A new smash hit album from a former, near-forgotten pop superstar necessitates a world tour, a fresh wave of merchandise and enormous publicity drive to seal the artist’s return to prominence.
So much so, that unfamiliar monopoly money and hotel receipts accumulated unchecked in Janet’s purse. Fragments of foreign languages, hastily studied on the tour bus, for between-song banter, sometimes drew blank stares when she’d forgotten the conjugation.
Her world became local event and location managers. Implicit trust in strangers to deliver her the self-contained bubble whose dimensions varied by mere centimetres from one evening to the next. This cocoon could be pierced from the inside when the butterfly was ready to emerge.
Despite the blurring passage of time, her electronic diary automatically opened to that day and that month again.
Thirty thousand fans needed to be entertained. All on – to her – the wrong side of the planet.
Cheers subsided and Janet stood alone, centre-stage, catching her breath, following an exhausting choreographed song and dance routine. An hour and three costume changes down; the monogrammed jacket being the big money-spinner in the foyer.
Twin spotlights above, and to either side, skewered her shoulders. Searing white beams illuminated the perspiration sheen on her forehead, magnified on video screens. Her roadie had arrived silently with towel, water-bottle, and guitar. Hunkered in the silhouette of a stage-monitor speaker, he waited for Janet.
A brief head-shake and he vanished.
Towel draped across her shoulders and huge white angel wings formed from stage fog, she sipped. The guitar served as an aide-memoire; the city-name scrawled afresh in black sharpie, discreetly hidden from the audience’s sight.
“Having a good night, Stockholm?”
Easy cheers erupted and Janet tapped soft harmonics on the unamplified unfamiliar instrument. “This is an old Chinese song of my youth – ‘Too Ning’”.
Musicians in the crowd laughed – the ones that had made the joke themselves groaned. She picked at the guitar strings, then underarmed the towel into the first row.
Fresh sweat rolled from her eyes now. Dark curls obscuring emotion from all but the most devoted in the front rows.
“This one’s for my baby brother.”
Janet strummed a few chords, testing the reverb, and held up a hand.
“Actually, he was my big brother – I’m the baby. This is Tito’s guitar, in fact. I always got their hand-me-downs and cast-offs.”
It was a tight-lipped smile.
Her percussionist looked over the snare drum toward her. She’d gone off-script. Her music and not her family drew these fans out in the bitter Scandinavian winter.
“Michael feels like our younger sibling.”
At the mention of the name of the King of Pop, the crowd hooted and hollered.
Behind Janet, the image on the large screen changed. A close-up of her watery eyes was replaced by a man – literally larger than life – in his immaculate pure white linen suit. Fedora pushed forward, covering the top half his face. Pointing, spinning and gyrating in step with the pounding pre-recorded music. Two other dancers flanked him, mirroring the moves that accompanied the images. He glided backwards on the polished floorboards, one foot at a time, with the innate grace of an Olympic figure-skater on ice.
He turned and pirouetted. A fast spin on tip-toe, culminating in slow choreographed lean. The three dancers reached too severe an angle for the human body to support itself without falling. But their grace and muscle conditioning were unmatched. He straightened, shaking his lapels. With camera focus tight on him, the – now – younger man touched his hat, almost in deference to his sister.
The screen went black and the crowd renewed its cheering.
“I don’t normally play this…” Janet began, and to her band, “count me in but I’ll perform this one by myself.”
“Stockholm, can you indulge an old softy for three, maybe four minutes? See if I can do it some justice.”
The crowd’s response of cigarette lighters and smart phones waving in the air sent her trembling fingers searching for the right shape on the frets.
“This is Big Yellow Taxi, by Joni Mitchell.” She absently plunked a chord or two.
“My whole family loved Joni’s music, and especially this song. We played it over and over, way back when we were kids. But it feels right to play it tonight… You Swedes know it, right?”
A roar. Dozens of white teeth gleamed out from the larger-than-life video wall as Janet lowered her gaze.
“Great. Thought so. Stockholm’s unfamiliar to me… If I get lost, come find me. OK, Sweden?” Janet whispered out of a mouth-corner; the tiny skin-hued microphone snaking around her ear picked out the words perfectly.
Apart from the steady one – two – three – four drum-stick count-in from her drummer, she began, unaccompanied.
“They paved paradise…” In a thin, trembling voice – not the powerhouse that accompanied her own flawless choreographed dance moves that rivalled her brothers’, earlier in the evening.
Hot lights, the bright yellow hue of a New York taxi-cab now, gripped her fast.
“And put up a parking lot…”
Tens of thousands of Scandinavians took up the rallying cry, and Janet’s right arm strummed with a touch more verve. Her numerous backing dancers had all disappeared backstage. The woman who’d been the little girl, too young to be in her family’s world-renowned pop group, stood there, making her own name.
She forged her path alone, just as she’d always done. Red-rimmed eyes again stared out from the massive video-wall for the fans in the cheapest seats.
For a long time after she’d had the guitar removed from the stage, Janet again stood mute, and alone. Her wide brown swimming eyes locked with every person in the front row that would return her gaze.
Cheers died down, and Janet continued, a capella. “Don’t it always seem to go…”
The Swedes’ musical pedigree gave them equivalent, if not better, pop music knowledge than any other country on the planet.
“That you don’t know what you’ve got…” they continued.
A final, amplified whisper.
“Till it’s gone.”