackson visits Miami on Aug. 5, she’ll be backed by eight dancers and seven musicians for what Duldulao describes as “a jam-packed hour-and-45-minute show.” In a recent conversation with City & Shore, Duldulao, who lives in LA, reveals what it’s like to work with the pop icon, what’s in store for South Florida concert-goers and what makes Janet Jackson such a special performer.
C&S: How has your choreography for Janet evolved?
Duldulao: My choreography now is not as fast-paced. There’s a little breath to it now. As her music evolved, I changed with it. I think where we are in our life — separately and collaboratively — plays into it as well.
C&S: How have those recent changes in her life changed her performance?
Duldulao: She’s a legend. If we were to go in that space of, ‘Oh, let’s have her compete with these young artists,’ I just don’t see that for her in this stage of her life. Now it’s time for her to enjoy what she’s worked for, and to remind people that she is a legend. She’s done so much work with her music to evolve culture and evoke social consciousness, right now it’s about enjoying her life in this new space of being a mother and enjoying performing. She loves performing so much. Every time she’s at home in London, she says, ‘I just miss performing, I just miss dancing.’
C&S: Is that enjoyment coming through in this tour?
Duldulao: Yeah. On the [previous] Unbreakable Tour, people felt she was holding back. There were a lot of walls up. After the birth of her baby and returning to the State of the World Tour, its message resonates and comes from where she’s at in her life. I think the audience is going to see a whole new version of it in the feeling of the show. Her performance on the Billboard Music Awards [in May] was completely on a whole other level than I’ve seen in a while, and we both can’t wait to get back on the road. There are certain elements of the show that we’re keeping, but you can expect a lot of changes.
C&S: Will the songs in this part of the tour still come primarily from the Rhythm Nation and Unbreakable albums?
Duldulao: I think it’s a celebration of all her music. There is some B-side music that only real fans know. There are some changes [from last year’s first leg], but the message is still going to be the same.
C&S: And what is that message?
Duldulao: What she was thinking about with Rhythm Nation is still a force to be reckoned with three decades later. These issues are still everywhere you go — social injustice, police brutality, shootings — and the message still stands alive: that we have to hold on to hope and love and unite to make this a better place. And if it’s for an hour and a half of her show for us all to unite in love, then that’s the point of the show.
C&S: What kind of person is she to work with?
Duldulao: She’s very detail-oriented, very meticulous. She likes to ‘run’ the show, to run a number for a long time until she really has it in her system. She wants to learn the feeling of it. She doesn’t want to be looked at as if she’s just doing steps. She really is invested to learn the feeling of these dance steps and where they come from.
As an artist, she’s one of the best that anyone will ever work for. Because not only is she so kind and sweet, she’s funny and she likes to hang out with everyone. She creates a big bond of family for us to be on the road, because it is tiring and grueling. But she makes it feel as if we’re working but we’re on vacation. If you were to only spend a day with our camp, you would feel it and see it. She’s a lovely woman. She’s so generous to everyone she meets and who she is onstage with and who she rehearses with. She’s a loving human being, very beautiful.
C&S: How long are you rehearsing for the tour?
Duldulao: Every day, eight hours a day for a month.
C&S: On a scale of 1-10, how intense are the rehearsals?
Duldulao: I’d say 10. It’s like being an athlete. You have to train your body to last a long time onstage. There’s a lot of workout sessions with our trainer before rehearsals, and then by the end of rehearsals, we run the show top to bottom three times back-to-back. Sometimes my dancers run off to the bathroom and puke because they’re so tired, their bodies in shock. So it’s definitely an athlete’s world.
- Greg Carannante