Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope Is The Soundtrack To A Therapy Session
Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make)
As we close out the year and transition into a new decade, we’ve been forced to reflect on a lot in music. We lose track of all that’s happened in the past 10 years. We’ve lost legends. Some of another generation. Some with the potential to do so. Some that we’ve had to re-examine how we view. Some with closer proximity than others.
But the focus hasn’t just been on musicians but on what they’ve contributed. Along with quite a few notable album anniversaries, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. If you’re of a generation to have missed this element in Janet Jackson’s career, the mention to an aunt or mother would certainly produce a matching crisp, custom leather jacket that you never knew existed.
Janet, in the wake of secession from her father’s management, sought more independence in her career and released a multi-album run that differed from her earlier releases in what pares down to a simple quality: honesty.
The reach of her subsequent albums both in audiences and subject matter went far beyond the path that her sibling’s group or solo careers were willing to venture to.
The Heights Of The Jackson Dynasty
The presence of the Jackson family spanned multiple eras, iterations, and configurations. Out of the total 11 children, 5 were chosen, groomed, and heavily primped as The Jackson 5. The group reigned over the 1960s and 1970s and set a blueprint for the black boy groups that followed (i.e. New Edition, Boyz II Men, *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, etc.).
So where did that leave the remaining children? Mostly at the margins in an attempt to recreate the magic of the ensemble. A few of the children began their own music careers but tried to keep the mold that had worked for so many years. Solo careers started to take hold and explore different avenues (to varying degrees of success), but once entering the late 1980s/early 1990s there was a certain expectation of what the Jacksons were going to produce.
Off of the success of Control and Rhythm Nation, she was one of the most sought after artists with up to 7 different record labels seeking contracts. A lot of the controversy around the bidding war criticized the attention merely a result of Janet’s family name and heavily downplayed her writing/creative ability. At the end of the label negotiations, Jackson renewed her contract with Virgin Records for a then-record $80 million.
Velvet Rope Separates Those Who Can Enter From Those Who Can’t
4 years were what separated her 1993 release, Janet., and her next project. Within that 4 year period, Janet experienced a great deal of pain. Depression, body image issues, and past trauma were all cited as causes of personal struggle that invaded her music career. Though she carried a drive to create more music, her trauma crept its way into the recording process. The album took months longer to complete as frequent breaks and sessions cancelled last minute interrupted the recordings. To the point of almost not finishing the album, Janet’s patience and perseverance completed what some called a “soundtrack to a therapy session” in The Velvet Rope.
“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 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 Jackson
The album spanned themes of pro-sexuality, homophobia, sexual orientation, politics of relationships and romance, effects of depression, domestic violence, AIDS, victimization, etc. The introspective work that she experienced through the years was being worked out and expressed through the 75-minute running time.
It was a rare occurrence for artists to explore their sexual identity in such a public sphere. Jackson received criticism at various points during the album’s rollout and concert tour, but nothing that would deter her from boasting the work in its entirety. It would be difficult to list the amount of not only artists but choreographers and dancers that she inspired through the new millennium.
Many artists have talked about the blatant sexualization of womxn in the music industry from managers and record label executives, but through Janet Jackson’s career, a new path self-directed and self-actualized was possible and could be celebrated in a way that does so without compromise.
Legacy, Legacy, Legacy, Legacy
Legacy in the music industry is a tricky thing to master. The McFerrins and Hathaways of the world are forced to work against the complex structure of the music industry along with the weight of their surname and the expectations or notoriety that holds its embrace. The Jackson family is no different in this sense; perhaps more than most.
For some would have been an insurmountable feat to overcome, but Janet wanted to challenge the status quo instead of becoming it. Exploring identity and engage with the struggle rather than deny it. To work in a broader context of personal and social issues aren’t new concepts, but with a penchant for reinvention, Janet Jackson continues to do so in a way that is wholly authentic.