“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.
As usual, Janet knows how to deliver a sexy song–fame is about seduction, after all. If the fuck numbers here don’t have the slashing electricity of “You” or “What About,” they’ve still got mad finesse. You don’t have to credit Janet’s s/m flirtation in “Rope Burn,” her lesbian flirtation in “Tonight’s the Night,” or her queer-friendly broadmindedness in “Free Xone” to appreciate their propaganda value. She’s certainly not competing with Lil’ Kim or Foxy Brown, but Janet projects a ripe, playful raunchiness: “Tonight/I feel so tight.” “I’ll be your best,” she promises. “I will do anything for you.” As consumers, we expect no less.
Throughout the record, Jam and Lewis weave Janet’s creamy vocals through the choicest borrowed riffs: Diana Ross, Archie Bell, Ashford and Simpson, Lynn Collins, and, most brilliantly, Joni Mitchell, whose repeated snippet on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” sends the song straight to pop heaven. But that’s where Janet’s been ever since 1986’s Control, when she made it clear that she’d learned more than dance steps from her brothers. Combining fierce determination, an increasingly assured vocal style, and the sort of private drama necessary for modern celebrity, Janet established herself as the new, improved Jackson, anticipating Michael’s decline and eclipse. Her collaboration with Jam and Lewis has allowed her to recapitulate Motown’s suave orchestration, disco’s hyper optimism, and postmod r&b’s cold grooves through both canny quotes and cannier synthesization. Like any performer who’s grown up in public, she totes a lot of baggage, but it’s this history that grounds her and allows her to experiment, to play, to fuck with us, without having to reinvent herself each time out. So she’s landed in a pantheon that only Michael’s mentor Diana Ross could have prepared her for. She must feel the heat from rising stars like Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Björk, Mariah Carey, and Alanis Morrisette, but Janet cruises in more-rarefied air. Like Madonna, and with few other peers, she combines a pure pop sensibility with ambition, vulnerability, freakishness, and extraordinary savvy. She’s–in her inadequate word–special.
On “Rope Burn,” she asks us to “come into my velvet room.” We won’t probe that metaphor too deeply, but it’s clearly far beyond that velvet rope. Janet wants to make us very comfortable, to confer “specialness” upon us. Even if she has an uneasy relationship with celebrity (who doesn’t?), she wants to spread it around.