Janet Jackson released The Velvet Rope on October 7, 1997
The only NYC connection I could come up with for this NYC blog: on October 10th and 11th of 1998 (that was a Saturday and Sunday), Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope Tour was playing in town at Madison Square Garden. And if you were lucky enough to be in attendance… I’m very jelly. And I hope you got a t-shirt.
Picture me sitting at my computer with my headphones on, my brow wrinkled, rubbing my lip. Then, as I’m listening to the music, hearing the lyrics, I pick up my pencil to write in my notebook: “pure sexiness.” A few minutes later: “very, very sensual.” A few minutes after that: “would never be allowed to be played in North Korea.” This album is like hot candle wax for your ears and your soul…! To any of my readers who have been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby, or who know they want to have one soon, go out and buy this album (or just download it). All I ask in return for this advice is that you name the baby Janet if it’s a girl and Ben if it’s a boy. And in either case, they will probably come out having this great shock of red, frizzy hair and be very, very sensual babies (i.e., you will definitely have to breastfeed them… Baby Janet or Ben will not be satisfied with Gerber).
One way you can tell how influential and important a piece of art is nowadays is by how extensive its Wikipedia page is. This album has one of the bigger ones I’ve seen (that’s what she said), and the contemporary artists listed who cite it as an influence are numerous. You better believe that Bieber is on there! (Always beliebe.) This is to say that The Velvet Rope was one of the biggest and best albums of the nineties, and was the apex in the career of one of the biggest stars in the history of music. Pause though — do you remember just how big of a star Janet Jackson was? Before the onslaught of the internet that almost renders all music obsolete by the endless volume, there was MTV and there was Rolling Stone and there was Janet Jackson. Janet was like Beyonce and Rihanna and Ciara and whoever else all rolled into one. If her brother Michael was the King of Pop, then Janet was the Queen, and had taken over the mantle of the biggest pop star from her brother as the nineties progressed further on from the eighties. The most coveted dancing job in the world at the time? Was it the Russian Bolshoi? No, it was being one of Janet Jackson’s background dancers in all those videos and on her tours.
The album was released in the fall of 1997 (I had just started high school), just after Janet had re-signed to Virgin Records, for something like eighty million dollars (thanks, Wikipedia), making her the highest-paid musical artist. Ironic that she would release this album on VIRGIN records. Pop has always been known for having a lot of innuendo, but this album still seems like an incredibly brave and risky thing to put out after she had just become the highest-paid artist. Not a lot of mainstream artists would go so far as to say, or be told by her friend on track five, called “Interlude: Speaker Phone,” that if she didn’t cool it a little bit in her love — no, sex — life, her vagina was going to “swell up and fall apart.” I know that sex sells but how on earth did the record label allow this on there? I think it’s great they did though. (Or on “What About” when she aggressively sings, the song swinging from a picturesque love song to one describing a disturbing relationship, “What about the times you said you didn’t fuck her, she only gave you head?” and, “What about the times you hit my face, what about the times you kept on when I said no more, please?”) There are seven interludes on the album, and they work way better than any sketches that rappers have on their albums, because it’s not her clowning around. Hearing her talk may be just as sexy, if not more sexy, than hearing her sing. I would say it’s like a wise, classy sex phone operator BUT I WILL NOT COMPARE JANET TO A SEX PHONE OPERATOR. She sounds more like a really sensual, sexy swami or something, or a sexy monk, if monks had a lot of sex and found the spiritual through the sensual like she does. But to reiterate, this album isn’t just your typical pop/R&B album. It’s way, way darker. It’s like The Fifty Shades of Janet, or her Yeezus (would it just be Jeezus, then?) The album’s title has the double entendre meaning of allowing the listener behind the scenes into Janet’s personal life and also as a sadomasochistic object. There are even a couple of pictures in the booklet of Janet with the rope, one of her reaching up for it, as if she has been tied up but she hasn’t, and another with her lying down with it tied around her wrists, with her hands over her head.
“My Need,” “Go Deep,” “Free Xone,” “Empty,” “I Get Lonely,” “Rope Burn”… Are you starting to get the picture? Even the Rod Stewart cover “Tonight’s the Night” takes on a darker, more dangerous feel in the context of this album. She sings it so sweetly, and there’s nothing shady in the lyrics, but just because it comes in front of “Rope Burn,” and is on an album that has those pictures attached to it, the listener has to think, well, did this night that promised to be so romantical turn into something where someone could get hurt? She straddles the bisexual line as well, which in the nineties was much more taboo (wasn’t it?), although it would have been different, maybe more daring, if a male artist tried it, for the reason that it seems less acceptable, less sexy, for a man to be bi. But Janet made it cool though. Explore those feelings! Explore! What are we here for if not to explore!
Good pop lyrics should be simple yet deep, and the ones on here are just that. “This special need… that’s within us… brings out the best… yet worst in us,” she sings on track two, which after the short intro interlude is the album’s first song and takes its name from the album. How fucking real and on point, yet simple, are those lyrics? “I get so lonely… can’t let just anybody hold me… you are the one who lives in me, my dear… I want no one but you…… Sitting here with my tears… I’m all alone with my fears…” As a writer, this is the stuff that gets ME excited. Simple and so true and not cheesy. “When I close my eyes, I can see your face… When I lick my lips, I can taste your smile… When I see your name, my heart starts to race… If I can’t reach your thoughts, then I feel empty.”
On a twenty-two track album with fifteen songs, she pulls off the nearly impossible feat of having no throw aways. Even the hidden track, “Can’t Be Stopped,” is damn good. And, as I said, the brief interludes make the album all the more sensual and sexy and spiritual and delicate. Her longtime collaborators, her producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, lay it down in every song — the rippling bass, the sex guitar, the soulful syncopation, the keyboard, and all the other minutiae they add in. These guys really knew what they were doing. So maybe name the baby Jimmy or Terry instead of Ben.