on janet jackson’s velvet rope
I wasn’t older than 10 when I learned that Michael Jackson had a sister — around the time that I discovered he’d already gone through puberty, ditched the afro, and had his own monument. My graduation from The Jackson Five’s ‘Ultimate Collection’ to MJ’s ’95 ‘History: Past, Present and Future’ was underway with a lesson decidedly in greats sometimes becoming greater. It was my mother who’d explained the voice occupying one-half of Scream’s gritty layers to me. Makes me ponder the relentless hilarity of childhood: a series of accidental, coincidental, and/or intentional momentous happenings lined up one behind the other — or stacked beside each other, or piled one atop the other, who really knows — each determining the probability of the immediate next and ultimately the shape(lessness) of your entire life. You find that tipping to see above the counter and forcing feet to meet the floor are but purgatory until the day that everything once at least twice your size is hellishly snug.
But there’s something urgent about a mother’s input.
Taurus season, I imagine, when I actually saw her face. Soul Story had it all over VH1 that entire Saturday. And homework was as pressing as a cold shower in the early morning. I like this one. The men dressed like the 70s or 80s, I wouldn’t have known, and they were black: being black around other black people perhaps saying black things drinking black things playing black keys stroked with white ‘Got Til It’s Gone’s confined to a television screen. I didn’t fathom the significance, having already been familiar with black form and the movement with which it often comes, but I fixated. And I’m not saying it was new but I knew I hadn’t seen anything like it before in a music video. (I later learned that it was a nod to Sophiatown in apartheid South Africa and that this was on the same album on which I’d heard woman-moans for the first time).
Twisted, Janet’s first utterance on the tape, but also the way our senses bend so-called linear history into subjective truths.
The intro fading in like foreshadowing. The ebbing speech. The flooding melody. Feeling like a looming floor show. Feeling like an unfurling. Feeling like life happens between songs.
The pre-social media internet was a treasure chest. Discovering music felt like just that, like deep-sea diving and whatever I found was mine to keep. And the deeper I ventured, the rarer the find. You couldn’t have convinced me that anyone else my age knew of Michael’s cool-ass baby sister with the soft, sultry voice that swore me to secrecy. I had her clandestine candour. My archaeology was romantic.
And what a cover. Hair hennaed the colour of buttons they said not to touch. The title an embossed whisper. The Velvet Rope is taking you just about as far as she’ll have you go. It’s about agency. It’s about boundaries.
There are times when I feel your love around me, baby.
But Together Again swaddles me in forbidden warmth — dewy and weighty, making muted bullets of my satisfaction. She is strong and soft, earth and sea. Glue the visuals to the insides of your eyelids. Make a mantra for a wet dream.
Look deeper inside you, baby.
The book I’m currently reading speaks of arid sunset. Says that red is bold because its light waves are brave enough to break through obstacles to meet the eye. That red extends, they say, when the time is right. That it is intentional and purposeful. What About is red and concentric. The chorus is suffused with agenda: What about that? What about that? The verses are stripped and distant. She’s gentle on What About, but there is wrath. I’m reminded that you can be both.
The Velvet Rope feels like Taurus’ martian sister. I’m revisiting it with the splendour of a gloomy late October. I’m remembering that My Need had once got me through a Scorpio full moon. Mercury must have been in Cancer because I’d been making the dreamiest playlists of my nostalgia.
Tonight’s the Night is a whispy anchor. There’s something delicate about a mother’s favourite song. Even more delicate is a daughter’s rendition. Janet breathes new meaning into the words. I wonder if Katherine’s earth moved like mine.
’Cause I love you, girl. Ain’t nobody gonna stop us now.
I’m left thinking about the urgency of a mother’s input. I’m left thinking about the urgency of a daughter’s acceptance.