LANDOVER -- Does she or doesn't she?
When that question first entered the pop lexicon, it came as a query about hair coloring. But in today's post-MTV world of singing, dancing superstars -- the Janet Jacksons, Paula Abduls and Madonnas of the world -- what the phrase now asks, has to do with singing. "Does she or doesn't she use tapes instead of singing live?"
Well, in the case of Janet Jackson, only her sound man knows for sure. But judging from her performance at the USAir Arena last night, it's clear that Jackson hasn't let the demands of contemporary choreography keep her from handling the singing herself.
That's not to say she didn't have help at points. On a couple VTC tunes -- "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" and "Where Are You Now" -- it definitely sounded as if her voice was being augmented by pre-recorded backing tracks; one song, "Throb," was clearly lip-synched.
Those were the exceptions, however, not the rule. For most of the show, not only was it clear that Jackson was singing live, but that it was smooth, assured and surprisingly emotional.
She took total command of tunes like "Black Cat," "If," and "Nasty." Even the brassy exuberance of "What'll I Do" didn't faze her -- she sang so honestly and soulfully that it was easy to forget that Johnny Daye originally recorded the song.
Where Jackson was most affecting, though, was on the ballads.
It helped, of course, that songs like "Let's Wait Awhile" emphasized the quiet fragility of her voice, conveying an intimacy that erased some of the distance arena shows entail.
But mostly, it was because she really put her heart into these songs. "Again" found her so overcome by emotion that she was barely able to choke out the final chorus.
Naturally, this being a Janet Jackson show, there was quite a lot of razzle-dazzle in the staging. Yet as much as Ms. Jackson showed off her sharp moves, svelte midriff and elaborate set, she never let the staging run away with the show.
Sure, "This Time" came equipped with heavy, "Phantom of the Opera" melodrama, and "When I Think of You" was given a playful, fantastically costumed carnival treatment. But the dance moves for "Rhythm Nation" actually seemed scaled down from her last tour, while other songs relied on little more than her voice to make their point.
Then again, isn't that the way it ought to be?
Janet Jackson performs again this evening at the USAir Arena. Tickets are still available.