Ayanna Dozier on what The Velvet Rope says about power, sexual fluidity, and respectability politics
The Velvet Rope has been with me since its release nearly twenty-three years ago in October of 1997. For most of that time, I had no intention to write about my admiration for the album. It was simply a record that I would fervently remind colleagues and friends of as time passed. But as time passed, I bore witness to the changes in Janet’s career. In the 1990s through the early 2000s, Janet was the one to beat, she was a formidable, iconic artist (need I remind readers that the inaugural MTV Icon award was in her honor). And then the halftime performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004) happened. I watched as Janet was ruthlessly demonized while her co-performer walked away unscathed. Her image became “tainted.” Swiftly, the world forgot that she was a popstar pioneer and society revoked her iconic status.
In the time since that performance, The Velvet Rope was seemingly erased from most of the critical and conversational discourse on Janet’s artistry. And while fan appreciation and Janet’s Unbreakable have nicely reminded the world of her brilliance in recent years, it is important to note that The Velvet Rope was neither a runaway commercial nor critical darling when it was released. The album and tour did well but many critics took its (s)lower sales than janet. as a sign that her star was fading. the album’s melancholic mood was also a stark contrast to the upbeat sexual joy blushing from janet. For fifteen years after its release, individuals were rarely singing the gospel of The Velvet Rope. In that time of silence, I began to find myself at various stages of womanhood that mirrored Janet’s during the production of the album. Not in the pop star, famous family, and secret marriage-sense but in the respect that I too had deeply buried childhood feelings of neglect, experiences of body dysmorphia, and depression. This was on top of a highly charged libido that was becoming a constant cocktail of feelings I awoke to, which did not alleviate after puberty or in the chaos of my early twenties. It became clear to me that this chaotic emotional cocktail was here to stay.
With The Velvet Rope, Janet broke her sacred relationship with the mainstream public by refusing to smile through her pain. In her book True You, Janet declares that the Charlie Chaplin song, “Smile” was essentially a motto for her and her siblings growing up. They adapted the mentality of smiling when they were hurting. Smiling through her pain is what Janet did for many years until the pain boiled over and confronted her head on. Janet simply could not smile her way through this period in her life and had to openly use her art as a way to make amends. Because life never hits you with one thing at a time, Janet was navigating this turmoil at the same time as she was becoming more confident expressing her sexual needs, and she was condemned for it. The press had no patience to listen to Janet talk about her kinks, trauma, and personal woes; but she stood firm against the backlash, defiantly so.
I loved The Velvet Rope era Janet because of her difference. She was rebellious, she had tattoos, piercings, she wore all black. She was edgy, everything I could not inhabit in a strict lower class religiously conservative Black family. I sensed agency in her performance of liberation, control, and sexual satisfaction more so than I felt in her previous albums that centered control (Control 1986), liberation (Rhythm Nation 1814, 1989), or sexual satisfaction (janet. 1993). This is not to diminish those excellent albums but rather to stress that The Velvet Rope was a true outlier in her oeuvre. It was an album that came at great risk of mainstream alienation for Janet in that it also included a clear alignment with Black culture beyond racial lines through beat sampling, remixes, and aesthetics. To embrace this era, Janet styled her hair natural in a time where Black women were mocked for natural hair. Janet’s appearances during the album’s promotion marked one of the first times in which I saw a contemporary Black pop star embrace the natural hair look. The Velvet Rope era Janet brought so many firsts for me and I presume many other Black girls and women since its release. From the piercings to its thematic content, this was a Janet risking visibility to perform her self-discovery with conviction, which often meant not smiling and being rather melancholic.
The desire to write about this work was not only to remind audiences of its power. It was also to contextualize the risk that Janet took with the album as a mainstream Black popular artist and to contrast that risk with the historical demand of respectability that Black women often find themselves having to perform to be recognized in society. Moreover, I have found myself needing the blueprint Janet laid out in the album more than ever as I live through similar changes she experienced as a woman coming into herself. From the sexual fluidity and desire on “Free Xone” and “My Need” to the inescapable grief heard on “I Get Lonely” and “Got ‘til it’s Gone,” the older I became the more the songs took a hold of my life unfixed from adolescent nostalgia. The album has been instrumental to helping assess the turmoil of growth simply because Janet dared to speak on sexual and melancholic confusion. She lived to tell us what happens on the other side for those of us Black women who veer too close to the edge. The Velvet Rope has no definite answers (she ends “Special” with the line “work in progress” after all), but rather is a clear declaration of emancipation at every level of the self. And for me, that has been worth writing about.
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