Publicly, Janet Jackson was on top of the world in 1996. She had just released a platinum-selling greatest hits album celebrating the first decade of her already illustrious music career and signed an unprecedented $80 million deal to renew her record deal.
But privately, the then-29-year-old superstar was struggling with a bout of depression so debilitating that she fled multiple recording sessions for her next album in tears.
“[I] couldn’t get up sometimes,” she later told Newsweek. “There were times when I felt very hopeless and helpless and I felt like walls were kind of closing in on me.”
Jackson’s studio breakdowns were so frequent that the album she was working on took six months to complete — a lifetime compared to her 1986 breakout, “Control,” which she made in just two months.
“I had to take a lot of breaks because it was too overwhelming at times,” she admitted.
Those blues, though, yielded one of the boldest — and best — albums in not only Jackson’s discography but also music history: “The Velvet Rope,” which was released 25 years ago on Oct. 7, 1997.
Jackson had already begun dipping her toes in sex symboldom with her 1993 album, “Janet,” but she really let her freak flag fly on “The Velvet Rope,” tackling taboo topics such as same-sex relationships, masturbation, BDSM, domestic violence and family trauma. Gone was the King of Pop’s baby sister, the one who made a name for herself starring in sitcoms like “Good Times” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” and in was a 31-year-old woman with a bold vision and an unapologetic attitude.
“I don’t think [my fans] were expecting it at all because it was completely different from the stuff I had done in the past,” she told the New Zealand Herald of the controversial concept album. “I think it did catch them truly off guard, but … it’s something that I really needed to do for me.”
“The Velvet Rope” was such a boundary-pushing departure from Jackson’s largely radio-friendly catalog, in fact, that it received swift backlash overseas. Officials in Singapore banned stores from selling the CD due to its suggestive lyrics, and one British newspaper blasted Jackson’s homoerotic cover of Rod Stewart’s 1976 song “Tonight’s the Night” as a “bizarre lesbian reinterpration.”
Jackson was quick to hit back, noting in an MTV News interview that people did not “have to listen” to her latest project.
“Not everyone is going to like me, and not everyone does, and I understand that,” she said.
And yet, people kept buying the album, with its instantly iconic Ellen von Unwerth-shot cover featuring Jackson with her head tilted down to highlight the beauty of her natural curls against a deep red backdrop. It debuted at No. 1 in the US and sold over 4 million copies worldwide (an astonishing number in the pre-streaming age) — all before the new year.
“The Velvet Rope” was too forward-thinking for some music critics, though. AllMusic bemoaned its 75-minute running time, opining in a two-and-a-half-star review that it was “hard to work up the patience to find” the record’s “good moments,” while the Chicago Tribune brushed off Jackson’s deeply personal lyrics, telling its readers to instead “concentrate on the street-smart rhythms.”
However, the New York Times praised “The Velvet Rope” as Jackson’s “most daring, elaborate and accomplished album,” and Billboard went so far as to declare it the “best American album of the year.”
Fans ate up the album, too, lauding Jackson for fearlessly shining a light on the AIDS epidemic with the chart-topping house single “Together Again,” uplifting survivors of abusive relationships with the seminal hard-rock favorite “What About,” normalizing periods of desolation with the R&B groove “I Get Lonely” and celebrating bisexuality with the funktastic “Free Xone.”
“I think it’s important to let others know certain things that you may have experienced in your life, and that they’re not alone, and that you understand what they’re going through, and that they can make it through,” she told MTV of the inspiration behind the no-holds-barred album.
Jackson’s vulnerability certainly paid off.
During the “Velvet Rope” era, Maya Angelou and Prince Albert II of Monaco presented the singer with lifetime achievement honors at the Lady Soul Train Awards and the World Music Awards, respectively. She also cemented her status as a gay icon with a GLAAD Award and won a Grammy for her apartheid-themed music video for “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” the album’s daring Joni Mitchell-sampling lead single.
What started as a healing agent for Jackson ended up becoming a cultural touchstone. “The Velvet Rope” paved the way for artists including Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Pink and Usher, the latter of whom got his big break opening for Jackson’s 1998 tour.
A quarter of a century later, the pioneering album continues to make its mark, landing a coveted spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list and inspiring countless think pieces. It has shattered glass ceilings for both Jackson and her fans, allowing them to embrace their true selves — even when velvet ropes try to hold them back.