#259: Janet Jackson, "The Velvet Rope" (1997)

The popstar is inherently external—to exist as a popstar is to have the world observe and critique every single one of your moves; whether those moves be the arm-swing-to-gyrate combination during a performance or simply leaving a grocery store, reusable shopping bags weighted with cartons of soy milk. This is what we expect from our megastars; celebrities, after all, would not exist without those who idolize them: even the term “pop” is short for “popular”—a word that cannot exist without qualifiers: the other, the many, the particular.

To build a popstar is to acknowledge the popular in a way that hits on notes that resonate with as many people as possible. Most “breakthrough” pop songs over the years speak in generalities: the message being conveyed is not nearly as important as how it is conveyed—what flourishes make it separate from the countless other performers trying to make it onto the radio. Janet Jackson was the girl in the boy band; while other members of the Jacksons were allowed to cultivate a personality that fit into your prototypical boy band archetypes, hers was quite simple—she was “the girl,” the outlier that still fulfilled a simple role within the family, all sass and pizzazz.

It then comes as no surprise that the majority of Janet’s early work was straight-forward bubblegum; a star going through the motions while singing someone else’s words while a sound engineer crafts the backing tracks in post-production. There are debates over why art is even created: I know from personal experience, there are some things that I feel as if I must write for my own sake—a story that I have been meaning to tell. However, there is always the concept of audience lurking in the background; that the art itself would not exist without the intention that it was to be seen or heard. While I might be completely unaware of who that audience is, I tend to imagine it as a bright light in a dark void—I am standing on stage in a dark room with the stage lights shining in my eyes, turning every shadow into a halo. In a sense, all art is always for the other: even the most isolated of writers still wishes for their work to be mysteriously found in a desk drawer one day & released into the world.

When I talk to my literature students about how one can raise the stakes in their writing, it typically circles back to one thing: telling the truth. When we watch a horror film & before the opening credits start to roll we see the slow crawl of “based on true events” we feel an extra chill in our bones—that there is realness here; that the body count in some way is real, even if the means of getting there might be fabricated. We are unashamedly intrigued by secrets—of things that we should not know being spilled out in front of us in a way where we can not only scoop them up, but hold them to our own hearts to see if this rawness can sync up with our own sweetness. It is why we love the popstar selfie, the documentary, the food diary. There are secrets everywhere and we would like nothing more than to know them—to know that we are not alone in our thoughts—that generalities of love and family can sustain us for a moment. But we want to know the true details; to spin darker, to have a declaration to hold onto.

Most popstars have the fabled “third album”—the one where it is time to become introspective, to start speaking in specificities about their lives, to be honest with their audience. When there was no audience to speak of, there was no need to be genuine—we see the saccharine youth of the first days of the popstar & we do not need to see any further; we know that there must be depth there, but it is inconsequential to us, as they are simply another figure in the world. As anyone gains notoriety, it becomes time for the popstar to become fully realized—to become human. Rihanna’s “island girl” identity evolved with Good Girl Gone Bad. Beyoncé’s acknowledgment that she contains multitudes on I Am...Sasha Fierce. Clive Davis shelving Kelly Clarkson’s My December for months because it was felt to be too dark and honest in comparison to her previous work. This, certainly, can fail: a cry to go back to what worked for them when they first arrived—I can’t imagine what this could feel like; a request from the audience to go back to vapidness; to be bite-sized, easily accessible.

Janet did this and not only survived, but flourished. Control was massive; it had an edge to it—it was self-actualized, yet universal: one could listen to it and pick out the moments that resonated. An activity I have my students do in writing is to describe in detail the contents of a house—instead of simply just listing basics, I ask them to think of their own homes in order to get the details correct, to build a memory palace filled with every nuance. When they read these descriptions aloud to their classmates, there is an understanding that is made between them: these spaces are vastly different yet similar in their sentiment. While the color of the wallpaper & the location of the television might be different, we still see our own houses in others—we remember our own worlds and how they formed around us.

The question, of course, is whether or not it is worth going beyond this: to examine a form that is meant to be as inclusive to everyone as possible, and instead making it esoteric by going deeper into the personal—is there a type of “uncanny valley” moment that occurs in music where things get “too real” & it causes everyone to look away? A quote from Jackson in Vibe Magazine on the eve of releasing The Velvet Rope shows her fear in this regard: “People look at you differently, as if you’re not human.”

To be truly human is to acknowledge the fact that yes, we are all on the same earth, and yes, we can share each other's’ mind palaces, if only for a moment, but to also say that we are not a fantasy. Sometimes we feel as if we exist if only to identify with as many people as possible: we compromise our emotions in order to share a kindred spirit—yet we also try to hide ourselves away so as not to get too deep in; there are closets in our homes that we do not describe; the dead millipedes in the basement, the grime collecting on the baseboards of the seldom-used washroom. The audience again becomes this shining bright light in the void—this massive vast thing unseen. The Velvet Rope is a way of writing toward the void: to acknowledge the deeply personal in a way to make it through the unknown. The album, Jackson admits, was like therapy to her; the catharsis coming after years of hiding in plain sight: the trauma of losing a friend to AIDS, of domestic abuse, of her own sexuality.

There comes a moment in every artist’s life where they believe that they have revealed something incredibly deep and vulnerable about themselves, only to find out that the thing being revealed is relatively common—this isn’t a knock on the confession itself, but instead provides comfort knowing that there are people out there that have seen the world that you have seen and have seen it all the way through. It is why we choose to create—it’s why we attempt to “shock”. It is a difficult thing: to make the internal external—it seems to go against everything that comes as an artist, as creating is an intransitively private act; something we do alone in the comfort of our own rooms. However, in all that we create, even if it is a sentiment that is “popular,” we also show that there is a velvet rope—we have let you into the club, but there is a section that is off limits to only those who live here. Sometimes knowing that there is something more is enough; we can go entire lifetimes without confessing our VIP mysteries as long as the world knows that there is more to us just than what appears. Other times beyond the curtain there are truths that we are unable to admit—rooms under construction, please watch your step. We invite the void in hopes that it fills us. By allowing entrance to our own darkness, we hope that we can tap into the darkness of others—that even though these walls might not be for everyone, we are all invited.

—Brian Oliu