The Unbreakable Icon

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Entering her 4th decade, Janet Jackson has set the barometer of pop music success since her musical debut in 1982 at the age of 16. Along with her brother Michael and fellow peers Mariah, Madonna and Whitney, their work have often been referenced by current pop stars today. In recent years, Janet has disengaged herself from the public eye following the death of her brother. She has since been married and living a relatively low-key affair, until she reappeared this past summer to surprise fans with her upcoming album and a world tour (both for the first time in several years).

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This week has greeted Janet’s arrival to the Windy City for a 3-date show at the iconic Chicago Theatre. As a longtime Janet fan, I would finally get the chance to see her live for the first time in concert. In her last two tours, I was either unemployed (2008) or living in Korea where she didn’t make a stop there (2011). Growing up as a kid, I recalled hearing songs from the “Janet” album in the mid 90s such as her dance-rock workout “If” and her tearful ballad, “Again” dominate the B96 airwaves in Chicago. I was entranced by her futuristic sci-fi take on her collaboration with her brother in the music video, “Scream.” As the years went on, I connected parts of her music to certain events in my life. The song “Control” was Janet’s declaration of independence from her domineering showbiz father which resonated with my own problematic relationship with my father. Then there was the “Velvet Rope” album which took on depression and a pro-LGBTQ stance that came at a time when I was discovering my queer identity in high school, and the “All for You” song that I danced to on prom night that eventually got me voted as the Best Dancer in my senior class.

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With Janet soon approaching 50, she has taken a different approach with her new album “Unbreakable.” Unlike her last few albums, she is more focused on creating an adult-contemporary, R&B driven sound, rather than following the current trends that Rihanna, Ariana Grande are on now. She is back with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and she has shunned herself away from doing interviews and public appearances to promote the album aside from her tour. With the new album and her tour, she is unconcerned about making new fans and reaching out for the teenage audiences, but instead, doing it for her longtime fans and reminding them as to why she was more than just Michael’s little sister.

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I arrived early at the Chicago Theatre at 6:30 pm with my ticket in hand. A small crowd calmly gathered by the entrance as folks were eagerly snapping selfies by the theatre’s sign illuminating the arrival of Janet Jackson. As I was about to have my ticket checked, I was asked if I was a part of the VIP list which had me do a double take. I was asked if I got the tickets to a presale and pre-ordered her new album which I said yes. I was told that it would qualify me, and they asked me for my name which was on the list. Much to my surprise, I could barely contain my excitement as I soon found out that I could visit the private Janet room containing many of her memorabilia (I.E. MTV VMA awards, Grammys, wardrobe). The theatre itself had a magical aura surrounding it through the opulent staircase, the bright tall chandeliers, and the lavish artwork around the walls. I got myself a t-shirt and a program which came with 2 copies of her latest album.

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The private Janet room featured wardrobes that came from her most memorable music videos and tours which included “Rhythm Nation”, “Scream” that also included a framed photo of the star with a handwritten message from Michael, and “All For You.”  Suspiciously missing from the room was the infamous “SuperBowl” wardrobe that led to the FCC uproar and the term, “wardrobe malfunction.” I also did a photo op which the Janet team made into a GIF and had it featured on their Twitter page. Fans were in awe and doing their selfie shots as they gathered around her costume displays

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I walked up 3 flights of stairs to find my seat located at the balcony level. Despite being located in the upper level, the view from the stage was clearly visible, and the venue’s intimate environment ensured that concert-goers would be able to feel emotionally engaged throughout the show.

As I was tweeting live updates about the concert, a young woman wearing a Janet t-shirt and lanyard approached me, told me that they would like to make a change to my seating arrangement. Puzzled, I asked “Why?” To her reply, “So we would like to have you sit in the front row, would that be okay?” Instantly, my mind froze and my conscience reacted like the grown-up Kevin from the Wonder Years. I started to stutter and dropped my jacket. She said, “I think you dropped something.” My instant reply, “That was my heart.” She gave me a new ticket, and suddenly, I was trembling with excitement. The tears started rolling down my cheeks. I grabbed my belongings and ran down several flights of stairs. I couldn’t process what had just happened.  I AM GOING TO BE STANDING IN FRONT OF JANET, MY CHILDHOOD IDOL!!! This was a bit too much for me to take in.

