Janet’s Legacy Matters: Part 6 – Pain, Loneliness, Trauma and Moving On
"Singing these songs has meant digging up pain that I buried a long time ago. 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 that 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".
Janet was a major player in pop music history during the 90s. Her contract with Virgin was renegotiated for 80 million dollars, surpassing the 60 million dollar deals of Madonna and Janet’s older brother Michael. It seems that she was on top of the world, so when the fans heard the music on ‘The Velvet Rope’, they were surprised. During the janet. World Tour, she felt exhausted and suffered emotional breakdowns, not being able to get up of the bed and questioning if this was even the right career for her. The personal traumas she endured during her teenage years and early adulthood were becoming harder to suppress, so she started opening up about her struggles with body dysmorphia and self-harm during her abusive marriage with James DeBarge when she was only 16 years of age.
The recording of ‘The Velvet Rope’ took six and a half months, longer than any of her other albums due to her mental state and several sessions had to be cancelled. The reason for the album name was because it represented her dropping the emotional walls she built around herself and decided to allow the world to get exposed to her innermost thoughts and issues.
‘Velvet Rope’ presents us an electronic infusion with R&B, where Janet invites the listener to come inside her velvet rope, a place where you left the judgement and hatred of the world outside; there’s a cool violin solo section added to the song by british violinist Vanessa-Mae. On ‘You’, Janet advises us to stop living inside our own minds and start acting. Start taking accountability of your own life and know you’re the only person that can control your happiness. This one is extremely personal to me because I’ve dealt with a lot of personal issues in my life that made me want to escape the world and live inside my own mind, but at the end of the day, that’s no life to live by and it’s important to face your inner fears, regardless of how scary they might be at first. "We all build up fictitious versions of our lives. Those versions need to be challenged, because ultimately we have to take responsibility for ourselves-where we've been and where we're going." - Janet, Fan Club Message (1998).
‘Got ’til It’s Gone’ mixes neo-soul, hip hop and trip hop and suggest us to appreciate what we have while we have it, don’t take nothing for granted. This one samples lines from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, who was personally contacted by Janet and asked if they could sample it. Joni loved the song and said she would be honored if they included her. I recommend everyone to check out the music video as well since, to me, is one of the most beautiful homages to black culture I’ve ever seen.
Things start to turn a bit more sexual on the record with ‘My Need’, a lush mid-tempo hip-hop song about sexual obsession, followed by a funk R&B track, ‘Go Deep’, inspired by how dancing and going out with friends lifts up Janet’s mood and makes her forget about her problems. The funkiness isn’t left behind just yet on ‘Free Xone', where Jackson protests about homophobia and sings about a free zone, where the world accepts you for who you are. ‘Together Again’ is a lovely tribute to her friends who died from AIDS. Janet wanted the song to be a celebration of their beautiful friendship and a desire of reuniting with them in heaven, which is why this song has an upbeat house feel instead of a mournful vibe.
‘Empty’ is an electronic ballad tackling online relationships, a theme that is even more prevalent 20+ years later. ‘What About’ addresses domestic abuse, with flamenco guitars on the verses contrasting the hard-hitting chorus where Janet explodes in anger over a hard rock instrumental. As she stated in her Rolling Stone interview “singing these songs has meant digging up pain that I buried a long time ago”. This pain doesn’t need to last forever though. It’s understandable to be apprehensive on jumping into another relationship, but life has its ups and downs and maybe this new person she sings on ‘Every Time’ could be the right one. Sometimes you’ve got to take chances, and even if it doesn’t work out in the end, at least you’ll grow from it and become a stronger person.
‘Tonight’s the Night’ is a Rod Stewart cover that might suggest a lesbian encounter. Janet has said Virgin didn’t want the song on the record for being directed towards a girl, but she enjoyed the song for what it was. "I have a lot of gay friends, men and women, and that's why I did it. I knew people would say I was gay, and I didn't care.”
‘I Get Lonely’ is one of my favorite R&B tracks, where Janet sings about missing a former lover. This review by Uproxx explains it perfectly: "It's hard to pinpoint the best aspect of the song: the opening seconds, its melody, the hook or the way Ms. Jackson’s voice flutters seamlessly over the beat. What’s apparent, however, is that those three traits and more meshed to produce one of the standout records from the most famous female Jackson and a testament of what R&B once was". I’m guessing the loneliness didn’t last for too long as Janet follows up discussing s&m on ‘Rope Burn’ and requests to be tied down, further exploring her sexual needs on this record. ‘Anything’ is about being so into the person you’re with that you’d do anything to please them sexually.
‘Special’ finishes the album with Janet talking to her younger self, possibly during the time she first started experiencing the traumas that would still haunt her as an adult. The pain you suffered doesn’t have to be permanent and love can help you get through it. "Getting back to that child and giving the child what the child may have missed—the reassurance of a nourishing and accepting a love, a love that says you're special—is hard work. It can be scary but, like the song says, we have to deal with the past to live completely—and freely—in the present." - Janet, Fan Club Message (1998). There’s this hidden bonus track ‘Can’t Be Stopped’, directed at younger listeners to not let the discrimination they face discourage them and that “their inner-strength is stronger than the forces against them”. I recommend to not skip this one because it’s one of those songs that sticked with me after all these years.
"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. I have a need to feel special, and so do you. We share a burning need to belong. During my life, I've been on both sides of the rope. At times, especially during my childhood, I felt left out and alone. At times I felt misunderstood. Times when I ran into the backyard to confide in our dogs. Through them, I felt like I was talking to God. But no human heard those feelings expressed. They stay buried in my past. But the truth has to come out, and, for me, the truth the takes the form of a song."
A lot of critics and fans consider this one to be Janet Jackson’s magnum opus and I’m inclined to agree with them. If you look at any of today’s popstars, none of them take the kind of creative risks Janet took during her prime, or they try and fail miserably. ‘The Velvet Rope’ remains a major influence on a lot of artists and shows that the key for Janet’s appeal is her ability to connect with audiences everywhere regardless of race, gender, age or sexuality.
Favorites: ‘What About’, ‘Got Til It’s Gone’, ‘I Get Lonely’, ‘You’, ‘Together Again’, ‘Velvet Rope’
Least Favorites: ‘Anything’