This October marked a quarter of a century since the release of Janet Jackson’s landmark sixth album, “The Velvet Rope.” Beyond just being the most ambitious and beautiful LP of Jackson’s career, “The Velvet Rope” was also the vital release where she fully embraced her status as a gay icon and LGBTQ+ ally. Twenty-five years later, every delectable groove and crooned lyric across this 75-minute opus rings with even greater meaning than it did in autumn 1997.
To fully appreciate the brilliance of “The Velvet Rope,” it is necessary to understand the context of Jackson’s life during the mid-1990s. The triple threat performer had been on top of the world for more than a decade thanks to the success of her acclaimed blockbuster smashes “Control” (1986), “Rhythm Nation 1814” (1989), and “Janet” (1993). By the end of 1995, Jackson had completed her wildly successful Janet World Tour and sent 21 songs to the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, regularly exceeding the popularity of her brother Michael Jackson in his post-“Thriller” (1982) career.
Despite her enormous accomplishments, Jackson expressed feeling burned out. According to a 1997 interview with Newsweek, she was “very, very sad” and “felt like walls were closing in” in the wake of her Janet World Tour. The pressure that comes with fame, especially for Black female artists, was weighing heavily on her. The expectation to continually reinvent herself while maintaining the athletic physique that had made her a sex symbol negatively affected her psyche. Unfortunately, the astronomical demands our society routinely places on our celebrity idols became too much for Jackson to bear.
During this period of self-doubt and depression, Jackson returned to the studio to craft the most magnetic music of her career. Jackson told The Washington Post that her mission in making the album was to find happiness within herself. She wanted to take ownership of her identity, needs, and desires by utilizing her art as a therapeutic exercise to unlock her own trauma and suffering. Its title is derived from the reflective, intensely personal concept that “there’s a velvet rope we have inside us, keeping others from knowing our feelings.”
But creating the album was not an easy journey. Jackson’s longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, told Entertainment Weekly that recording “The Velvet Rope” was their most difficult project with the artist, who “would not show up at the studio for five or six days in a row.” Jam told The Washington Post that developing the songs was different from their previous efforts because Jackson’s self-penned lyrics were used as the creative launchpad before any tracks were produced.
And what tracks they were. From the moment the title track begins, listeners are whisked up in the world of Jackson’s hopes and fears, pains and pleasures. There is a rawness in Jackson’s vocal performance and lyrical presentation that is juxtaposed with the lush, melodic combination of trip hop and contemporary R&B, giving the music not just a beating pulse, but a living soul.
It does not take long for LGBTQ+ themes to appear. The delightful dance-pop of the uptempo “Free Xone” marks the first explicit mention of homosexuality, with the lyrics, “Boy meets boy / boy loses boy / boy gets cute boy back,” immediately followed by the female equivalent: “Girl meets girl / girl loses girl / girl gets cute girl back.” The theme of embracing love in all its forms is celebrated in the simple yet effective chorus: “One rule / no rules / one love / free xone.”
The love for her LGBTQ+ fans is perhaps nowhere more clearly expressed than on the irresistible ear-candy of “Together Again,” a house track that became Jackson’s eighth number-one single. Written as a tribute to friends lost to the AIDS epidemic, Jackson jubilantly proclaims, “Everywhere I go / every smile I see / I know you are there / smiling back at me.” Despite its radiant vibe and shimmering herald to the dance floor, “Together Again” accomplishes the impossible task of poignantly addressing grief and loss while expressing resilience and the hope of being reunited in the afterlife.
Jackson places herself at the center of the queer narrative with her cover of Rod Stewart’s 1976 song “Tonight’s the Night.” Jackson decided to keep all of the feminine pronouns from the original lyrics, prompting widespread speculation that she was coming out as bisexual by declaring attraction towards a female partner. Whatever Jackson’s reasoning, she stood by her interpretation of the track despite her record label’s effort to remove the song from the record.
If this album has a thesis statement, it is the phenomenal standout track “I Get Lonely.” Appearing towards the end of the album, this top-three hit single dabbles in neo-soul as Jackson spends five minutes “sittin’ here with my tears / all alone with my fears.” Featuring one of the strongest vocal performances on the record, the song displays Jackson’s intimacy with her own anxiety and insecurity. Such raw emotion can mirror almost any cathartic experience of isolation, longing, or self-criticism.
Given the strength of its material, it seems difficult to believe now that there was a time when the towering achievement of “The Velvet Rope” was not fully appreciated. At the time of its release, sales for the LP’s two top ten hits and two million copies paled in comparison to the colossal standards set by Jackson’s previous successes. Likewise, several critics were ambivalent towards the overtly sexual nature of the album and what they believed to be its sometimes unpolished sound.
Fortunately, the album has received something of a reappraisal in recent years. In 2020, it was one of the three Janet Jackson albums that Rolling Stone included on their revised list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Just last month, the notoriously pretentious Pitchfork named “The Velvet Rope” the seventh-best album of the 1990s — an accolade that could not have been awarded soon enough.
Regardless of your opinion of Janet Jackson, it is undeniable that she crafted one of the most complex, mature, and underrated albums of the past 25 years. The astonishing introspection of “The Velvet Rope” not only aided in the release of Jackson’s own personal demons, but its literal and implied meanings bear such relevance to the anguish, discomfort, and joy of the LGBTQ+ experience. When you get a chance, take the time to listen to this magical LP and hopefully open the velvet rope in your heart.
Author: Reid Sperisen (He/Him)
Copy Editors: Michel Rose (He/They), Bella (She/They)