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I was escorted by the usher to my seat. There, I was warmly greeted with several hardcore Janet fans. I was busy wiping the tears off as a few of the fans were playfully teasing me. I was stoked; I have never been in a VIP section in all my concert-going years. The DJ opened his set and was playing a remix of Janet songs. Folks around me were dancing and taking in the atmosphere. I eagerly posted on my Facebook / Twitter / Instagram almost simultaneously.

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The legendary Miss Jackson took the stage at about 8:45 am. The speaker to the right of me was on full blast. The floor started vibrating as the bass was infiltrating through the ground. There, she appeared as a dark silhouette until she revealed herself as she sang her new song “BurnItUp” with a video cameo by Missy Elliot. The crowd cheered on wildly as she started working her way through the stage followed by her dance crew and her band. She briefly welcomed the crowd, and went right into her signature hit song, “Nasty”.

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For the first 45 minutes, Janet took on a furious run at her classic dance songs by giving them shorter abbreviations or short medleys such as “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”, “All For You”, “Love Will Never Do Without You”, “Escapade”, and bringing out the chair dance to “When I Think Of You”. She launched an assault of non-stop choreography reminiscent of her younger days, leaving nearly no time for her to rest in that span. Her charm was present, and her fierceness reminded folks of what made her one of music’s great performers.

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During the 2nd half, she allowed herself time to breathe as she sang some of her old ballads. She engaged the audience to sing the first verse of “Again” before she tearfully sang through the ballad. She struggled to finish the song as she wiped the tears off and would throw her handkerchief at a lucky fan. She continued to warmly slow down as she sang “Let’s Wait Awhile”, “Come Back to Me” before she got into her groove to sing her new hit song “No Sleep.” Janet paid homage to rapper Kendrick Lamar as he used his Janet-inspired song “Poetic Justice” and intertwined it with her 1993 hit, “Anytime Anyplace.”

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The tempo picked up as she went into her heavy dance numbers, “Throb”, the rock-driven “Black Cat.”  The steam machine blew up right in front of me, and nearly deafened me during her “IF” performance. She paid tribute to her brother as she sang part of “Scream” before turning into her innovative dance hit, “Rhythm Nation”, and managed to pull off one of her toughest choreograph numbers.

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In her encore, she focused on her two songs from her “Unbreakable” album proving that she is still focusing on her future, and reminding fans that she’s not restrained by her own past success. “Shoulda Known Better” is her current call to social justice and an answer she found 25 years ago when she heeded that call during “Rhythm Nation”. “Unbreakable” was her way of reminding people of how far she’s come along from the days of a child TV star, to the young adult making a name for herself, to the 90’s sex icon, and emerging from the aftermath of the Super Bowl mishap.

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In a show that lasted over 90 minutes, and surprisingly with no costume change, Miss Jackson kept the show flowing, keeping her fans mesmerized and moving. Unlike Madonna, Kanye West, and other stars who rely on using visuals, costume changes, and thematic elements, Janet kept it simple without the bells and whistles, and focused on celebrating her past while welcoming her present and future on her own terms.

After celebrating a night that had its unexpected twist and turns for me, I came home feeling honored to have been able to finally see an icon on stage, and gained personal access to her past works that played a soundtrack to my life.

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All Rights Reserved

Copyright by Randy Kim 2015

All Photo Credits by Randy Kim

Tears of a Rainbow

The LGBTQ community recently secured a victory from the US Supreme Court this past week on its legalization for marriage equality. For many in the LGBTQ community, as well as a growing number of straight allies, this was a historic milestone worth celebrating, just in time for Pride weekend across the nation. However, for others in the LGBTQ community, there are growing concerns on the number of issues that are still left on the table, or have yet to be acknowledged by the community as a whole, and what direction the LGBTQ community will take moving forward.  For some including myself, this historic day has triggered some unhealed wounds from our past during a time when we were in the process of coming to terms with our identity, and the fears that the other LGBTQ issues will not be as supported or advocated now that the marriage equality has come to pass.

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, I became visibly emotional, not so much out of joy, but in recalling many of the pain that I endured as I was struggling to come to terms with my Asian-queer identity. I first thought about the countless generations of LGBTQ folks that have passed on having never lived to see the ruling, never having the opportunity to see the stronger queer community spaces that’s become more accessible, and that they have had to endure a lifetime of secrecy, disownment from their family and community, public ridicule, imprisonment, and violence.  There are those whose lives ended prematurely because of the power of the homophobia / transphobia resistance had / still has towards our community, which has led to suicide or hate crime violence. Those are people that we cannot bring back, and that their lives are forever attached to the lifetime of hurt & cruelty of their identity(ies) from a society that believes could not co-exist with the accepted hetero space.

