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Janet Jackson Brings Legacy Pop Star Allure To Panorama

The 2018 iteration of Panorama had a bumpy start. Thanks to the storms that have been hanging over New York all week, the first day of the festival had to be called off early under severe weather warnings. That meant that attendees missed out on festival conquerors like the War On Drugs and Father John Misty; it meant that Migos and the Weeknd, two of the artists on this year’s lineup that might’ve appealed to the younger portions of the crowd, wouldn’t be performing. The next day, Lil Wayne — who had been added to the bill when Cardi B had to drop out — didn’t show up.

These are the kinds of headlines that can bog down a festival, especially one where the grounds (which are now roughly half the size of past years, reduced to two main stages) were themselves … well, like a bog. But despite the mud and humidity, the festivalgoers who returned on Saturday didn’t seem too bothered by the hiccups; there was a lot to look forward to now. Japanese Breakfast played in the early evening, to a large crowd that underlined just how quickly that band has risen. SZA, too, marked her ascension with a flashy mainstage gig; two years ago, she was playing a half-filled tent across the festival. In between, St. Vincent delivered a revelatory, sweaty set dominated by highlights from last year’s MASSEDUCTION as the sun began to set behind her.

But as strong as all those performances were, it was one of those festival days where all the momentum seemed to be driving forward to one artist in particular. The thing about Panorama that has worked to its advantage has often been its selection of headliners. Its lineup might skew older and more top-heavy than that of its competitor, Governors Ball, and positioned in late July it may be more precariously scheduled than the Meadows. But Panorama has often succeeded in booking headliners you don’t see on every single other festival lineup in a given year, an especially worthwhile aspect of the experience in an era where you see the same names atop almost every major American fest.

Given, this year you had the Weeknd and the Killers, both festival stalwarts. But in between, you had someone that you don’t often get a chance to see at a festival. You had someone that just about everybody seemed excited about. As Michelle Zauner said during Japanese Breakfast’s set, half gleefully and half in matter-of-fact awe, “It’s not every day you get to open for a Jackson.”

As a continuation of last year’s State Of The World tour, Janet Jackson’s appearance at Panorama felt like the big Event of the weekend. In 2015, Jackson returned with her first album in seven years, Unbreakable. As the title suggested, it was positioned as a comeback, a defiance. But there were some delays in cementing this era of Jackson’s career, tour postponements for rumored health concerns and the birth of her child. She restarted the whole thing in 2017, State Of The World being its re-christened form, and now she brought that show to Panorama, to the most fitting of settings — booming over a field on a Saturday night in NYC.

Jackson does not fit the common mold for a headliner in many ways. She’s not one of the reigning titans of a younger generation, your Kendricks or Jack Whites. She’s not the kind of gigantic retro name that has settled into only playing decades-old favorites, like when Bonnaroo brings in Elton John or Billy Joel. She isn’t a young hitmaker that’s guaranteed to draw in the kids on summer vacation.

She is, of course, a legacy pop star. A woman who defined multiple eras of pop music, who can bridge generations. She appeals to people who were there when she first got big and saw it all happen, she appeals to people who remember her hits from childhood, and she appeals to younger listeners who might discover her through her influence on more contemporary artists. All those demographics were represented last night. And after the stuttered beginning to Panorama 2018, it was the kind of universality that was needed, the kind of set that could bring everyone together in a shared, electric energy.

Jackson’s set also made it clear it didn’t really matter how you perceive her career, her stature now: She’s 52, still inhumanly gifted at delivering pop spectacle, and putting younger artists to shame. After a politically-tinged intro flashed across the screens, she launched into a set that followed the sets she’s been playing at her own shows. Which is to say, the kind of no-prisoners hit barrage you’d expect from an artist like her.

In fact, Jackson has too many songs to touch on quite everything. Soon into the show, she kicked into “Nasty,” which in turn set up the first of two medleys. Once she’d deployed some of her most famous, still infectious jams, she paused for a full minute between the medleys, just staring at the audience. Working them up into a fervor the way only stars of a certain level are able to. Then, after a breath, she simply asked: “New York City, are you ready to party?”

This was how the remainder of her 90 minute set unfolded, a constant string of dance parties with little pause in between. There were some slower songs. There were occasional intros from Jackson. There were a couple DJ breaks, allowing for segues or outfit changes. (One of those DJ breaks began with the indelible opening of “Escapade,” one of the only off notes of the evening considering that it functioned as an unresolved tease for a favorite that was otherwise conspicuously missing.) Mostly though, there was Jackson, commanding everyone’s attention as if it was biological, impossible to imagine looking away.

The show spanned Jackson’s career, songs you can’t get out of your head from 1986 and songs you can’t get out of your head from 2001. “I recorded this when I was 19 years old,” she mentioned before “When I Think Of You,” which subsequently sat alongside songs that are just a couple years old. (There was a liberal amount of songs present from Unbreakable.)

The arc of the set wasn’t just a matter of summing up Jackson’s work. It also worked on another level, positioning Jackson in a lineage. During “Together Again,” images of her infamous, recently-deceased father Joe played across the screens; towards the end of the night, she covered “Scream” with images of her brother Michael on those same screens. Balancing out nods to history were the younger voices that appeared, whether a recording of J. Cole’s verse on the Unbreakable track “No Sleeep,” or Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” echoing out from the background of “Any Time, Any Place.” (“Poetic Justice” sampled the latter.)

As the show climaxed with “Rhythm Nation,” all of those preceding threads cohered in what was, overall, a dizzying display of pop stagecraft. It was the kind of performance that as you walked out of the fest — carefully walked out, that is, now through mud that threatened to suck your shoes off — you were left with the impression that stars like Janet Jackson, there’s only ever a couple of those per generation. There’s only ever a couple people who have that much charisma, that much larger-than-life presence. But eventually, they can transcend that generational association. They might be one of the only ones of their time, but then they appeal to people from before and after, and end up where Jackson is now in 2018: a still-exhilarating performer who all of us could appreciate equally.