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Virtual ‘Realities’ in The Velvet Rope

Ayanna Dozier on Janet Jackson, cyber culture, and more.

Technophilia and Technophobia were the rage in the late 1990s. As the approaching new millennia loomed on the horizon, society was facing a technological expansion hitherto experienced before. The internet transformed not only our communicative habits but our awareness of space and time itself, producing what scholar John B. Thompson writes as a space-time distanciation (Thompson 1995). This concept refers to how time, regardless of geographic location, now feels as if it operates on a global simultaneity; we feel like we experience things at the same time. Prior to the internet, respective to its digital technologic expansion, our awareness of global or even national events occurred on a temporal delay specific to our geographic region. This is to say that we experienced events as they could be broadcasted in our temporal zone. New modes of communication like emails and chat rooms ruptured this temporal delay. We could now communicate or experience events with a feeling of ‘real’ time accuracy but this ‘real’ time engagement is actually not ‘real’ (as in happening before us) but a reality that is virtually mediated and constructed. While many cultural producers latched on to these digital networks and their respective virtual realities, musicians, were at the vanguard of our cultural perception of rapidly expanding digital technology and our increasingly virtually mediated reality (as seen in the work of Madonna, David Bowie, and Björk of the era). 

The Velvet Rope exists alongside this matrix of technophilic and technophobic embrace of expanding digital networks and our increasingly virtually mediated realities. The album’s notable electronically-infused track, “Empty” captures the woes of cyber chat rooms. Electronica in the late 1990s entered the mainstream culture via underground dance and house music. The origins of its style were deeply embedded in queer culture and early cyber culture that sought to terraform the internet to produce a social realities of endless identities and possibilities.

Janet Jackson image

Cyber culture infused electronica music and vice versa. Electronica in its production style of copy and pasted beats signaled possibility and polyvalence in its meaning and flow. “Empty” incorporates some of that polyvalence to its form via beats but also signposts the potential low of our virtual realities. This low refers to how the social landscapes and identities being built online may disappear, be co-opted, or simply may not substitute the social landscape we experience outside of those virtual zones. This is not to diminish virtuality as not being ‘real’ but rather to emphasize that it too is suspect to oppressive discourse that limits our expressive capacity for performing ourselves in society. This is to say that the belief that the internet could be a zone or space for disavowing the body and identity completely through cyberspace was never within our reach for the internet and its virtual realities are spun forth from our present social realities and their ideologies. 

With that being said, virtual engagement via internet culture can produce inventive ways in which we construct and play with identity, performance, and emotions. The music videos for The Velvet Rope demonstrate how artists, like Janet, were marshaling new emergent technologies to play with their embodiment, how they experience things in the world for example, for a larger audience. Videos like “ I Get Lonely,” “Together Again,” and “Every Time” and “Go Deep” use new technological advances in the field of film and video to produce virtual landscapes of emotional and narrative intensity. The videos when compiled together operate as a web of emotional and embodied immersion.

For example, “Every Time” uses highspeed cameras to draw out and heighten Janet’s emotional intensity on isolation. Janet is largely nude in the video and is often submerged in water to show water based motion (like swimming and wadding) as the representation of the singer’s emotions. Her green contacts and black hair almost paint her as an avatar of herself, an identity she can slip on to express her feelings. Similarly, “Go Deep” uses the snorricam (camera attached to the body) to blur the distinction of the camera as a mediator. With the camera connected to the body the screen becomes our only barrier for dancing and interacting with the singer. Furthermore, videos like “I Get Lonely” and “Together Again” creates virtual loopholes for the singer to briefly suspend time and immerse herself within to play out her fantasy and desires. The videos complied together signpost the more digital and virtual realities she would immerse herself in for videos like “Doesn’t Really Matter” (2000) and “All for You” (2001).

The Velvet Rope in video and sound anticipates not only our digital letdown with virtual realities but reminds us of the fruitful potential of experimentation that can emerge online. It is this experimentation of and with identity that guides Janet and provides a model for us to follow in circumventing virtual ennui repression.

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