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Hello, Nasty: Janet Jackson’s sound of rebellion

By Lesley Chow
A new analysis of ‘The Velvet Rope’ shows the controversial artist in transition

Janet Jackson in 1997. Via Twitter

Janet Jackson is that strange phenomenon: a star who is ubiquitous yet underrated, a singular talent but also a punchline. Tabloid tales and wardrobe malfunctions aside, the sonic innovations of her work remain astounding. In collaboration with her long-time producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson has been responsible for some of the most gripping sounds of the last four decades.

Think of the pulse and charge of her 1986 singles “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, and the way these beats stress and strain your body, forcing it to stand to attention. “Miss You Much” (1989) was such a giant hit that its weirdness has often been overlooked: this declaration of love is an assault on the ears – discordant, abrasive and knowingly emasculating. “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1993) makes the best use of Jackson’s great whisper: a tone that is emotionally steadfast yet vulnerable. In her 1993 masterpiece “If”, half the lyrics are garbled or swallowed, but melodically the song’s message of wilfulness is clear.

More remarkable than the lyrical pose of defiance is how that attitude is conveyed musically – in the minor chords that repeatedly pincer the nerves, or the sour, deflated notes describing the relationship in “What Have You Done For Me Lately”. These sounds place immense pressure on the body, relenting only for moments of sweet relief. Jackson’s best songs are about control and reprieve: the “nasty” grind followed by the skyward release.

A deep dive into Jackson’s body of work has been long overdue. Finally, we have Ayanna Dozier’s Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, a look back at the 1997 album, which was both praised and derided at the time for its sexually explicit themes. Incredibly, it is only the third book to focus on a woman of colour in Bloomsbury’s long-running 33⅓ series on iconic records. While future volumes on Donna Summer and Janelle Monáe have been commissioned, one can hardly imagine the story of popular music without the contributions of black women front and centre. Where are Chaka Khan, Anita Baker, Mavis Staples, Patti LaBelle, Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane, Eartha Kitt, Miriam Makeba, Roberta Flack, Etta James, Gladys Knight, Martha Reeves, Lauryn Hill, TLC, Grace Jones, Tina Turner and The Supremes, to name just the obvious? Or the raucous sounds of Neneh Cherry and the snarl of Betty Davis?

A scholar and artist, Dozier approaches The Velvet Rope specifically from a perspective of omission and loss – in contrast to many critics of the period who saw its inclusion of bisexuality and bondage as performative. Robert Christgau mocked its “mild kink and coyly matter-of-fact bisexuality” and the Chicago Tribune judged the lyrics “an embarrassment”, while Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave the record a middling review, stating that Jackson’s “attempts to broaden her sexual horizons frequently sound forced”. However, where these writers found strained titillation or cynical marketing ploys, Dozier hears pained yearning: the voice of a woman looking to normalise sexual experimentation rather than flaunt it. For Dozier, The Velvet Rope is fundamentally rooted in hurt and healing, as much as it is in pleasure: it is about the “production of music in that space of emotional lack”, by an artist who craves visibility in uncharted territory.

Dozier is frank about how the album – as a black woman’s expression of the sensual world – transformed her vision of the future as a young girl, opening it up to artistic and erotic possibilities. In her deeply felt analysis, The Velvet Rope shows Jackson as an artist in transition, “learning to build an identity beyond the one forged through injury”. It’s a reading that works especially well when she examines the structure of the album, in which songs are spliced with half a dozen interludes of spoken word, samples and recordings of Jackson hanging out playfully with friends. Reviewers at the time considered these sections extraneous, making the album feel “overstuffed” – or, as Erlewine put it, “the album sags with endless interludes, murmured vocals and subdued urban grooves” – but for Dozier they are a crucial part of the experience. She gives unprecedented attention to the positive spaces created by these intervals – in particular, the way in which they “produce a social landscape within the span of seconds”.

Dozier explains the significance of the interlude in African-American art forms, where pauses and insertions are used to challenge linearity and narrative structure. The interventions in The Velvet Rope are spaces for relief and creative expression, a timeout from the discreet professionalism and “good hair” traditionally required of the black performer. Some are ribald, others show Jackson in relaxed camaraderie with other artists. In complaining about the “murk” of those “endless interludes” and “murmured vocals”, Erlewine actually nails one of the album’s distinctions: that the rich layering of samples and voices places Jackson in a continuous dialogue with hip-hop and blues culture.

When it comes to the album’s murmur of indistinct voices and sounds, Dozier is particularly good at identifying the emotional affect of “breaths, screams, pants, runs, cries, coos”, the “shivering gasps and moans” so often neglected by music critics. She discusses the way that certain vocal tones and samples might trigger memories – even the longing suggested by the wheeze of a dial-up modem. And she explores the deeper implications of the “party” sound or club vibe sometimes ridiculed in Jackson’s post-’80s work: “Bringing the party into the studio is a way to capture all the different sounds of black collectivity: bloc party, church gathering, house party.”

I would have liked to hear more about how the songs work musically: how rhythm and melody work to deliver these codes that the author describes, note by note, intact. She writes, elatedly, of how some songs use “disco’s rhythmic magnitude to produce joy and movement in releasing the tension of pain”, and the creation of sensations like these could have been explored further.

However, when it came to choosing a subject, Dozier did not opt for the knockout Control (1986) or the militant Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), both of which foreground irresistible hooks and the demands they make on the body. Those two albums were about establishing the coordinates of power, using beats to mark and patrol space. The Velvet Rope has room for softness as well as discipline, and, thanks to Dozier’s reading, I can see it as a work of even greater risk: it shows an artist reflecting on the limits of control.

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is an Australian writer on music and film. Her book, You’re History: The 12 Strangest Women in Music, will be released in March.

Janet Jackson in 1997. Via Twitter

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