Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 73 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring “Together Again” and Janet Jackson’s dance-floor catharsis.
One excellent reason to hyper-focus on the music, the songs, the granular details within the songs themselves, is that the press tour, the media narrative, the extra-musical circus surrounding Janet Jackson’s 1997 album The Velvet Rope, all of that is a fuckin’ mess, quite frankly. Just chaos. It’s a lot. It’s not what you want. It does not appear to be what she wanted. In 1997, Janet Jackson is still very much a pop-music monolith. She’d sold 4 million copies in America of a greatest-hits album, Design of a Decade, that came out in 1995. In ’96, she quite famously renegotiated her contract with Virgin Records and signed a new $80 million contract, which was instantly the biggest pop-star record contract ever. Bigger than anybody’s. Even bigger than—anybody’s.
She was also quite depressed. She was dealing with self-esteem issues and body-image issues that stretch all the way back to her childhood. She was still processing a past abusive relationship. She was also still wondering what percentage of her fame and fortune and acclaim was simply due to her being born into a musical family, where, notably, more things have happened, and keep happening. If we push ahead a little into the tour to support The Velvet Rope, she was also struggling through a rocky and ultimately terminal phase in her marriage to her second husband, René Elizondo Jr. They married in secret in 1991. For most of the decade it was a lovely and remarkably artistically fruitful partnership. Those are his hands on the aforementioned Rolling Stone cover. That’s him directing the aforementioned video for the song “Again.” René Elizondo Jr. is a cowriter on basically all of The Velvet Rope, along with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Janet herself. (Janet, Jimmy, and Terry produced the whole record.) But as husband and wife, this will be their last Janet Jackson album together: Janet and René will publicly separate in 1999 and divorce in 2000.
All of this internal strife—some of which was not public knowledge at the time—clashes uncomfortably with the explicit and quite heavy and sometimes even disturbing content of the album itself. You might initially get the wrong idea about the pain she’s referring to. Back in 1997, when I hadn’t heard this whole record yet, and I was just reading often quite befuddled and mixed reviews and magazine interviews and so forth, I had the erroneous impression that The Velvet Rope was her S&M album. This is my fault, of course, this misconception, but what if it wasn’t? What if it was The Media’s fault? There is, indeed, a song called “Rope Burn,” on this record, whose chorus does, indeed, end like this.
But the keyword there is soft rope burn, I think. Oh my God. Let’s not get bogged down in this. Let’s not get bogged down in the media shit, either, OK. To summarize the chaos of Janet Jackson’s public life in 1997, she goes on Oprah, right. Peak, Imperial Phase Oprah. I think right here in 1997 is when I took a journalism class at a Midwestern university renowned for its journalism program, according to the available literature, and the professor asked us to define integrity, like who we thought had integrity, and everyone in the class said Oprah. I think that’s all we said. Oprah. That’s it. Oprah = integrity. I don’t even disagree now. But Janet Jackson does the whole hour on Oprah. You can watch it on YouTube now. She performs “Together Again,” she talks to Oprah for a long time, she performs “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” she gets the hell out of there. And Janet Jackson’s interview with Oprah is a journey, man. It’s just very cringe, and then somewhat moving, and then very cringe again at irregular intervals. Topics include, in no particular order: Janet’s famous family, her belief that she’s not that great a dancer, her weight, whether she eats chicken or ribs or both or neither, her depression, enemas, racism she experienced in school as a child, her relationship with René, and also this:
OK. I just want to know why you pierced your nipple? [Laughter.] And I really do mean that, in the best way. Is there a reason why you say “I’m gonna pierce the nipple, and not my nose …”
I really do mean that in the best way is the quintessential Oprah touch, by the way. That’s why she’s the best. That’s why she’s the paragon of journalistic integrity. I’m not even joking. If you’re watching this episode live in 1997 just as a big Oprah fan who maybe hasn’t thought about Janet Jackson in forever, you emerge from this long, sprawling, daffy conversation with the very confused idea that Janet Jackson’s new album, The Velvet Rope, must be this baffling jumble of confessional, almost therapeutic super-heaviness and hard-R-rated blindfolds-and-piercings mischief. The achingly sincere rubbing up against the disarmingly prurient, or maybe the disarmingly sincere rubbing up against the achingly prurient. And you would not be wrong in thinking that about this record, but I don’t think this Oprah conversation—or frankly any conversation people were having about this record at first—prepares you for how well The Velvet Rope balances this chaotic jumble of moods and traumatic memories and fears and desires. Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip should not work well on a song together, by the way. But they do. Opposites attract. Opposites enhance one another. The bad kind of pain forms a spectacular alliance with the good kind of pain.
