In the ’80s there were two women I wanted to be: Madonnaand Janet Jackson. For the record, I wanted to be Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison too, but the fantasy difference was a crucial one of psychic geography: Arguably, in my early 20s I already had the writing goods, unerupted but bubbling like lava in the deep caverns of myself. The dance-diva thing was less certain, a fantasy in the most stratospheric sense, so its aspirations carried a lot more mystique. Performance goods had to be determined in public, by the public; I might have been a post-disco whirligig in the privacy of my bedroom, but the whole point of Janet and Madonna was being a Dance Diva in front of a big audience — less quantifiable and more immediately thrilling than crafting graceful narrative or exhibiting a firm grasp of language.
While Famous Writer lived cozily within, Dance Diva lived precariously but more feverishly without, and Madonna and Janet were to me two different but equally appealing versions of a reckless and undefined but very glamorous life that I likely would never lead (but that I hoped I could lead with). Madonna was the sardonic side of sexy, always more interested in conceptual shape-shifting than the dance, which appealed to my cloistered writer self. Janet played the genre straight and open with head-snapping choreography, a big smile and bigger hair that — declarations of her independence in albums like Control notwithstanding — acknowledged the common woman‘s yearnings to be a bright and well-loved (and well-groomed) star. But both knew that their bread and butter was the beat, and in more moments in the ’80s than I can remember so was mine. When the decade was done, I had probably cribbed more inspiration and style points from ”Like a Prayer“ and ”Miss You Much“ than I had from any number of famous novels or works of nonfiction that spurred my writing vocation but didn‘t quite make it dance. Imagination moves in mysterious ways. I got the chance to re-acquaint myself with my muses one recent Friday night in the pre-weekend lull that found me (after a good deal of reading, of course) channel surfing. I was elated by the good fortune of finding that HBO was set to air Madonna’s and Janet‘s recent concert films — back to back! Instantly I had visions of old; instead of settling back in my armchair, I sprang up, pacing like an old racehorse about to be turned loose from the gate (I could still win this thing, I could!). Madonna was first, doing her Drowned World tour. I watched. I was ready. I didn’t dance. Alas, this idol had fallen — on a sword of her own creation. Dressed in post-apocalyptic torn black mesh and a threadbare kilt, Madonna had crossed the thin line from sardonic to cynic. She no longer served the beat, or anything. Gone was the tease, the thinking out loud about sex, race, money and all the taboos therein: In Madonna‘s waterlogged new world, there was no difference between provocative and pedestrian. Everything was dully noted. Her hair was severely straight and she glowered. She mock-kicked a lot of her entourage around, at one point enacting a homicide in which she broke a guy’s neck in the final bar of a song. She turned her back at another point to reveal a message to her minions written across her shirt in black ink: ”Fuck Off.“ I went from being let down to being bewildered to being pissed off. The magic Madonna had carried all these years was tossed aside like an outgrown toy, and along with it went the trust this white girl riding black music had won from me when I believed I recognized a greater purpose on her part than mere theft or mimicry.
Not that I figured she‘d be the same; before the lights went down, I gave her plenty of leeway. I knew we were all a generation older now, that 44 just doesn’t play like 25, and that the drive for self-discovery and reinvention has its limits. I simply figured that didn‘t, couldn’t, ever apply to the dance; to me it had always lived alone. I know the beat‘s no longer the thing, or at least it’s a more vicious and circumscribed thing than it was in the ‘80s and hardly the pop-cult purveyor of freedom and expansiveness I had once made it. But Madonna had made it that for me, really, and now she was telling me that dance-floor freedom was passe, or used up, or invalid. I didn’t buy it. I had believed in her for so long, right up through the giddy electronica funk of the Ray of Light and Music albums last year. But the real proof was in the flesh, and the flesh was failing, miserably. I switched channels after deciding that I would take art over life. Which, of course, was likely Madonna‘s point all along.
Janet Jackson restored my faith. Mostly. I was more perturbed by the nose job than I used to be (my politics, aesthetic and otherwise, had hardened in the intervening years), but I reasoned that she was still a long way from Michael. What mattered is that, once Janet’s concert film started, I got up and moved nearly right away, and never sat down. Janet connected me to a time when the black pop producers du jour were not Master P or Dr. Dre, but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, guys who were still R&B-centric and took a dance groove dead seriously so that we may all have waved our hands in the air, like we just didn‘t care. They were about performance, as is Janet, still; she gives good show. With that old-fashioned Broadway ethic, she hit all her marks and looked fabulous in her many costumes. She smiled. She cried out from the stage, ”Sing this with me!“ or ”How you all doing?“ at frequent intervals.
Janet is 35 or so but still has undeniable naivete, a professional (if not actual) belief in the power and duty of dance to lift us all above a drowned world. This was clear despite lots of attitude and scanty clothes. The now-trademark undulating belly and bust-out cleavage is not nearly as much about sex (it never was) as it is about giving a thousand percent, every Broadway performer’s maxim. Even when Janet did the queen-bitch thing in a number assisted by the decidedly hip-hop Missy Elliott, in which she, too, glowered — and grabbed her crotch and gave all the dancer boys withering looks — we all knew better: The real Janet is the spun-sugar voice and ear-splitting grin, the earnest approach to ballads like ”Again“ where she took to a stool and a darkened stage a la Barbra Streisand. Janet still lives for audience connection, still submits herself for our approval. She is not the greatest of talents but still posits the possibilities of dance. That makes her a messenger among her younger peers — performers who can certainly sing, and certainly dance, yet who have nothing to ask us. There‘s plenty of show and tell these days, but little in the way of wonder.
Beyonce Knowles, while fun to watch, knows too much already. Alicia Keys and Erykah Badu are more probing but hardly qualify as divas of dance. There are few such creatures anymore besides the expertly packaged Britney Spears, and I don’t count her because the only things she ever asked anyone is whether they‘d like a Pepsi. For all her ubiquity, Britney is the hapless victim of her times Madonna never wanted to be and actively measured herself against, and Janet avoided simply by being at the forefront of ’80s synth-funk. It goes without saying that without Janet and Madonna, there‘d be no Britney, or Christina Aguilera, or any number of aspirants to the dance throne who, interestingly enough, are not black anymore but black-inflected for days. The actual black female singers at this point all seem preoccupied with being odd hybrids like Ashanti, who wavers between vulnerable and vapid and seems a bit lost without the presence of one tough rapper or another. Not exactly the stuff of liberation dreams.
But anyway: There was, and is, Janet. I was concerned for a while, after the Velvet Rope period especially, that she might be going introspective for good, that she would consciously grow up and follow Madonna, if not into that diva emerita’s dark netherworld, into a place not at all conducive to dancing. After that Friday I am certain that Janet Jackson is still among the living, and hoping. Any doubt of this was put to rest as I watched her go through a backstage costume change at the hands of prop people who stripped her down to her skivvies as the music vamped madly outside and the crowd roared in anticipation. I saw the black bra, the enviably flat stomach, the legs — the legs. It struck me that in all the years of Janet, in all the getups and paeans to nasty boys, she had never shown them. She was stooping now for cover, uncomfortably aware of the camera ogling overhead. A strange but touching bit of modesty in the midst of all the baring that‘s become mostly boring, in the base but still-beating heart of a naked age . . .
The concert ended. I stopped dancing, out of breath. Then I hurried upstairs to write.