I still remember attending the record release party in New York City for Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 debut album, “On the 6.” If you had asked me or most of the assembled back then if she would still be making music 20 years later, wagers might have been hard to come by. I interviewed Mariah Carey that same year and she wasn’t worried about competition from Lopez. “She’s a dancer, isn’t she?” Carey told me, in a quote that went the 1999 equivalent of viral, adding: “I don’t think, as a singer, we’re in the same category as artists.”
Yet today Lopez is arguably in a category all her own, with eight albums, a 2012 world tour that sold a million tickets, and a hit Las Vegas residency to her name. What Lopez may lack in dog-whistle range, she more than makes up for in vision, work ethic and a variety of other talents, not the least of which are her skills as, yes, a dancer, all more than sufficiently mesmerizing to hold the attention of 18,000 people at the opening of her summer tour Friday at the Forum, even during a late number when she was the only soul on stage.
It’s hard to say if ageism is a bigger problem in the music industry or the movie industry, which is why it’s so remarkable that Lopez, who’s kept at least one leg in both for two decades, has constructed her 31-date North American “It’s My Party” concert tour (plus five international dates) around her upcoming 50th, which isn’t until July 24.
She’s never looked better — and never been richer: Lopez’s show was preceded by not one but two advertisements: first for the fourth season of NBC’s “World of Dance,” which she executive produces, and the second for Guess, which struck a lucrative deal with the superstar to become the tour’s sponsor. So when childhood photos and clips from her Fly Girl days began playing on the screen, it was unclear if this was the start of the show or just another ad. But in this case, where artist and brand are so seamlessly intertwined, it’s almost beside the point.
Lopez sang more than 20 of her hits, and nearly every performance was a dazzling spectacle in itself, featuring lavish production numbers and more dancers than one could count with the occasional pyrotechnics and fireworks thrown in for good measure. So in the end, some of the most memorable moments were those that stood out from the non-stop party vibe.
1. Her unexpected duet. After taking flight and floating over the stage, Lopez grounded herself by performing the Sia-penned female empowerment anthem “Limitless” with her 11-year-old daughter, Emme. You know that you could count on fabulous costume changes — there were no less than 19, incidentally —but you probably aren’t anticipating emotional moments during J.Lo’s show. So seeing the maternal side of Lopez and the combination of pride and love reflected in her teary eyes packed an unexpected punch.
2. Her epic encore. The DJ prodded the entire audience to wish her a happy birthday — the month-and-a-half head start on 50 being no obstacle — then spun Lesley Gore’s classic “It’s My Party” as a gigantic four-tier cake rose from the stage with Lopez perched on top. She launched into her 1999 banger, “Let’s Get Loud,” but was recreating a scene from her recent music video for “Medicine,” inspired by her love of Busby Berkeley movie musicals. Lopez slipped into something more comfortable than a crystal-embellished bodysuit: a bedazzled bathrobe.
3. Her dramatic monologue. Following her rendition of “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles — an unlikely choice, given that it’s an ode to fragility, and Lopez has made a career out of strong-woman bops — she shared an inspiring life lesson in an effort to further endear herself to her fans, and it almost lasted long enough to be a TED Talk. “Although it’s a love song, it’s about the struggle,” she said, explaining why it resonated with her. “Because life can be long, if you’re lucky. It can be tough. But somehow — somehow — we always find our way back to ourselves. … People start asking… ‘What do you want your children to know? What do you want to teach them?’ And I always say … that sometimes life is going to be hard and you’re gonna fall down, but they gonna get right back up. And Mommy’s always going to be right there.’” She then turned her attention from her kids to the crowd. “It’s kind of like our relationship over the years. … You guys have helped me through some of my hardest times. I bet you didn’t even know that,” she said, introducing “Limitless.”
4. Her short film. Highly stylized, impossibly glamorous visual interludes briefly interrupted the otherwise constant singing and dancing, and in the best one Lopez recreated Marlon Brando’s role as “The Godfather.” Smoking a cigar and rocking a sharply tailored pinstripe suit and hat, she took a meeting with her top flunky to remind him who’s boss. “Joey listen, and listen good,” she threatened. “There are three things that I don’t mess around with: My family. My party. And my money.” She ended the clip by breaking the fourth wall and spoke directly to the camera: “I’m from the Bronx, and this is my party. I can do what I want to do.”
5. Her preview of “Hustlers.” This fall, she’ll star as a stripper on the big screen, so she also played one on stage, transforming the Forum into the world’s largest gentlemen’s club. (Her “Hustlers” costar Constance Wu was in the audience.) Borrowing an idea from Janet Jackson, she plucked a random guy from the audience up on stage for a lap dance, finding a willing victim in a married man named Steve. “I’m not going to bite you — until I get to know you better … don’t be scared, Steve. Sit down,” Lopez told him before addressing his partner: “Wifey, I love you.” She teased him in a barely-there outfit while crooning Drake’s “Teenage Fever,” which samples her own hit, “If You Had My Love.” Steve eventually sunk into the stage but Lopez continued her stripper routine in a fervent solo dance number to a recording of her 2014 song “Girls.” She didn’t sing during this dance number, but didn’t pretend to, either. Leave it to pop’s premiere dancing queen to put the mic down and still have the party pick up.