Review #318: The Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson

Karla Clifton
4 min readOct 1, 2022

#318: The Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson

I crossed the Kansas border when this album first came on. It’s kind of hilarious to think that I heard this extremely queer club-banging album in a state that only has 293 bars in it.

Crazier still that the last record we heard from her was over a year ago, Control (#111). Sometimes I think that society has forgotten to forgive Janet Jackson after that Superbowl performance in 2004. Which was hardly her fault, after all — she had already solidified her status as a sex freak and even possibly queer icon. The catalyst? This dark horse pop album that laid bare her whole soul.

Let’s back up. Surprised about the queer icon thing, like I was? This record has her celebrating sex with both men and women, in a way that can’t be denied. See her cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” which is definitely about two women: Take off your shoes and sit right down/ Loosen up the back of your pretty French gown. (There’s mention of a boy, too, but it’s extremely random — like an obligatory gesture at heterosexuality.) The interlude “Speaker Phone” is a prelude to phone sex between Jackson and a woman. (The Wikipedia page says that it’s Lisa Marie Presley??? But I literally don’t believe that!)

But she’s not just having sex with women, she’s fighting the good fight with tolerance and smut. “Free Xone” is about the importance of treating gay people with respect; Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (#484) is calling. (Something about the AWOOGA! interlude “Fasten Your Seatbelts” also makes me think of Lady Gaga.) “Rope Burn” is all about bondage, baby — years before Rihanna released “S&M.”

The thing that gets me is that her voice is so breathy and submissive even while making ever-bolder statements. The intro interlude “Twisted Elegance” takes that to the extreme that only the Nineties dared to, having Jackson unironically declare to the mic that It is my belief that we have the need to feel special. (There are several other interludes with some pretty funny one liners, like “Memory,” “Sad” and “Full.”)

She sounds downright innocent on the catchy, Cyndi-Lauper-esque “Go Deep,” while “My Need” has her sing like a beautiful bird even while she sings about sex as frankly as possible. Then on “I Get Lonely,” she shocks us all with a complicated harmony that I STILL can’t get right.

I had been on a Grimes/Garbage binge right before listening to this (Where are THEY on your Top 500 list, Rolling Stone?), and some of Jackson’s songs fit right in. “Velvet Rope” has space gunshots and a violin freakout, while her voice floats above it all. “Together Again,” “Empty” and the especially Enya-like “Anything” trick you into thinking they’re magical sounding songs, but they’re also club bangers, with ghost-in-the-machine noises clanging throughout all three. And the best interlude is “Online,” which sounds like a fax machine coming to life. If only the Nineties knew what truly terrifying future tech would sound like: Silence.

The rest of them have Jackson feeling herself and preaching about responsibility for yourself, while not letting the judgments of others rule your life, like “You.” “Special” was so sweet and earnest, her voice so high and “featured choir singer.” And the hidden track (don’t you miss hidden tracks? I sure do.) “Can’t Be Stopped” gave me an empowering message that I sometimes need.

My favorite song was the gut punch “What About,” which starts out with a romantic walk on a beach and then turns into a litany of all the abuse that her partner put her through. It pulls no punches, with Jackson yelling What about the times you said you didn’t **** her/ She only **** *** ****? over an electric guitar solo.

Kansas is a strange place to drive through, full of liminal space and Dairy Queens. Imagine me, flying down its highways, dancing to Janet Jackson, a year ago. Maybe I’m still there.

Favorite Music Video: “Got ’til It’s Gone,” which takes a Joni Mitchell sample and tunes it way up, and then lets Q-Tip rap over her. Her style is incredible in the video, with her four ponytails and her boho skirt + crop top. Why can’t I pull that off?

Least Favorite Song: “Every Time” is peak cheeseball Eighties. And this is a Nineties album!

Most Embarrassing Association: This album cover is striking, but God help me, every time I see it my brain thinks it’s Carrot Top.

Fun Fact: This record was released Oct 7 1997! That’s one week from now! That means that we’re one week away from it’s 25th anniversary, and we all need to buy it a birthday present.

Review #317: Lady In Satin, Billie Holiday

Review #319: The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses

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