Not Just `Michael's Sister' Anymore


JANET JACKSON has finally arrived. With her quadruple-platinum album ``Rhythm Nation 1814,'' the little sister of superstar Michael Jackson now stands solidly on her own two feet. And that's good news for dance-music queen Jackson, who didn't have much success with her recordings prior to ``Control,'' which hit the stores in 1986. Remarkably, ``Control'' sold over five million copies without a tour to support it. Now, with the release of ``Rhythm Nation,'' Jackson is out on tour for the first time - and an impressive tour it is.

But aside from a few bursts of fireworks, it is a simple show that depends more on music and dancing than special effects. Jackson commands the evening with her voice and personality; there's little talking, lots of music.

After tour plans were announced, 13,000 seats sold out in Worcester, Mass., in 26 minutes; 30,000 in Chicago in less than an hour; all four Los Angeles dates in 48 minutes.

``Rhythm Nation,'' with pop-music masterminds Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as producers, paves new ground for dance music, moving away a bit from love songs and delving into social issues such as illiteracy, bigotry, and homelessness.

Jackson herself has commented that the ``Control'' album was a very personal statement, a kind of emancipation proclamation for the young singer, who had grown up in the protective shadow of the famous Jackson family. But with ``Rhythm Nation,'' she wanted to take a closer look at the world.

Three hit singles have emerged from that album - the title tune, ``Miss You Much,'' and ``Escapade,'' which has been the No. 1 hit on the ``Hot 100'' list in Billboard magazine.

On her tour stop here last week at Madison Square Garden, Jackson proved her ability to re-create the mood of her albums and videos on stage. The stark tone of ``Rhythm Nation'' is captured in the set - an iron scaffolding with stairs similar to the one seen on the video. The concert opens with an iron-grate tower rising higher and higher from the floor. A box on top is lifted off to reveal Jackson, dressed in military-style garb that establishes the feeling of toughness, the hard industrial edge, that prevails throughout the evening. All of which is made more intriguing by the persona of Jackson, who has an undeniable sweetness mixed with her street-wise attitude. This blend is a pleasing paradox that she pulls off naturally, and it has made her a popular role model.

The first half of the concert is devoted to shortened versions of songs from ``Control.'' She opens with the title tune, then moves into ``Nasty Boys,'' and ``What Have You Done for Me Lately?'' The second half concentrates on songs from ``Rhythm Nation.''

Jackson's music, unlike bass-heavy dance music, relies more on keyboards and drums. This kind of back-up gives the feeling that the melodies float over the rhythm - an almost bottomless quality. The songs Jackson chooses, or writes, have melodies that tend to grow on the listener after several hearings. A good example is ``Black Cat,'' a driving, guitar-based song with heavy-metal overtones. It really came alive on stage. Jackson ballads like ``Let's Wait Awhile'' and ``Come Back to Me'' are melodically and harmonically sophisticated enough to compare with music of a George Gershwin or Cole Porter. When she son sang ``Come Back to Me,'' the huge video screen revealed that her eyes were moist - and so were the audience's.

The high-powered dance numbers work well, except that Jackson seemed a little awkward in the first half. Eventually, though, she loosened up and eased into the bouncy stride she's known for.

With ``Rhythm Nation,'' she seems to have found her niche. And now that she has won two American Music Awards and a Grammy, it looks as if the pop-music world agrees.

The tour continues with stops in: Washington, D.C., tomorrow; Hartford Friday; Worcester, Mass., Monday; Philadelphia Tuesday; Providence, March 28; Albany, N.Y, March 29; Hampton, Va., March 31; Indianapolis April 2; and Detroit April 3.

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