To tie Janet Jackson’s, The Velvet Rope to the climate of the culture at the time would require more research and I want to get to the music but three events that stand out in my memory that occurred prior to 1997 are the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots, the O.J. media circus and murder trial, and the Anita Hill hearings. All these stories involved the police, black people, and the justice system (or lack there of).
And so unlike her brother Michael who often had his own messaging songs about being a better person or making the world a better place on The Velevet Rope Janet finds time to get political in a more confrontational way than her brother. As much as a major female popstar could without ending her career.
And this was not like kind of poetics she did on Rhythm Nation 1814. An album, that features a more higher consciousness kind of messaging with songs like “Black Cat” and “The Knowledge” that was typical of later 90s and early 80s acts like De La Soul and Queen Latifah.
No, on The Velvet Rope she is fed up and gets righteously angry, but not too much. What does remain from her previous efforts is the ability to have her cake and eat it too. Giving the people something for the streets, the sheets, the classrooms, and the clubs and managing to make neither sound jarring out of place alongside each other.
There are, as was popular at the time, interludes between many songs so the first proper song is track two the title track, which leads off as a kind of invocation to be open minded move towards the higher self. Leaving all judgments behind:
We have a special need
To feel that we belong
Come with me inside
Inside my velvet rope
The velvet rope referring to the kind of barrier you might find at an exclusive club, is an invitation inside her thoughts and the stories about to be told. But also velvet is a shade of red/crimson and rope is that which can tie the body. This could be either a play of kink or the more social metaphor of society tying one down. And so too the color of velvet then becomes both sexual and social. And all these themes and elements appear throughout the album in various shades and grooves.
One thing I have always appreciated about Janet compared to other pop artists who get political is that she is willing to point the finger at the self looking in the mirror and hold the individual accountable for their own situation.
You gotta mean what you say
You gotta say what you mean
Tryin’ to please everyone
Sacrifice your own needs
Check in the mirror, my friend
No lies will be told then
Pointin’ the finger again
You can’t blame nobody but you
Those lyrics are from track three, “You”. So before we get into any party jams or even thoughts of societal problems she is declaring you, I, and even Janet herself are part of the system and we need to start taking more personal responsibility for societies outcomes before we go minding other people’s business. If you yourself are not right, you are no good to anyone else. I think in these days where victim status seems to be a much coveted trophy for groups and individuals this is still a bold statement. And dare I say, Janet would get raked across the coals for victim blaming these days even though she names nobody specifically but, “You”.
In a somewhat genius movie on track four she samples the line, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…” from Joni Mitchell’s, “Big Yellow Taxi”. Taking an environmental anthem and attaching it to a song about a lover they let go that they want back. The genius here as I see it subtle and again points to why track order matters. She has just told us in two songs to get our business together. And then by song three throws it all out to pine over a lover she lost because her business wasn’t together. Showing how quickly we as people and society move on from certain issues (like our own personal growth) to avoid dealing with them.
The first big hit on the album is “Go Deep” a song I heard plenty in both remix form at gay clubs and in it’s original form. And I like both. But the original definitely sets the better pace and it is probably the smoothest song on the album. Not much to read into here. It is about partying and sex and going all night long.
The following track “Free Zone” is the odd song in the bunch because it is composed mostly of samples. But it is the funkiest track on the album with so many classic and identifiable soul samples like “Tightin Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells. It is almost a history lesson of 60s/70s early R’n’ B.
Back in the 90s I would have loathed such a song because I thought sampling was cheap and easy and preferred to hear the original songs they came from. But this is so overstuffed that it becomes this glorious bit of funk/disco with lyrics directly talking about same sex relationships in various repeated patterns. It ends up being one of my favorite cuts on the album just because it’s so overstuffed from Sunday buffet joy.
Speaking of joy, after “Free Zone” there is an interlude where Janet says,
“You don’t have to hold on to the pain
To hold on to the memory”
This leads into the albums most pop and most joyous track, “Together Again”. This is a song Janet wrote in tribute to all those people who were lost AIDS, specifically many of her own personal friends. It is a total cathartic uplift, as is the music video.
