Music legend and trailblazing performer Janet Jackson is known for breaking the boundaries and staying in control. In a music career spanning four decades, she’s broke almost every barrier made to set women back; in 1986, she showed women, and the rest of the world, she wasn’t just Michael’s little sister and after dropping her father as a manager, she released Control . In 1989, she was the first of her musical peers to bring political issues to the mainstream with Rhythm Nation 1814 and set the bar for performances with her Rhythm Nation World Tour. Then in 1993, with her janet. album (as well as her famous Rolling Stone magazine cover) she taught women to take ownership in their sexuality.
Then came 1997, Janet’s recording process was longer than usual. She was dealing with depression which stemmed from body issues and self-harm. Even though some didn’t want her to release the album, the struggles Janet faced gave her inspiration for her sixth studio album, The Velvet Rope. In a pop-R&B musical masterpiece, As explained on MTV's Ultra Sound, Janet used the “velvet rope” as a metaphor for allowing others to get to know her. It’s also a metaphor for others to allow other people to get to know them, getting to know themselves, and feeling special, (which is poignant in the songs “Velvet Rope” and “Special”).
Although the subject matter is dark, Janet holds strong throughout the album. The album touches on subjects that were taboo at the time. In a classic Janet style, she brought the dance routines with the uptempo song, “Together Again”, a song dedicated to those who’ve lost their lives to AIDS, released in a post-AIDS epidemic era, and “I Get Lonely”, a smooth R&B mid-tempo song touching on the longing for intimacy.
While the album has other radio-friendly hits, including “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and “Go Deep”, the album let us in on the emotional distress and desires Janet was dealing with mentally. On the track, “Special”, Janet acknowledges her self-worth, and on the track, “You”, Janet takes a moment of self-reflection and personality changes. Many thought this was a diss to her brother, Michael, (due to the line “check in the mirror my friend”, which many believed was a reference Michael’s song “Man in the Mirror”). In tracks like “My Needs”, “Rope Burn”, Free Xone”, a remake of “Tonight’s the Night”, and the interlude “Speaker Phone”, Janet speaks out against homophobia, toys with the idea of BDSM, and plays with her sexuality, leading to rumors of her being bisexual. Janet has denied the rumors.
Janet gives listeners the raw and gritty emotions in the song, “What About”. Janet drew inspiration from an abusive relationship she was to cultivate a song that helped those in abusive relationships confront those issues and give strength to leave. The dynamics of the song grew as she performed this song on VH1 Fashion Rocks, during her Velvet Rope World Tour and is currently performing this in her State of the World Tour.
In support of the album, Janet embarked on the Velvet Rope Tour. In 125 shows, Janet dazzled audiences across the world with pyrotechnic, Broadway theatre elements, and using themes and issues from Janet’s life as a focal point of the tour. Due to popularity and high demand, the tour was eventually an HBO live broadcast special. The Velvet Rope Tour-Live in Concert garnered 15 million viewers and won a Primetime Emmy in 1999.
20 years later, the album some critics doubted became a staple R&B and rebellious artist. The impact of The Velvet Rope can be seen in Rihanna’s Rated R and Loud albums, Beyonce’s self-titled album, Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, and Syd's (from the Internet) Fin. The Velvet Rope is an album for those who can’t find the words for their emotional, physical abuse and mental pain. In a time when mental health and women of color are in the spotlight and the hot-button topics of our community, The Velvet Rope gave listeners access inside the mind of one of the world’s most influential African American music star. It also allowed black women, women of color, and women across the world to finally speak freely about the experiences and struggles they deal with silently.
Janet Jackson has paved the way for many women, especially women in color, in an industry ran by men and in a world that often prefers women to be seen and not heard. The Velvet Rope is just one of many musical strides that proves Janet’s ability to create timeless music and speak on issues others are afraid to tackle.