Not every album is personal to the artist. Many albums are so commercially driven that they are just made to produce hits. Every singer is an artist, but some take it to the next level.
There is a level where an artist’s own life is not just their own anymore, but their listeners’. This is exactly what Janet Jackson did with her album The Velvet Rope.
For starters, an important idea to understand with this album is “sankofa.” This is a word from Akan, a language in Ghana. The word means to “go back and take.” In terms of this album, it means to dig back into your past, take what was taken from you and claim it for yourself. These attributes are now yours to sculpt your character into who you want to be.
Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” explains her struggle with the “VIP” concept and many of her inner demons. For one, we can’t forget that Janet is a member of the heralded Jackson dynasty. This comes with both negative and positive attributes. Secondly, Janet didn’t ever feel she quite fit into this luxurious lifestyle. Sure she was a popular performer and singer, but she still hadn’t felt she had found her place. Her constant issues with her body image could have largely spurred this insecurity. That’s hard to believe for a woman considered to be one of the most beautiful in entertainment.
That’s where the metaphor of the velvet rope comes from. For each red carpet, there is a velvet rope you must cross to get into the VIP section. We all have a velvet rope that keeps others from discovering who we are. Every one of us has a “VIP” section in our lives.
The opening song “Velvet Rope” invites listeners into Janet’s personal masterpiece. She then goes into the song “You.” This is one of my personal favorites. This song chastises one who pretends to be someone else at the expense of others. A message that Janet not necessarily was sending to listeners but maybe one she needed to send to herself.
What Janet then does is pure musical genius. She took an old hook from a classic folk song by the legendary Joni Mitchell and mixes it with a modern R&B rhythm, while also mixing in rap. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” is a classic.
One of the most profound moments of the album comes with her hit “Together Again.” It’s a great song taken out of the album context, but it means much more when listened to in the album as a whole. The interlude before the song states “You don’t have to hold onto the pain to hold on to the memory.” This song was written for her friends that she lost to aids. It’s a beautiful homage to those she was missing as well as showing a light of positivity in the face of death.
Janet then goes into “Empty,” explaining a one-sided relationship that she feels she may be “wasting her time” on. This parlays into the following song with an interlude that states “How empty of me to be so full of you.” The next song “What About,” then depicts a relationship in harsher terms asking, “What about the times you lied to me? What about the times you said no one would want me?” amongst many other questions. Although, in the end of the song she turns it around on herself, stating she was then asked the same questions.
In the end, every time I listen to this album I gain more respect for Janet. She placed herself in the most vulnerable position she could as a performer. She showed herself at fault as well as the victim. She portrayed her raw self to her audience. This took courage. She was truly able to reach into her past and pull back what was hers and create a masterpiece reflecting her own life.
This album is more than a collection of songs, it’s a journey. It’s hard to listen to these songs alone because you don’t get the full meaning or theme of the album. She lastly states at the end of the album, in the song “Special,” that we all just long to feel special. This is such a simple concept, yet one so hard to achieve.
In my own life, I struggle to let people step over my “velvet rope.” One must learn trust to fully experience life’s journeys to the fullest. Janet has shown that to me. She taught me that I can not hide behind a mask at the expense of others and that it’s time to just allow people to “enter” into who I am. Everything that was stolen from me through my shortcomings and failures, as well as people, are mine, sculpting me into who I am.
This is truly a profound concept we can all use in our lives.
**Disclaimer: The reason I call her Janet instead of Ms. Jackson throughout this post is because I’m not nasty.**