With songs speaking out against sexual harassment and domestic violence dating back to the '80s and '90s, Janet Jackson was lightyears ahead of the current conversations about gender equality as far as pop stars are concerned. Her headlining set at Outside Lands Sunday night was not only an expertly crafted spectacle, but a powerful, timely statement that vindicated her legacy and reignited her relevance in the current political moment.
As white supremacist "Unite the Right" rallies took place around the country over the weekend, Jackson opened her set with her 1989 song "The Knowledge," declaring, "Prejudice—no! / Ignorance—no! Bigotry—no!" over a funky breakbeat as a giant Black Power fist flashed onscreen.
Her strong opening statement set the tone for the rest of the show: throughout, Jackson celebrated female sexuality (did you know 1986's seemingly PG "When I Think of You" is actually about masturbation?) and decried abuses against women through a potent combination of lyrics, choreo and multimedia.
Over the course of the energetic 90-minute performance spanning three decades of hits, Jackson never stopped moving her feet. She channeled rage, vulnerability and sensuality, bringing the audience to giddy, nostalgic highs and plunging them into deep moments of catharsis.
While much of Jackson's music coats her feminist message in sassiness and humor ("No, my first name ain't 'baby' / It's Janet / Miss Jackson if you're nasty," she sings in 1986's hip-shaking hit, "Nasty"), her set also occasionally treaded into shocking territory. During Jackson's performance of "What About," her angry 1997 ballad about an abusive relationship, a white, male dancer mimed attacking a black, female dancer, even putting his hands on her face. As Jackson sang the chorus ("What about the times you lied to me / What about the times you said no one would want me"), she sat the man in a chair as she danced fiercely behind him, mimicking knocking him to the ground.
When Jackson finished the song, tears flooded her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. For a second, she looked overcome with emotion—a touching, genuine moment. "I am done with you," she declared to the male dancer—and what felt like the patriarchy as a whole—as she shoved him out of his chair.
It seemed like no accident that at this point in the show, Jackson changed into an Alexander Wang football jersey, evoking the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show that many critics now argue unfairly sidelined her from the music industry in a case of sexist double standards. Jackson appears keenly self-aware of how perceptions of her music have shifted in today's cultural moment of reckoning with misogyny and abuse. Her forthcoming single, also announced Sunday, is called "Made For Now." Riding on a high of headlining festivals and receiving the Billboard Icon Award this year, she knows the time for her comeback is ripe, and rightfully so.
Jackson's Outside Lands set was also a reminder of how she's inspired younger generations. Just a few hours earlier on the main stage, Janelle Monáe delivered a boldly feminist performance of her own, taking her seat atop a red, velvet throne as she rapped "Django Jane" from her new album, Dirty Computer, with her Kansas drawl: "Black girl magic, y'all can't stand it / Y'all can't ban it, made out like a bandit." Witnessing her ultra-confident body language as she regally took her seat was contagiously empowering, and her screaming fans seemed just about ready to hail her as their queen.
With her tight choreography, androgynous, wide-shouldered outfit and funky, all-woman band that included an expert horn section, Monáe's set channeled a legacy of futuristic black pop that Janet and Michael Jackson and Prince pioneered over thirty years prior. In many ways, Monáe's body of work builds on the themes Janet Jackson put forth in her music; Monáe's work expands upon that legacy, adding queerness to the conversation as well.
Dirty Computer (the album and short film) is arguably the most impactful pro-LGBTQ statement we've seen in mainstream pop all year, and Monáe's expressions of queerness also celebrate and center blackness and femininity. That mindfulness of the intersections of our identities and how they shape life experience translated to her set. "You all learned about how I choose to love," Monáe declared, alluding to the Rolling Stone interview where she formally came out as pansexual. "No matter how you choose to love, what god you serve or what class you come from, you are welcome here."
Jackson and Monáe's sets, hours apart on the big Lands End stage, connected a legacy of black feminism past and present. And as Jackson later revealed on her Instagram, Monáe was in the audience cheering her on in a "Made For Now" T-shirt—a sweet display of camaraderie between the two artists.
Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to believe that Outside Lands—a fest traditionally associated with mostly white, male indie rock—would become the site of these powerful black feminist performances. But this year, as the festival put forth its most diverse lineup yet, it set the stage for a impactful statement, and Jackson and Monáe went above and beyond, eclipsing the rest of the day's sets with their larger-than-life shows and empowering messages.
"With music by our side / To break the color lines / Let's work together / To improve our way of life," Jackson sang in her closing number, 1989's "Rhythm Nation." On Sunday at Outside Lands, she offered a glimmer of hope that that dream is still possible.
More photos from Outside Lands