The Revisit: Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope’

janet-14

I missed half of the video, but that didn’t matter. When those stylish, glistening black folks with funky hair twisted, swayed, and jived across the screen in the clip for “Got Til Itʼs Gone” during Planet Groove, I knew I couldn’t miss this. I jumped up from the dinner table and ran to my room to hit record on my PHAT VIDEOS VHS tape. I recorded over Mariah Carey’s “Honey” with nary a second thought. This was a big deal. The year was 1997. I was buying whatever Janet Jackson was selling.

The Velvet Rope was new. Not just a new album, but also a new Janet. It was the latest milestone in a life marked by sensible evolution—rather than orchestrated culture-vulturing and reinvention. Aided by shoulder pads and sudden independence, she emancipated herself with Control. She flexed her youthful optimism and militaristic dance floor activism with Rhythm Nation. She enchanted us with her blossoming sensuality and surging free-spirited confidence on janet.

Now armed with bright red curls and a fixation with experimentation and eroticism, she let us listen along as she retreated within for some good, old-fashioned introspection. After ten seconds of distortion, the title track begins:

“We have a special need/to feel that we belong/Come with me inside/Inside my velvet rope.”

Let the confiding begin.

This woman had just turned 31-years-old. Twenty-four of those years had been spent living, losing, and loving in the public eye, in good times and bad alike. Her renewed contract with Virgin made her the highest paid entertainer in all the land, again. Janet was at her best artistically and had yet to find a stage she couldn’t rule. During her ascent, though, she had grown dangerously adroit at tucking in her vulnerabilities and flashing that smile at all costs.

Now, she was having a moment. Janet often described The Velvet Rope as her way of dealing with her demons. As she told MTVʼs Kurt Loder, she was working through pain she had been holding onto
 from childhood. This was the self-actualization of a woman opening her journal to
 the world. The Velvet Rope was her reintroduction as a mature, more unapologetic woman who was battling depression and other heavy shit, and was simply writing her way out of 
it.

It wasn’t perfect. She was searching. Janet established from track one that she, like us, had a need to feel like she belonged. At the end of album closer  “Special,” which stops abruptly, she says, “Work in progress,” summarizing everything we had just heard. It wasn’t supposed to be immaculate. There was no tidy ending here. And that, of course, was just fine.

Setting out in hopes of living, losing, loving (and learning) through song was an ambitious mission. But it was necessary—for Janet and for us. The scope of the album reflected that journey. With the help of longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she opined, lamented, warned and wandered across a smartly produced, genre-melding soundscape.

The project explored the mental, social, and sexual trials of relationships as well as the emptiness of fame. Sure, she sang a great deal about fucking and unraveling, but the underlying theme was a love, from others and for oneself. She toyed with sexual exploration on a cover of Rod Stewardʼs “Tonightʼs The Night.” This fueled rumors of bisexuality as she kept the original female pronouns, asking her partner to “loosen up the back of [her] pretty French gown.

THE_VELVET_ROPE

Later, seduction, sexual bondage, and submission fueled a night of passion as she fulfilled your fantasies on “Rope Burn.” This swaying bedroom groove spells out in vivid detail the things she had hinted at in earlier bouts of restrained sexuality. Her performance of this song, when she brought a fan on stage for a strip tease during The Velvet Rope Tour has been co-opted by the likes of Britney Spears and Rihanna in later years.

The Velvet Rope sauntered from homo-friendly open-mindedness (“Free Xone”), to betrayal and domestic violence (“What About”) to fear of love (“Everytime”) with ease. She even predicted my teenage affair with cybersex and digital romance on “Empty,” riding the Electronica wave as she rushed home daily to talk to someone sheʼd fallen in love with on the internet. Memories.

What I appreciate most is her shrewd deployment of her voice as a highly capable instrument. Even without Pattiʼs growl or pre-Glitter Mariahʼs range, she gave you atmospheric and Michael-esque, some somber neo-soul (before neo-soul was neo-soul), fuck-ready S&M, and spacey experimental funk. She gave you dark disco- adjacent reflection and buoyant disco pop. Then thereʼs “I Get Lonely,” the standout, vocally. That Jackson dynamism paired with Jimmy Jamʼs melodies resulted in absolute magic, again.

Commercially, she hit the jackpot with “Together Again,” a joyous tribute to friends she had lost to AIDS over the years that became the highest-selling single of her career. At the time, I couldn’t fathom that this upbeat dance track (with its perfectly choreographed video) was about grief and death. It just made me want to dance. That is where she excelled. Janetʼs ability to effortlessly present necessary, meaningful messages via classic dance music is legendary. She proved that artists donʼt have to scream to get a message across. There is a middle ground. Here, she had perfected her mix of provocative, personal, and pertinent. The only other human who could discuss racism, self-love, misery, despair and the like while murdering some 8-counts was Michael. It had to be genetic.

During those initial listens, in the eighth grade, I was unable to fully appreciate her soul cleansing. I just loved the music. I knew everything here was major, but couldn’t draw parallels to my own life. Not yet. In 1997, I lived on the outskirts of puberty. I was a walking sack of attitude, cum and curiosity. I was learning body and noticing those of boys and girls around me. As I embraced this my curiosity, I convinced myself that Janet and I were growing together since she was occasionally, admittedly, as clueless as I was. We were searching, remember?

Now, approaching the shores of Thirtyland, I have not only grown to love the 15 
songs presented here; I have lived many of them as well in ways unforeseeable 17 years ago. Iʼve been alone and lonely. I spent two years in a toxic loop of spiteful
mutual abuse. Thereʼs been despondency, devotion, and deviance. These songs have something for anyone whoʼs hurt, been hurt, or ever felt like damaged goods. A manifesto for the imbalanced, if you will.

Looking back, The Velvet Rope feels like a gift. We were fortunate to observe an artist
 in her prime, being beautiful and bold and Black Black Black, tending to her mental health alongside and in front of those who had lived, lost, and loved right there with 
her through the years.
 The album arrived at the turn of the century, near the end of an era when people 
who we now consider legends such as Michael, Janet, Mariah, Madonna, and Whitney 
— who were all flourishing and pushing creative boundaries — lived, performed,
 worked, and suffered in the same time and space. The late ’90s was a time of
 sprawling albums supported by larger-than-life tours with imaginative sets and a production value largely missing today.

It remains to be seen what Janet can offer in the Age of Beyoncé. A few musical stumbles donʼt change the fact that, to quote Nicki, “all these bitches is [her] sons.” In
 her absence, though, her influence is palpable. She lives through Drakeʼs harmonies. She made the music your fave studied and mimicked,while swinging her skimpy ponytail in her bedroom. In a time where most albums are little more than disjointed collections of decent
and terrible songs from the hottest producers of the moment, with not a lick of
 cohesion in sight, her vision is lacking today. And dance breaks. We need more of 
those in 2014.

This entry was posted in Featured, Music and tagged , , .