All Hail Janet Jackson: Deconstructing The Most Progressive Pop Album of The '90s
The year was 1997. The Spice Girls, wearing their trademark archetypical uniforms, had just performed “Say You’ll Be There” at the MTV Video Music Awards. Splashed across newspapers the world over were messages of mourning for Princess Diana, as well as photos of a special sheep named Dolly. Elsewhere in the entertainment industry, J.K. Rowling had captured the imaginations of children around the globe with a little book about a young wizard, and Titanic had solidified Leonardo DiCaprio as America’s heartthrob. It was also the year that the youngest daughter of America’s most royal music family released her magnum opus. It remains her most career-defining, culturally resonant collection to date.
It was October 7 and Janet Jackson was 31 years old. No longer a child star, teen dance-pop phenom or uncertain twenty-something feeling her way through a brutal industry, she was finally ready to untether her sixth studio album, The Velvet Rope, and allow the public into her deepest secrets, darkest struggles and most delicious desires. An introspective, intimate piece de resistance of electronic, R&B, trip hop, nu jazz and pop, the work was unlike anything the icon had done before. Musically experimental, stylistically eclectic and electrically-charged from starting note to finish, the album marked a moment of ultimate liberation for Jackson, who had spent the better part of two decades growing up under the unforgiving microscope of the media, as well as under the shadow of her colossal family name.
A renewed $80 million contract with Virgin Records, the largest recording contract in history at the time, indicated the undeniable star power of Janet Jackson—the performer. The 16 songs she meticulously crafted under her new contract, however, introduced something that commanded even more attention: the newly self-actualized power of Janet Jackson—the woman. Moreover, the songs captured Jackson’s astute ability to synthesize timely socio-cultural realities with her own personal struggles, creating a simultaneously private and inclusive experience for listeners, as well as a call-to-action for cultural change and reflection during an era of complicated societal acceleration. Packed with deft lyrics about mental health, sexuality and self-presentation, The Velvet Rope was an album for the people as much as it was for Jackson herself.
While the Grammy Award-winning record pushed the boundaries of what pop could sound like in 1997—as well as what an unbelievably famous woman could expose of herself to the public—it also pushed the boundaries of a shifting culture, bucking against misogyny, bigotry, celebrity and stigmas surrounding mental health and depression, all while subverting the sheen of Top 40. The Velvet Rope was Jackson’s most progressive record, both on a personal and public level, and one of the most progressive records of the 1990s, championing social consciousness—and making it sound damn good.
Below, we break down the implicit activism of The Velvet Rope and celebrate an album that changed the game.
It openly addressed depression before discourse about mental health was prevalent—or accepted—in pop
Recorded during the years following Janet’s very public emotional breakdown, The Velvet Rope makes no case to hide the inward suffering caused by long-term depression, a product of the artist’s childhood trauma and battles with mental health and body image (including an eating disorder). At one point, she was so overwhelmed it even stalled production on the record: “I couldn’t get up sometimes. There were times when I felt very hopeless and helpless, and I felt like walls were kind of closing in on me,” she recounted to Newsweek in 1997.
Themes of melancholia permeate the album. Songs like “I Get Lonely” (“I feel asleep late last night / Cryin’ like a newborn child / …I get so lonely”) and “Special (“You can’t run away from your pain / Because wherever you run / There you will be”) address an internal struggle without bowing to harmful stigmas surrounding depression—particularly of the “don’t talk about it” variety. Meanwhile, an interlude literally titled “Sad” finds Janet making a devastating, relatable admission: “There’s nothing more depressing than having everything and still feeling sad.”
Opening up to The Washington Post in 1998, Janet detailed her lifelong battle with the blues, admitting, “I remember, even after the Rhythm Nation tour in 1990, when I was in my early 20s, I was really bummed out…Nobody ever talked about that in my family.” With The Velvet Rope, she shed that long-harbored shame, reclaimed emotional ownership and found peace with her feelings, empowering listeners to do the very same.
The record fiercely criticized homophobia, normalized LGBTQ themes and championed AIDS victims
In 1998, The Velvet Rope earned Janet the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album, a testament to the artist’s allyship to the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the record contained a number of queer positive anthems: According to her album notes, “Free Xone,” one of pop’s most unswerving rallying cries against LGBTQ discrimination, was written to “contrast sexual prejudice with the freedom of being who you are.” Janet slams homophobia on the funky freestyle protest track—“He was on an airplane / Sitting next to this guy / Said he wasn’t too shy / And he seemed real nice… / Until he found out he was gay / That’s so not mellow”—branding an intolerant bigot a total loser without bending to the argument that everyone is entitled their opinions (even when their “opinions” result in the oppression of others).
It’s no accident that “Free Xone” transitions into “Together Again,” one of the music icon’s most effervescent and widely-known singles—and an ode to Janet’s late makeup artist Jose Louis, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness. Simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, the ‘90s dance floor staple is preluded by a haunting manifesto: “You don’t have to hold onto the pain to hold onto the memory.”
