360°Sound caught up with writer, artist, lecturer and curator Ayanna Dozier about her new 33 1/3 book on Janet Jackson’s classic 1997 album The Velvet Rope, which spawned the hits “Together Again,” “I Get Lonely” and “Got ’til It’s Gone.” Dozier is a PhD candidate at McGill University in Montreal. Her dissertation, Mnemonic Aberrations, traces the history of Black feminist experimental short film in the U.S. and the U.K. from 1968 to today. Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope is out now on Bloomsbury Press.
360°: Please start by telling us about your interest in Janet Jackson and why you choose The Velvet Rope as the album to write a 33 1/3 book on.
Dozier: I grew up with Janet Jackson as a popular Black musical artist and icon in the 1990s through the mid-2000s. Her image in a variety of media contexts, like film, music videos, award shows, fashion magazines, albums, tours, and interviews were widely available for me to devour. Additionally, Janet was a member of the Jackson family, a family whose presence loomed large over my household growing up. While Janet was widely different from her famous siblings, her last name meant that my family were keyed into her artistic practice and image by sheer default.
The Velvet Rope is the first album that I felt I could understand. I was seven when it was released and far too young to listen to the album in full (my mother ensured of this). There were songs like “Together Again” and “Got ‘Till It’s Gone” that I was able to interpret as possessing another meaning that I was incapable of grasping then, but could at another time in my life.
In a very cliché way, The Velvet Rope was the first album that my small brain could understand as having “levels” to it and one of those levels dealt with depression. I have lived with depression since my childhood and those early years of, not just manic adolescence, but incomparable sadness that I could not name benefitted from media that could give a name or expression to what I thought were similar feelings. While there have been many media and art objects that have served this role in my life, The Velvet Rope is the first.
Moreover, the album features a wealth of topics that were taboo for a Black popular artist to engage with at the time, they include; BDSM, queerness, domestic violence, depression, body dysmorphia, cybersex and self-harm. The frankness and vulnerability expressed on The Velvet Rope created a template of radical self-expression and self-recovery for Black musical artists in which the seams can be found in albums like Kelela’s Take Me Apart, Rihanna’s Anti and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I wanted to contextualize this history, both personal and social, for a larger audience to engage with in book form.
Jackson’s third album, 1986’s Control, was a breakthrough for her in regard to having control over her career and, as the synopsis to your book notes, “her bodily integrity as a Black woman.” Do you consider The Velvet Rope to be another breakthrough for her in that she further established her autonomy?
Absolutely! The Velvet Rope reconciles and emancipates oneself from internalized ideas of respectable appearances of Black womanhood in the world. Respectable, here, is in dialogue with respectability politics which refer to the belief that policed behavior and physical appearance of Black folks would uplift the race out of their oppression and demonstrate their ‘humanity’ to others.
Respectability politics emerged during the period of Reconstruction in the United States and still have a grip on our public and personal discourse on Black lives today. The acknowledgment and disavowal of respectability is a form of consciousness-raising for it means finding an identity of Black womanhood that runs counter to examples and images that we grow up with and are expected to model.
The Velvet Rope was Janet’s effort to inhabit a self that exceeded what she was taught to model as a Black woman in her life. To do so, she fully embraced alternative, counter-images of Black womanhood in society that included, early blues culture (where women talked openly and frankly about sex, depression, and drinking as heard in the work of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey), hip-hop (which was still an emergent field in the mid to late 1990s), and BDSM.
You write that the sexual content in the album was dismissed as “selling points” at the time of its release. Did you find that her message was either misconstrued or not taken seriously due to misogyny and other factors?
I thoroughly believe Janet’s message was misconstrued due to the field of music journalism, especially in the late 1990s, being dominated by male reporters. The thing about The Velvet Rope is that Janet is selling sex on her terms and in ways that often resist the male gaze. I am using the male gaze here to refer to the ways in which women’s sexuality are filtered through aesthetics of heterosexual patriarchal desire. Although the janet. album was Janet’s sexual liberation, many of the images and work on that album nicely fit within the market of heteropatriarchal desire, that’s not a bad thing or critique, it just simply is.
With Janet’s incorporation of queerness, trauma, and abuse as existing alongside (not outside) her sexual endeavors, The Velvet Rope, inevitably, resists easy consumption via the male gaze. In fact, it asks men to listen and respect sexual and emotional boundaries concerning her personhood. These are requests that we culturally still find ourselves struggling to have men honor in society (#MeToo is a clear example). Thus, The Velvet Rope was asking her audience to listen to sex differently and respectfully and that was a request that many of the male journalists were unwilling to honor.
I remember watching the “Together Again” music video as a preteen in ’97 and being struck by the awesome African scenery and wildlife. It was the biggest hit from the album. What were a few of your big takeaways from “Together Again”?
“Together Again” is my favorite Janet Jackson song. When the song was released, I did not immediately catch on to the disco vibe that they were citing, so that aspect went right over my head and was not something I caught until my late teens. Thus, my immediate response to the song, which largely dictates my takeaway today, lies with the tension between heartache and joy—a sort of mournful dance song.
The video becomes a symbolic extension of that tension by using world imagery, including several West African prints and cultures, as an immaterial world of happiness. This imagery is juxtaposed against Janet’s isolation in the clip, where she begins and ends the video alone in a cracked desert climate with an approaching storm on the horizon.
I think the world imagery and feel of the video overshadows the very melancholic tone and implication of where Janet is dancing with her friends. The video is populated with the living dead so to speak and I think it is important that we hold onto that tension of sorrow and joy—that this “happy” place is a place that can only be manifested on earth through and with the dead.
To order Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, click here.