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Janet Jackson's New Ins And Outs

By Michael Freedberg

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  The velvet rope, says Janet Jackson, is the device that doormen use to control entree to the best nightclubs. Thus the title, The Velvet Rope (Virgin), of her latest CD -- 22 songs of recognizable Jackson music and beats that she introduces (in the title song) by stating "our special need to belong" as "a need that's within us that brings out the best, yet the worst in us."

It's a worthy theme for music asserting one's personal dignity, as anyone knows who's ever experienced the purgatory a clubgoer passes through while waiting for the doorman to admit him or her. And a successful theme for Jackson, who built her strongest CD ever, Control, on a similar idea. Jackson certainly recognizes the power of that CD: on "The Velvet Rope" she goes back to its spoken rebuke and, with violinist Vanessa Mae at her side, its buzzsaw noise riffs. Rock-orchestrated like the densest Europop, melodically rapturous, with its nasty-gal funk beat punching hard, the song takes you inside a soul being judged. The music shifts from sweet to bittersweet, sways from brightness to the dark side, sinks and soars. It's a mighty struggle in public, like the face-off between doorman and clubgoer. Or a trial on Court TV.

Soul music was always, by definition, a trial in public. Given the terrible impact that public trials have had on the conscience of recent America, Jackson's velvet-rope soul drama is powerfully convincing. Why, then, as "The Velvet Rope" reaches its final stanzas (and a moment of triumph), does she turn her voice inward, away from testimony and verdict and into a private world of needing to feel specially, intimately loved? She turns her fans inward as well. Forget trying to please everyone, she cautions in "You" -- a know-your-real-self song of a type that, in soul-music tradition, ought to soar like a bird (listen to the Impressions' "Woman Got Soul") but doesn't. As bitter as the angriest moments of "The Velvet Rope," "You" equates knowing oneself with turning one's back on the rest of the world.

But "You" is the last song in The Velvet Rope to call upon the kind of combat power that strengthens Janet Jackson most (as it does her brother Michael!). Thereafter it's back to the walled safety of her lip-gloss neighborhood, back to songs full of the smile-face falsetto and rock-with-you swing beats basic to Jackson music since the '70s. Which isn't to say that the music lacks flair. The homegirl slang of "Speaker Phone," in which Jackson talks trash with a girlfriend, feels far less rehearsed than the slangy formalities of hip-hop. Likewise, she sings the scented giddiness of "My Need" (the need to confront club doormen is forgotten), the "bumpy ride" houseparty beat of "Go Deep," the creamy horniness of "Anything," and the soulful falsetto of "Special" (the CD's coda) with a minimum of gimmickry and no over-the-top acrobatics.

The simplicity of Jackson's new singing will surprise fans accustomed to her busy-fast style, the vocal equivalent of the stage choreography that makes her an effective video performer. Here -- in an arrangement far deeper than the candy-coated dazzle of the standard Jackson pop song -- a risky intimacy rules. And persuades, with none of the special picks that Mariah Carey, for example, needs to get her vocal key into the lock. The microphone wouldn't dare to come as close to the stand-offish Carey as it does to Jackson when, word by word, she swoozes slowly through "Tonight's the Night" (yes, the Rod Stewart song), rounding every wrinkle of the hard lyric into a smooth, creaseless shape.

Yet for all its reassuring candor about the emptiness of having everything except a lover to be close to, The Velvet Rope disappoints. Albums of lonely love dreams abound on contemporary urban radio; rarer by far are those dedicated, as The Velvet Rope proclaims itself, to the need to belong, the combat between ins and outs, the public humiliation of having your soul judged. This sort of theme does rule the severe microcosm of gangsta rap, but it's all too easy to see the gangsta ground as a foreign country. Whereas the bluesy rasp and pop-song cuteness of Jackson music is our own voice speaking to us.

Whatever kind of American you are, there's no escaping the demons that curse Jackson music, Janet's or Michael's; the family fight on Control is our fight, just as much as the blackness torture and lynch-mob vengeance of Michael's many CDs since Thriller is our own destiny, our doorman's stance at the velvet rope of exclusion. It's a shame that Janet dedicates only an opening part of her CD to the theme she's so eloquently identified.

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