Originally written as a ballad, Janet’s longtime producer Jimmy Jam helped mold the mournful eulogy into a shimmering, joyful disco track, in turn crafting a fearless tribute to AIDS victims during an era when AIDS panic—largely influenced by homophobia and taboos surrounding sex—had gripped the nation. Proceeds of the No. 1 single benefited amfAR, an organization Janet still works with today. Speaking to a&u magazine in 2010, the artist reminisced about her introduction to AIDS awareness in the early ‘90s. “I had heard about it, but I really didn’t pay that much attention to it until I lost a dear friend, and learned of Magic [Johnson]’s announcement,” she revealed. “[It had a] major impact! I lost quite a few friends to AIDS, and it’s really affecting our youth.”
Later on the record, Janet shrugs off heteronormative constructions with a decidedly queer cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.” She toggles between propositioning two lovers: a woman (“loosen up the back of your pretty French gown”) and a man, with inclusive lyrics that, at the time, resulted in media speculation over the singer’s own sexuality—speculation she brushed off with a confident, “It’s none of their business.”
It was sex positive, pro-feminist and sexually empowered
The ‘90s were legendary for being one of the most openly erotic decades. From Madonna’s Steven Meisel-lensed photo book, Sex, to hit thrillers like Basic Instinct and Eyes Wide Shut, the era oozed sensuality. Naturally, Janet—a bona fide sex symbol thanks in part to a titillating 1993 Rolling Stone cover—slid even deeper between the sheets on The Velvet Rope.
Years before Rihanna was fantasizing about “chains and whips” and chanting “S, S, S and M, M, M,” the controversial Miss Jackson (if you’re nasty) was inviting listeners into her BDSM-friendly “velvet room” and waxing on the pleasures of (consensual) pain on “Rope Burn,” a slick, slinky nu jazz number about masochistic-lite sexual liberation. (The track is all tied up in a delicious bondage metaphor: “Tie me up, tie me down / Make me moan real loud / Take off my clothes / No one has to know / Whispering ‘I wanna feel a soft rope burn…’”)
Elsewhere on the album, the pop star opens up about cybersex (“Empty”)—a controversial topic at the time—as well as reveals her most carnal desires, cooing lustful declarations like “I feel so tight” and “I just want you inside, baby” on a track called “My Need.” An urgent, no-strings-attached invitation to lovemaking, the track prioritizes Janet’s autonomy as a sexual being without subscribing to the problematic and pervasive cultural attitude that a woman’s sexual fulfillment comes second (pun intended). “My Need” flips the script on the narrative, with Janet initiating sex in unsubtle, wonderfully forward and seductive terms.
The album confronted domestic abuse and violence
Twenty years before Big Little Lies star Nicole Kidman addressed it while accepting an award at the 2017 Emmys, Janet, a mainstream pop star, was singing about domestic violence—a horror that statistically impacts twenty people in the U.S. alone every minute—on her sixth album.
During her concert in Houston, Texas on September 9, Janet broke down crying while performing “What About.” One of The Velvet Rope’s more affecting moments, the song is a blistering war cry against a controlling, psychically and emotionally violent partner. Though raw and heart-wrenching, the provocative track finds empowerment in its justified rage towards domestic abuse, with lyrics as visceral as its topic:
“What about the times you lied to me? / What about the times you said no one would want me? / …What about the times you yelled at me? / …What about the times you hit my face? / What about the times you kept on when I said, ‘No more please?’”
“Abuse of all kinds—emotional, verbal—is incredibly common. The challenge is creating boundaries that shouldn’t be trespassed… Singing these songs has meant digging up pain that I buried a long time ago,” she told Rolling Stone while touring Japan in 1998. “It’s been hard and sometimes confusing. But I’ve had to do it. I’ve been burying pain my whole life. It’s like kicking dirt under the carpet. At some point there’s so much dirt you start to choke. Well, I’ve been choking. My therapy came in writing these songs. Then I had to find the courage to sing them or else suffer the consequences –– a permanent case of the blues.”
It explored the pervasive psychological impacts of celebrity culture and fame
More than a smooth, club-friendly title, The Velvet Rope serves as a metaphor for emotional and physical boundaries, as well as Janet’s desire to feel accepted and special: a mental byproduct of her role in one of the music industry’s most legendary and publicized families. A child star in the late 1970s, the youngest Jackson family member—who famously performed at the Las Vegas MGM Casino when she was only seven years old—reportedly suffered long-term psychological trauma from achieving international mega-stardom at such a young age. (She once tragically described her childhood self as “a kid who found it easier telling [her] problems to animals than to real people.”)
Speaking to MTV during her Janet World Tour four years before the release of The Velvet Rope, the singer shared, “[When you’re famous] people look at you differently, as if you’re not human.” On the album, Janet weaves themes of fame and her desire to feel wanted alongside the perils of celebrity culture and the glare of publicity.
A Japanese B-side called “Accept Me” captures her plaintive commentary poignantly, with lyrics that double as a plea to a lover and society at large. “Accept me for who I am / No woman can take my place baby,” Janet coos. “I’m doing the best I can / So please don’t give up on me.”
A decade before the tabloids’ bloodthirsty frenzy pushed Britney Spears to the edge, and two decades before Katy Perry admitted she had manufactured a stage persona to serve as a safe space from the media’s omnipresent eye, Janet was already wading through the muck and writing about its toxicity.
Featured image via JANET.br
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