Side Note: if you can locate the Tony Moran club Anthem, version… all 11 minutes is pure dance floor ecstasy.
Excuse me as I skip some interludes and one song to jump to track fifteen, “What About”. If you read the lyrics straight the person in the song is telling off a lover for all the wrongs they have done to them over the years.
What about the times you lied to me?
What about the times you said no one would want me?
What about all the shit you’ve done to me?
What about that? What about that?
But I dare say if you read it correctly Ms. Jackson is very much telling off society, the police, the government, and whoever else needs a good word lashing in the face. In fact, before I actually read the lyrics and saw the verses as being about a lover I SWORE this was her fuse going off at people in power. And like the song “Black Cat” from Rhythm Nation 1814 here we find some strong tinges of rock to add that extra punch. I am surprised the song is not sung more at karaoke when somebody needs to go off about a lover. It definitely has similar weight to songs like, “You Oughta Know” or “Before He Cheats”. And check it this defiant performance of the song from the VH1 fashion awards in the 1990s.
Honestly, as much as I love the following track “Every Time”, a sweet ballad perfect for under the prom disco ball, the album could’ve ended right there on that bombast and I would’ve been totally satisfied with the 9 full tracks. Leaving the listeners to reckon with all that came before.
But the album goes on and by track number 17 a cover of “Tonight’s The Night” (written and originally recorded by Rod Stewart) the album starts to feel too long. But only briefly for as it continues, it settles into such a late night mellow grove that it feels like a smooth coda to the whole album. Not just one song slog after the next.
That is until the very end where we arrive at the seven minute track “Special/Can’t Be Stopped”. The later half feeling like a hidden track with the long pause between both. I had almost thought the album started over. In my opinion the two would’ve been better placed in reverse order as the last hits harder on the production. And the former makes for a nice soft landing with it’s gentle sway. But the title, “Can’t Be Stopped” implies as does the earlier, “Go Deep” that the party goes all night long.
Also, to get back to the Rod Stewart cover for a moment, Janet took the song and made it queer, with pronouns alluding to a threesome. This brings our queer song quotient to three songs that specifically allude to alternate sex relationships and the queer community at large. That is something not even Madonna touched on directly in her music during her Erotica era or really anywhere outside of kissing Britney Speares on an awards show.
Now at the end of the album, I must say I really like it. The interludes are very brief and don’t affect the listening experience as much as I expected. And some actually enhance the songs, as it did with, “Together Again”. I think the track, “Can’t Be Stopped” was unnecessary ultimately and could’ve been a great single b-side. It is not bad but the album just ends so beautifully with “Special”.
Janet’s voice was never on the level of fellow queens like, Whitney, Patti, Aretha, Lisa… or even her own brother. But she knows how to use her voice to suit her own material. Still, while she may not have had the vocal range, she had so many other skills the served her well and made her another artist from the 1980s that grunge and gangster rap couldn’t kill.
With the track order as it is, one could easily treat The Velvet Rope as a double LP. The first record being dance/pop ending with the prom ballad, “Every Time”. Then a slow jam/quiet storm affair starting with, “Tonight’s the Night”. There are some political messages sprinkled throughout but not nearly as many as I expected or remember hearing about. And it was far less confrontational than I remember people claiming it to be in the 90s. But a highlight for me is “You”; personal responsibility is something I am VERY passionate about. Also I spent much ofthe 90’s playing The Violin Player by Vanessa-Mae so having her as a guest on this album definitely pulls at the nostalgia.
Even though her production partners since Control, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are all over the album they have mellowed out here. So The Velvet Rope does not sound dated. Unfortunately, if I remove my nostalgia Rhythm Nation 1814 is a GREAT album but it does sound PEAK 1989/1990, which was PEAK new jack swing. That’s not bad but if you want to set a timeless mood using a Janet album, I’d say the The Velvet Rope -ahem- double disc is the way to go.
Tonight’s The Night
And now off let us get out of this club and take that limo to the launch pad on October 22, 1997 for an electo-alternative reflection on fame and the self with Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess.