“Something about the entire affair felt cheap”: Melbourne’s RNB Fridays underwhelmed
13.11.2019

“Something about the entire affair felt cheap”: Melbourne’s RNB Fridays underwhelmed

Photo: Mushroom Creative
Photo: Sally Townsend
Photo: Sally Townsend
Photo: Sally Townsend
Photo: Sally Townsend
1 / 5
Words by Alex Watts

It was fascinating to peer into Janet Jackson’s extensive catalogue but the music legend was clearly under-rehearsed.

Look, the package tour is always an odd concept. Decidedly more random and small-scale than a festival — a curated collection of diverse yet complementary artists — they’re instead often loosely based on genre. It’s been happening since at least the ‘60s, which saw bundled ‘rock’ lineups featuring Jimi Hendrix, lounge crooner Engelbert Humperdinck and folk singer Cat Stevens traversing England, the notion being that the greater volume of star power would lead to an increase in public interest. Tonight’s ‘R&B’ bill, featuring short sets from 50 Cent, Brandy, Jason Derulo, The Black Eyed Peas and Janet Jackson, was a continuation of that idea, and despite the $120-$400 ticket prices, something about the entire affair just felt cheap.

Interestingly, the stadium seemed to be at its fullest for The Black Eyed Peas’ set, which was also an energetic high point, as the quartet, now including former The Voice Philippines contestant Jessica Reynoso, pumped out high-intensity music for the masses.

The darkened stadium lit up with phone screens as will.i.am gave a speech over the slow organ intro for ‘Where is the Love’ about how happy we was that that song, which spoke (kind of) about issues and compassion, gave them their career. Then it was back to fist-pumping and jumping up and down as ‘The Time (Dirty Bit)’ and ‘I Got a Feeling’ provided the last big, auto-tuned choruses of their set.

The crowd visibly thinned out after BEP and the diverse age ranges of people in their 20s to 40s became more pronounced. Obligatory hype man Fatman Scoop and radio’s Ash London exchanged scripted banter before an awkwardly long 100-second countdown was met with total silence until its final 10 introduced Janet Jackson.

On tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her massive Rhythm Nation 1814 album, I wondered how Jackson, one of the best selling artists of all time, felt looking out at the near-empty stadium stands. Appearing atop a staircase and delivering a monologue that served as the introduction for a truncated version of ‘Control’, which then segued into ‘Nasty’, both from 1986’s Control, what followed was a 19-song, 40-minute greatest hits trip through one of pop’s most formidable back catalogues.

Despite the fact that the 1814-themed visuals on the massive screens behind the performers added positively to the ‘this-is-a-big-arena-show’ vibe, and that the dance troupe’s choreography expertly added some much-needed energy, musically, the show felt flat. Thanks to the video screens on either side of the stage, it was immediately evident that Jackson was lip-synching her way through her own material and somehow getting it very wrong. Not only was her timing off — though not consistently ahead or behind of the beat so as to be attributable to any delay from the screen’s broadcast — she was also skipping words in a clumsy, half-trying sort of way.

The live drummer, bassist and guitarist who, along with a DJ, formed the band made no discernible difference to the sound. Jackson’s original recorded vocals seemed to be purposefully low in the mix, presumably so that she could add her live vocal over the top of it, but for whatever reason she chose to do so very sparingly, piping up mostly to exhort the crowd to “Sing-a-long, Melbourne!”.

The set was segued together like a DJ mix with no breaks or talking in between songs, which helped to keep the show flowing while pointing to what a consistent and high-quality body of work Jackson has created over the past 30+ years. Despite the miming, hearing ‘If’, ‘Together Again’, ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately’, ‘Got ‘til It’s Gone’, ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’, ‘All For You’ and last year’s surprise banger ‘Made For Now’, while watching Janet Jackson onstage was still pretty thrilling.

Dressed in a loose-fitting black jumpsuit with her trademark curls dyed pitch black, Jackson moved surprisingly slowly, leaving most of the complicated choreography to her backing dancers, and, with some impressive exceptions, often falling completely out of step with them.

Things ramped up for the finale of ‘Scream’, assisted vocally by the late Michael Jackson who appeared onscreen via the song’s famous 1995 video, and who sounded just as live as his sister, and set closer ‘Rhythm Nation’, both of which had the crowd cheering and singing along.

I’m sure she had her reasons for choosing to appear as the headliner for RNB Fridays rather than of her own tour, but the atmosphere, setting and attendance just didn’t feel befitting of an icon of Jackson’s status, so perhaps the lacklustre performance was all it deserved.