FEATURE: Vinyl Corner: Janet Jackson – The Velvet Rope



Vinyl Corner


Janet Jackson – The Velvet Rope


THIS is the opportunity where I get to put a record...


into the corner and give it special appreciating. As Janet Jackson has been confirmed for Glastonbury, it seemed only right I would focus on one of her albums. I am of all of her work but I have a special love for The Velvet Rope. I was a teenager when it arrived and it instantly took me aback. Jackson signed a contract with Virgin Records for $80 million; the largest recording contract in history at that point. With that sort of money behind it, it was clear her future work had to live up that sort of belief. She was no stranger to hit albums and singles but she was entering the peak of her career and a lot of eyes were on her. Around the time of the album (1997), Jackson experienced an emotional breakdown and was going through a rough time. A lot of the turmoil stemmed from childhood problems and traumas and, rather than sublimate the fear and unhappiness, she used it in a sort of concept album that would tackle these feelings. The title, The Velvet Rope, refers to that need to feel wanted and popular: it also has that sort of feeling that there is a hidden world away from those who are not V.I.P. Jackson put her heart and soul into the album and, whereas there were inner-scars and personal burdens in the songs, The Velvet Rope was a much broader album that looked at things such as same-sex relationships and domestic violence.

By the time of The Velvet Rope, Jackson was seen as one of the greatest and most seductive vocalists of the 1990s. Helped in part by a lot of the album’s charged and passionate songs, Jackson’s status rose and she proved she was far ahead of most of her Pop peers. The inclusion of same-sex marriages and homophobia on The Velvet Rope turned Jackson into a bona fide gay icon and she received huge kudos. The Velvet Rope is a twenty-two-song bonanza that has a running time of over an-hour-and-a-quarter. Many artists embarking on a project of that ambition would be derided and critics would be all over them. Jackson was going through a lot of change and struggle so it is only fair she would be granted the chance to let everything out. Co-writing with her then-husband René Elizondo Jr., Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, there were contributions from the likes of Vanessa-Mae, Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell (even if it is more of a sample). Not many artists can boast that sort of eclectic line-up and that was mirrored in the variety of genres on The Velvet Rope. Alongside Pop and R&B was Trip-Hop, Folk and Jazz – a myriad of sounds and expressions. It was clear that Janet Jackson was struggling away from the microphone and she was starting to question her career path. Feeling the pressures of the industry and the demands of fame, The Velvet Rope is a cathartic thing from an artist trying to make sense of everything and see where her future lay.

Although The Velvet Rope received bans and judgements in some nations (including Singapore) because of its look at homosexuality and support of same-sex marriage, it struck a huge chord with critics. In fact, a lot of the criticism was coming from a few corners but it seems strange that, in 1997, singing about homosexuality and sexuality in general would provoke outcry. On various numbers, Jackson addressed AIDs and bisexuality; personal scars and fears as well as a more conventional mixture of topics. Jackson herself saw no issues as, aside from having a lot of gay and bisexual friends, this was her being natural and a true artist. She was pushing boundaries and opening up the conversation and, when the album arrived on 7th October, 1997, it seemed like nothing else. I wonder whether we have seen many albums as bold and eye-opening in the near-twenty-two years since! Listen to the song, What About, and how Jackson discusses domestic abuse. She was unflinching and raw and, alongside some of the other songs on the album, The Velvet Rope could be seen as starling and hard to swallow. Consider the fact that, in 1989, Madonna was addressing similar themes on Like a Prayer - including AIDs, domestic abuse and freedom of expression. In this article udiscovermusic talks about The Velvet Rope being this risk-taking album that saw the growth of this Pop rebel:

By the time The Velvet Rope came along in 1997, the girl from Gary, Indiana, had morphed into a confident young woman whose two follow-up albums to Control – 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and 1993’s Janet, both co-produced by the singer with the dependable Jam & Lewis – made her the most famous woman in the world at that point...

The whole album was an access-all-areas invitation into Janet Jackson’s internal private world – a world usually cordoned off by a velvet rope. Explaining the album’s title and concept, Jackson said, “We’ve all driven by premieres or nightclubs, and seen the rope separating those who can enter and those who can’t. Well, there’s also a velvet rope we have inside us, keeping others from knowing our feelings. In The Velvet Rope, I’m trying to expose and explore those feelings. I’m inviting you inside my velvet rope.”

