Janet Jackson, the enigmatic singer from one of the most famous (and infamous) families in music history, changed an entire generation of music with her album The Velvet Rope. Janet’s sixth album was an evolution in her style, away from the hyper-militarism of Rhythm Nation and toward a more frank, vulnerable and sexually-charged expression of a maturing superstar. It was a smash hit that influenced everyone from Beyonce to Christina Aguilera. The album spawned many memorable songs, like “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” which sampled Joni Mitchell, and “Together Again,” which paid tribute to her friends who died from AIDS. The personal explorations, which were a result of Janet’s foray into therapy to deal with Depression and her bizarre childhood, also led to songs like “Free Zone,” which discussed homophobia, while “Can’t Be Stopped” referenced problems experienced by young people like discrimination and violence.
The record company tried to stop Jackson from delving into her sexuality, but she prevailed and included a cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” which suggests a threesome with another woman. “Rope Burn” involves sadomasochism and bondage, as the singer wants to be tied down and handled with candle wax. Although the songs were controversial, Jackson was also praised for delving into the emotional side of sex.
The most startling song on the album, “What About,” starts out as a soft ballad and then lets Janet rip into men who hurt her. The song is about domestic violence and at the time the media theorized that it was about Bill Clinton cheating on Hillary, or about OJ beating Nicole Brown. Janet insisted it was about her own experiences, a point that was poignantly referenced on Janet’s most recent tour, when she acknowledged that her relationship with her most recent husband was abusive.
Despite the ecstatic reception of the album in 1997, Jackson has never been given her due. The reasons for this are complex, having a lot to do with Janet’s preference to let her music do the talking as she fled from the constraints of both her crazy family and the media glare. But the other reason Janet isn’t lauded for her brilliance have a lot to do with the controversy over her Super Bowl halftime show appearance, when America lost its mind over a half-second flash of a jeweled nipple.
Some might say to even bring this up is to divert our attention from where it should be, on Ms. Jackson’s music. However, Janet’s fans have a legitimate grievance to air, one which has never been properly heard. Namely, that Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet’s bra to reveal the apparently too-scandalous-for-America pierced nipple, and then slunk away and left Janet to deal with the fallout. If this was a stunt, it was obviously just as much his PR stunt as it was hers – she was the guest at his Super Bowl appearance, after all, doing him a massive favor since she was the biggest pop star on the planet at the time. And he was the one who did the physical act which revealed the problematic boob. How did Justin repay her? He let her take the heat and blame and the shunning all alone, while he hid out. Two weeks later Janet’s appearance at the Grammy’s was canceled (I told you she was shunned), while Justin appeared and was rewarded with two Grammy Awards for his efforts. Janet’s reputation has still not recovered.
Velvet Rope is still a first-rate example of how musicians can meld several styles into a cohesive experience. Jazz, R&B, rock, techno and even folk are all woven seamlessly throughout the record. NME’s Lucy Jones named Velvet Rope one of seven perfect albums along with records by artists like The Strokes, Nirvana and Dusty Springfield. Janet’s genre-defying album also influenced other artists visually, as Usher’s 8701 cover evoked Velvet Rope’s imagery, while Rihanna seemed to adopt Janet’s red hair, piercings and style during her tour for Rated R. Other confessional, sexually-charged albums like Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn… are also in Janet’s debt. Many observers felt The Weekend’s Thursday was an attempt to put together a male Velvet Rope.
Despite the album’s 22 tracks, today’s listeners are not likely to get bored because of the diverse vibe. Janet Jackson had something major to say on the album, so it’s possible that the 20th anniversary will draw more people to her music, rather than some silly controversy at a football game. In fact, Janet had four straight killer albums in a row, better to download them all (Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet, if you’re nasty).