Janet Jackson reigns as Outside Lands’ No. 1 diva

Caroline Smith / Staff
Caroline Smith/Staff
Caroline Smith / Staff

Fifteen minutes into her Sunday night headlining set, Janet Jackson froze, glittering under the spotlight. A vast crew of backup dancers clad in black and white framed her. Jackson’s face turned to the side as her crimped ponytail blew in the wind. She basked in the admiration of the crowd, taking in the respect that she had earned over the course of her decadeslong career. Slowly, she turned to face the crowd. “San Fran, are you ready to party?” she asked. In that moment, Jackson took her rightful place as the No. 1 diva of the weekend, if not in the festival’s entire history to date.

Seven No. 1 albums into her career, it’s no secret that Jackson is a born hit-maker. But it’s her ability to bring these hits to life that cements her superstar status. From her airtight choreography to the multiple outfit changes that she incorporated into her routine, Jackson pulled out all the stops. Even as her poised, practiced and edited music videos played behind her, she stole the show. “That’s a lot of hits, huh?” she asked the crowd. “We have a lot more to go.”

There is no substitute for seeing her in person, and Jackson seemed well aware of that fact. Above all else, the set took on the tone of a victory lap for Jackson, one that the crowd was lucky to be able to observe.

Between opening with a video calling for justice and putting “The Knowledge” — the original woke anthem — high up in her set list, Jackson kicked off her set with a definite social consciousness bent. While Jackson would continue to draw social commentary back into her set, it never felt preachy. The set flowed in and out of social justice themes with finesse.

Tenderness, too, crept its way into the night — first during Jackson’s rendition of “Together Again,” a song already brimming with sentiment that welled over as pictures of Jackson’s late father flashed behind her throughout the song. Naturally, Michael Jackson, too, made his way into the set during “Scream,” a collaboration between the two siblings. Excitement erupted as Michael Jackson sang his lines out from the screen.

The loudest screams of the night erupted when Jackson stepped down from her place as a diva to become a woman of the people for just a few moments. After a quick outfit change, she came into the crowd, moving to a smaller platform situated farther back in the field. As she smiled and strode through the crowd, cellphones surrounded her from every side.

Straddling a chair, Jackson turned to some of the slower jams of the night. She cooed “Any Time, Any Place” into the microphone, allowing the song to slip into Kendrick Lamar’s verses from “Poetic Justice,” a cheeky nod to the fact that Lamar sampled Jackson herself.

The night ended with “State of the World,” a nod back to the title of the tour that Jackson’s appearance at Outside Lands was a part of and a return to social justice themes. As Jackson drew away from the microphone for the final dance break of the night, her sharp angular movements etched themselves into the night. More than her stage presence and certainly more than her vocals, it was Jackson’s ability to hit every beat perfectly, to glide among her backup dancers with ease — drawing them in and then pushing them back away — that marked her as a must see act.

The first woman of color to headline the festival, Jackson more than made her mark on Outside Lands. It’s a good thing that she was the closing act of the entire weekend — she would have been damn near impossible to follow.

Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @sannidhishukla.