I recall the years of childhood and young adult angst of growing up in a predominantly white suburb, coming from a family of immigrant refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. I remembered the struggles of being socially accepted by my peers as a minority, while at the same time, facing pressures from my family to succeed academically and having to uphold my family culture through that process. As I hit puberty, I remembered feeling mortified when I started to have attraction towards men. I heard the voices of my male peers yelling out the words, “faggot”, “homo”, “you like to suck dick” amongst themselves. I think about the time when my high school English teacher brought up Matthew Sheppard, a gay man that was murdered in a hate crime in the late 90s, and some of my classmates’ responses were downright visceral, “He deserved to die”, “Oh, that’s what he gets for being gay” as they said while others laughed and nodded in unison. I sat quietly in my desk, slowly slumping over knowing that I was already an outcast. I was fearful for my own life for the first time. I could be the next victim. I was so upset with my English teacher for bringing his name up as she stood quietly and did little to interject or disrupt my classmates’ hatefulness. She didn’t realize how much I needed to feel supported, but instead it only validated that my existence was never going to be respected. My parents suspected and raised concerns over my sexuality, and insisted that I should not become that way. I had spent those years into my adult years being forced to “straight-act” and to quiet any suspicions of my own sexual identity. It was for my own survival. Even today, as open as I have become, I still resort to moments of downplaying my identity when I meet with older folks, certain past and present colleagues, and with my own mom whose disability has put me in the position as a caregiver along with my brothers.

I fear the losing of allies and the growing division of the LGBTQ community on issues that are ongoing in the racial, social, gender, economic inequality spectrum. Yes, marriage equality is essentially important as it not only validates same-sex couples’ union, but to receive benefits, to have a family, to have equal rights when their spouse is sick, or facing end-of-life. However, it’s a megabyte among the terabyte of the community’s concerns. We still have hate crime violence issues, especially among transgender folks of color, high LGBTQ homelessness, employment discrimination, immigration, lack of proper healthcare access, gender profiling, hetero / cis-gender sexism towards trans folks, and the list continues to go further. Will any of our other issues hold any weight and momentum on the mainstream level, but more importantly, from within the community whose interests and issues are differed and varied? Will there be a time and space where our community will begin to properly heal from the post-traumatic wounds from the discrimination, violence, shaming, and marginalization that folks have experienced?

My experiences as an Asian-identified queer have made me naturally leery of straight folks that have supported the recent Marriage Equality rights. Were these the same folks that openly shamed LGBTQ folks in my life which have caused me to retreat into an identity that wasn’t me? Would these folks still be there when we need to have another important legislation to pass when we need to once again validate our need for equality? Would they ever take the time to understand and validate the struggles that my queer friends and I still care about? At the same time, I also think about the number of straight allies who became my friends who were the first ones to lovingly support me. They, along with my LGBTQ comrades, were the ones that listened, consoled me, empowered me as I was stammering out the words, “I’m queer,” and reinforced the kind of loving community I have surrounding me.

Within the LGBTQ community is a growing divide. For years in my bisexuality, I remembered hearing ridicule from the gay and lesbian community telling me that there’s no such thing, or it’s just a denial. Having to hear that kept me more in the closet, and contradicted the inclusion and protection that the gay / lesbian community was supposed to bring in. In the mainstream gay circles, we are not recognizing gender pronouns, agender / gender queer, cis / non-cis gender identities. Heck, I learned about gender pronouns only 2 years ago. So the distrust and disconnect is still there in the community, and with it, comes the reality that our current barriers may never be able to change when we are unable to recognize and give light to the severity of these issues, and how we address it on a universal level.

I can’t undo the trauma that I lived through being a queer-identified Asian minority where my queerness, Vietnamese and Cambodian, disabled (left-eye blindness) identities became my barriers, sometimes altogether at the same time. I am mixed in between the eternal optimist who has seen the progressive changes where I can now tell my 14 year old self that it’s okay to come out of hiding, and the eternal pessimist who is still shouting to be heard, and watching his fellow community folks suffer great disappointment. Today, those worlds have collided with the tears of joy and pain rolling off my cheeks.