Despite the controversy it engendered, The Velvet Rope topped the album charts around the world on its release in the autumn of 1997 and reaffirmed Janet Jackson’s position as the pre-eminent top-selling female recording artist of her generation. But Jackson’s main goal was more about personal development and exorcising her demons than selling records. Above all else, her honesty on The Velvet Rope was genuine and sincere. “I think it’s important to be true to yourself in your music,” she said. “I think that’s the only way I can actually write music”.


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Away from the (unnecessary and overactive) controversy, The Velvet Rope remains this hugely inspiring and different album. It is, as The Guardian explains, a hugely eclectic and challenging album:

There are also the various shades and moods that go with a 22-track album, showcasing what lifelong fan How to Dress Well, AKA Tom Krell, refers to as the album’s “recklessness with genre conventions and restrictions”. For pop star MNEK it covers “the full human condition. The whole thing bares a sadness but still a joy.” Not many albums utilise a Tubular Bells sample next to a solo from violinist-turned-Olympic skier Vanessa Mae...

At its core, too, is the enduring relevancy of its subject matter. Written following a severe bout of depression – “I’ve been burying pain my whole life,” she told Ebony at the time – the songs are therapy-esque monuments to self-discovery (very 2017), bookended by sensual self-exploration (Rope Burn) and, on the cover of Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s the Night, the suggestion of bisexuality. The jazz-tinged Free Xone, meanwhile, tackles homophobia. “It felt incredibly personal, like I was diving into someone’s creative process,” says lo-fi pop practitioner Shura of the first time she heard the album. “I love the idea that a fearless record like The Velvet Rope has inspired artists and albums that are so vastly different”.

In terms of its influence, The Velvet Rope has inspired so many artists since. Janet Jackson helped make the dark and riskier album seem part of the fabric. Before then, there were not many artists talking about such weighty topics as domestic abuse on their albums. Jackson was also mixing genres like never before and combining Jazz, Folk and Techno shades to create this bright, unique and stunning soundscape. Artists who followed her could see what could come from fusing strange bedfellows and taking greater risks regarding subject matter. The Velvet Rope was a rarity regarding mainstream releases and was creating all these wonderful angles and digressions. Jackson was this liberal and explosive songwriter who was sexually free and showing that this was okay – that was a big revelation in 1997! In terms of its nakedness and boldness, artists like Rihanna and Fiona Apple have been inspired. The list, in fact, is long and one can link a lot of songs/albums back to Velvet Rope. In this time, we do not see many albums like The Velvet Rope and I wonder whether artists need to take note. The 1990s did see bolder and expressive artists put out these incredible albums and, in many ways, things have become softer, safer and less risky. I do think music needs to learn from artists such as Janet Jackson and ask why we are more reserved and less brave regarding what is put out there.

Some were unsure about The Velvet Rope when it came out but a lot of retrospective reviews have seen the album in a more positive light. There is a lot to enjoy about it. In this review from SLANT, they look at the sexual themes expressed and how her honesty and emotional openness was the finest quality of all:

For a sex album that also seems to aim at giving fans an unparalleled glance behind the fetish mask (literally, in the concert tour performance of “You”), Janet’s probably never been more cagey.

But behind the sex is something even more compelling, because it gradually dawns on you that Janet’s use of sexuality is an evasive tactic. That it’s easier for her to sing about cybersex (on the galvanizing drum n’ bass “Empty,” one of Jam and Lewis’s very finest moments, maybe even their last excepting Jordan Knight’s “Give It to You”) and to fret about her coochie falling apart than it is to admit that it’s her psyche and soul that are in greater danger of fracturing. Soul sister to Madonna’s Erotica (which, in turn, was her most daring performance), The Velvet Rope is a richly dark masterwork that illustrates that, amid the whips and chains, there is nothing sexier than emotional nakedness”.

Following the announcement Janet Jackson will play at Glastonbury, it is a good time to look back at her catalogue and gems like The Velvet Rope. Although it is quite tricky tracking the album down on vinyl, there are second-hand copies and chances to pick it up. After all this time, it still sounds completely forward-thinking, revolutionary and raw. It will be exciting seeing whether any of the songs (from the album) make their way to the Glastonbury stage and how the crowd react to them. Maybe Janet Jackson released more critically-acclaimed albums than The Velvet Rope but, to me, she never released...

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

ANYTHING more accomplished.