Special Sauce

"It's my belief," Janet Jackson says at the beginning of her (choose one: terrific, slammin', dope, flawless) new album, "that we all have the need to feel special, and it's this need that can bring out the best in us and yet the worst in us." Though the tone is stiffly professorial--teach, Janet, teach--there's still something hushed and confiding here. After years of talk shows, magazine profiles, sound-bite interviews, and therapy, most celebrities are adept at this mix of pompousness and intimacy, but Janet, who began her career at age seven, has had a lifetime to get it right. And she's certainly had enough firsthand exposure to the destructiveness and driving urgency of "the need to feel special" to speak persuasively on the subject. But steeped as she is in the fuzz of psychobabble, she often can't seem to find the words.

The Velvet Rope--which is otherwise more songs about fucking and death, the two subjects sparking black pop's current resurgence--could be called Fame. "There are two sides to The Velvet Rope," Janet told Vibe's Danyel Smith, "those who want to be on the other side and those who are on the other side." She invites us past her velvet rope on the album's opening title cut, instructing, "Outside leave judgment/Outside leave hate." It's all rather melancholy and uplifting until you catch the pungent whiff of noblesse oblige. Janet may have had specialness thrust upon her; she may even chafe under its demands and restrictions; but she's never not been famous, never not been chosen. That doesn't mean The Velvet Rope couldn't be a provocative metaphor for the color line and other forms of social exclusion, but Janet only floats the idea, then fritters it away. No matter how color-blind and democratic, there isn't some we-are-the-world paradise on the other side of that rope, just a damn VIP room. "Come with me inside," she sings, never acknowledging the alienation, the delusion, the trap. Like Madonna's, like brother Michael's, like any star's, Janet's sympathy might be genuine, but it's useless. "Don't forget YOU ARE ALL VERY SPECIAL!" she writes at the end of her exhaustive acknowledgments. Thanks so much.

For such a debased word, special has many meanings for Janet. She turns her spun-sugar version of Rod Stewart's smarmy "Tonight's the Night" into a paean to the menage a trois ("This is just between me and you and you") that sounds like it's destined for some sex-ed benefit record. But whatever small frisson Janet raises by addressing most of the song to another girl evaporates during the interlude, when she whispers, "This is so special." The album's last listed track is titled "Special." After opening with Janet's side of a breezy but, like, deep chat with an old friend who is probably her own alter ego, the song turns into an earnest, churchy self-help anthem in the Michael mold. "We're all born with specialness inside of us," Janet and a choir of children assure us, and it's hard not to get carried away on their puffy clouds of positive thinking.

But Janet does something slightly disarming here as well. She closes the song by singing, in a soft, measured voice, "I have the need/To feel real special too." "Special" stops abruptly then, and Janet says, "Work in progress," summing up, perhaps, all that came before, but suggesting more pointedly that she herself is still in the process of psychic reconstruction. Again, these are exactly the sort of calculated confidences we're used to sharing with celebrities these days. She hints at childhood abuse in Vibe and refers repeatedly here to overcoming pain in "the past." So why is her girlish confession of insecurity kind of touching? Maybe because it sounds less like another gilt-edged whine than a simple admission of need. Maybe because it says some small thing about the compulsion to succeed and the emptiness of fame--the void on the other side of The Velvet Rope. "Specialness" is Janet's pathetic word for true self-esteem, but it's all she's got.

Janet's anger is more bracing and more valuable than her tentative confessions or regal concern. In "You," a song apparently addressed to Michael, she uses that anger to shed more light on the underside of fame. Here's something Janet truly understands: obsessive, isolating control. Acting as her brother's conscience, she laces into him--and the whole culture of self-deception and complaint: "Learned to survive in your fictitious world/Does what they think of you determine your worth?" Here, too, Janet is probably talking to herself; she knows about getting lost in "fictitious worlds," about trying to please everyone at the expense of your own needs. But her asides to Michael are brutally on the mark, even more so because they seem to be delivered in his own voice.

Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who've crafted an unusu-ally busy, electronica- spiked soundscape for The Velvet Rope, turn "You" into a dark-disco workout, ominous and dense, with a neat rhythmic underpinning copped from War's period-perfect "Cisco Kid." They're even more impressive on the cinematic "What About," which jump-cuts scenes and moods as quickly as any music video. Beginning with a liquid electrowash and a moonlit beach scene, Jam and Lewis sketch in shimmering bliss and Janet gets real dreamy. But while the guy's sweet-talking her, she suddenly veers off and synths crash across the strings. In an ecstasy of fury, the song seesaws violently between romance and recrimination (most memorably: "What about the times you said you didn't fuck her/She only gave you head?"). Because much of this remembered abuse sounds like it's been dredged up from deep childhood, when Janet finally verbalizes the questions in her head, it's cathartic, exciting. She's not so cute when she's mad.

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