Still Special: 25 Years of “The Velvet Rope”
One could talk for hours about the cultural significance of an album like The Velvet Rope: the way its composition and construction provide a direct throughline to the songs and albums soundtracking our current times or how Its accompanying visuals amplify the project’s various moods and tones. There’s a weight to it that albums don’t seem to carry anymore, and it reaches all around the human experience to give you songs for lovemaking, party, and rainy-day playlists alike.
For me, what remains constant is the powerful permission that The Velvet Rope still gives listeners: the permission to explore. Its occupancy of the wondering, interrogating, grey space is what brings it to life and encourages listeners to ask hard-hitting questions of themselves and buckle up for the answers.
As a young kid, it would plant seeds of curiosity in me that with each returning spin grew me into adulthood. Queer adulthood. The Velvet Rope is queer as fuck, you may come to find. That’s my personal interpretation but it’s one that is shared among many listeners and critics. To me, it’s obvious. Janet summons the gays to liberation and the dancefloor on the funky detour “Free Xone” and refuses to switch the gendering on her cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” a song that finds her taking a woman’s virginity. She grieves in “Together Again” which would become an anthem to those in our community who we lost to AIDS. The interludes, often overlooked, find Janet peppering in lines from queer-adored films and simulating masturbation while her girlfriend hilariously listens on the phone.
Since Control, we were to understand Janet as a young woman confidently using her voice in a world dominated by men. With The Velvet Rope, I bore witness to a more complicated Janet who was allowing herself to maneuver through the traumas of life (“Together Again,” “What About”), drum up questions and seek out answers (“Empty”), dream in and out love (“Every Time,” “I Get Lonely”) and leverage joy and pleasure (“Go Deep,” “Rope Burn”) as tools in her journey. All these things simultaneously.
I needed to hear that kind of heavy processing as I met, and still meet, the difficulties of the world. That’s why I and so many others still find refuge in it, 25 years since its release. All those loud messages the world sends to play down what makes you different, hide yourself, and quiet your voice sound like hums when Janet’s reminding you that “we’re all born with specialness inside of us” on album closer “Special.”
Never one to sell us a bill of goods, the lacquer of “Special,” meant to send us off on a positive note, abruptly wears, as Janet utters the pointed phrase “Work in progress.” It’s the perfect punctuation for an album that speaks to the complexities of our lives – and queer lives. The exploration that Janet so intimately shares with us on The Velvet Rope proves just how messy life can be but what it also does wonderfully shows how hopeful life can be when you give yourself permission to figure it all out.
Joshua Henry Jenkins (he/him/his) is an interactive media strategist, designer, & organizer of community-based out of Washington, D.C. by way of rural North Carolina. He is currently the Director of Marketing for Theatre Communications Group. He was previously the Director of Web and New Media Strategies at Americans for the Arts. He’s the co-creator of BLACK, GAY, stuck at home as well as the outgoing board chair of the Arts Administrators of Color Network. In service of the communities to which he belongs, he creates and amplifies work that uplifts BIPOC and LGTBQIA+ identifying folks, citizens of rural areas, and most importantly those who exist at those intersections. Joshua received his Master of Arts in Interactive Media from Elon University and his Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.