Janet Jackson hangs emotions out on 'The Velvet Rope'
December 23, 1997
Web posted at: 2:02 p.m. EST (1902 GMT)
By Larry Katz
Never mind that she's a superstar with one of the fattest contracts in recording business history.
Janet Jackson wants you to know she hurts just like you. She knows what it's like to feel ugly, unloved and on the outside looking in. She knows what it's like to want to feel special.
And that is the theme of her ambitious new album, "The Velvet Rope."
"With each album I've done from 'Control' on, I've written about what's in my heart, about what's going on in my life at this moment," says Janet, as she is now billed, no last name. "I could never allow myself to write another way. But this is the most personal album I've done to date."
The title, "The Velvet Rope," "means different things to different people," Janet explained during a lengthy conference call with a dozen journalists. "One example is going to a nightclub. The velvet ropes they put up separate the people inside from those wanting to get in. The ones inside feel special. They've been chosen. But once inside there's another velvet rope keeping them out of the VIP section."
But what would Janet, a rich, famous and successful singer and actress, as well as a member of America's best-known African-American family, know about being on the wrong side of any velvet rope?
"Just because you have money doesn't mean you're happy and all your problems go away," she says earnestly. "The way that I feel, it can be even worse. Just because someone thinks you're beautiful, you may not feel beautiful. You may feel like the ugliest person on Earth. You may feel fraudulent growing up in a huge family and having such great success. You may feel worthless. These are feelings that I've had."
Janet says she was besieged and nearly immobilized by these painful feelings after her last album, "janet," was released in 1993.
"I was always able to push the pain aside since I was a kid," says Janet, who went from singing with her Jackson 5 brothers at age 7 to TV roles on "Good Times," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Fame." "In this business, they tell you to do the show and don't let the public know what's going on in your personal life.
"Well, why not? That's what people can relate to. We're all human. There's been a lot of pain involved since my last album. Sometimes I felt I was going crazy. I wrote about it on this new album because I want people to know they're not alone."
When asked for specifics, however, Janet holds back.
"I don't really want to get into it," she says, "because it is so personal. But a lot had to do with my childhood, my teen-age years." She mentions growing up as the youngest of nine children and having to compete for her mother's attention. And she calls moving out of the family home, to escape her domineering father Joe's control, "one of the most difficult things I've ever done.
"You think you've gotten over things," she says, "but you never do. You push it away, but finally you have to look at this (expletive). Was it frightening? Hell yes. The pain was worse than ever.
"Writing (songs) about it was therapeutic. This was the hardest album I ever did. It took me six months to record it, but it felt like 31 years, which is how old I am. There were times I had to walk away from the microphone because I was in tears from what I had written."
Several songs on "The Velvet Rope," whose lyrics Janet wrote with her boyfriend Rene Elizondo and whose music she composed with co-producer Jimmy Jam, echo her words about her anguish. On the trip-hop-flavored "You," a wonderfully woozy sounding Janet calls for a stop to a life spent pleasing others without knowing what you want for yourself. On "Special," she addresses the childhood hurts that prevented her from loving herself.
But there's much more than self-therapy on the 75-minute "The Velvet Rope," an imaginative album that confirms Janet's link with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, artists who broke free of others' control to chart a more personal musical course.
Janet, who makes the most of her feathery voice, contemporizes Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night" and, on the first single, "Got 'Til It's Gone," meshes Joni Mitchell's voice lifted from "Big Yellow Taxi" with a rap by A Tribe Called Quest's Q Tip and her own cooing vocal.
"Free Xone" denounces homophobia with funky help from a sampled Archie Bell and the Drells horn riff, while "Together Again" is a buoyant disco update that celebrates the lives of AIDS victims as Janet's voice evokes the young Diana Ross.
Janet also continues to explore her sexual flowering on "The Velvet Rope," a title that takes on a different meaning with the suggestive song "Rope Burn" and album art showing a bound and smiling Janet. With several other songs extolling lovemaking and her use of the two most common four-letter words in the provocative "What About," Janet continues to proclaim she's not a little girl any more.
"After I did the 'janet.' album," she says, "an adult came up to me and says, 'Oh, no. What are you doing? Now you're telling our kids to have sex. What happened to the girl who sang "Let's Wait Awhile"?' I said, 'How long do you want me to wait? I'm almost 30.'"
Janet laughs, then sighs. "It's so difficult," she says. "When I learn something about myself, I like sharing it. You want to be positive, but at the same time you have to be true to yourself."
© 1997, Larry Katz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.