We have a special need
To feel that we belong
This is the song “The Velvet Rope,” and even the two samples here should not really work in tandem: The heaviness, the rad old-school electro beat is “Hobo Scratch” by Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team, from 1984. The ominous lightness, the tubular bells, well, that’s Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” from 1973, that’s even older-school I suppose, and yeah that’s from The Exorcist. So this is a semi-erotic electro exorcism, leading off an album in which a famously erotic super-famous pop star intends to exorcise her various demons, and on paper, or on Oprah, maybe it sounds both way too random and way too literal, but in practice it sounds weirdly fantastic.
The Velvet Rope itself is not an S&M thing or an especially sexual thing, as I mistakenly thought at first, because I was nefariously misled by the media, but the actual velvet rope that separates VIPs from non-VIPs, famous people from not-famous people, et cetera. It is Janet Jackson welcoming you into her world and baring her all-too-human vulnerabilities. And this usually doesn’t work on paper either, the I’ve Got Problems Just Like You pop-star trip. Stars, They’re Just Like Us works great as a concept; I’m a Star, and I’m Just Like You doesn’t work at all. But the vulnerability here sneaks up on you as well. This record’s got a bunch of interludes and little skits, and I tune out of most of those on most other albums by most other people most of the time, but The Velvet Rope includes both a skit in which Janet masturbates while calling a woman that the internet swears to me is Lisa Marie Presley, who was a member of Janet’s musically inclined family at the time—and I don’t have any idea what to do with that information—but it also has a 10-second track called “Interlude - Sad” in which Janet says this:
And it blows right by you maybe the first 50 times you listen to this album, and then it knocks you on your ass the 51st time. This sneak-attack mix of subtlety and flagrant unsubtlety works with the R-rated mischief, too. So Janet covers Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” right, and at first this seems, like, way too chill.
But then, hopefully it doesn’t take you 51 times hearing this, but suddenly it occurs to you that Janet hasn’t changed all of Rod’s pronouns.
The master stroke here is putting all the extra sauce on the word now, not the word girl. On other songs, though, it’s imperative that you get Janet’s point immediately. I have this vivid memory, also from around a year ago, of taking a long walk around my neighborhood while listening to this record with my headphones cranked up way too high, and the song “What About” just about knocked me into a ditch.
This is the song that’s pretty explicitly about a past abusive relationship. The other line from the chorus I’m tempted to play for you is where she sings, “What about the times you said you didn’t fuck her? / She only gave you head,” because that’s kinda funny, in a R-rated way, but I feel like this part is a little more important.
The beat drop on “Together Again” is a classic moment. It’s a classic moment in and of itself that echoes, of course, the classic moment when Donna Summer did it on “Last Dance” back in 1978.
Listen to the best. Aspire to the best. Tip your hat to the best. “Together Again,” when it shifts into gear, has a sweetness and a lightness and a bubbliness to it. It doesn’t take 51 listens to sense the delicate and terrible weight behind that bubbliness—it doesn’t take .5 listens—but I submit to you that Janet’s not-bazooka-diva voice is once again a huge asset here. She doesn’t oversell the drama, which of course only deepens it.
The backing vocals on the second verse are low-key the best part of this whole song. Get good headphones and just luxuriate in Janet’s backing vocals here. If you’re walking while you’re luxuriating, look out for any ditches.
“Sometimes hear you whisperin’, no more pain.” Oh, wow. So in the Velvet Rope liner notes, Janet writes, “I dedicate the song ‘Together Again’ to the friends I’ve lost to AIDS, Dominic, George, Derrick, Bobby, Dominic, Victor, José … I miss you and we will be together again.”
I believe I’ve mentioned Tom Breihan, the great critic and author who writes for Stereogum, he has that rad column “The No. 1’s” where he writes about every No. 1 hit—it’s required reading of course—and he got to this song a few weeks ago actually, and he wrote, “‘Together Again’ came out after a long string of #1 hits dealing with death, but it doesn’t sound or feel anything like those songs. ‘Together Again’ is not a melodramatic work of mourning. Instead, it’s a song of optimism and celebration. Janet sings of death as a form of liberation from earthly stresses … It’s a song about being excited to see this person again on the other side, and from where I’m sitting, that’s a whole hell of a lot more moving than another mopey ballad. In that sentiment, you can hear a lineage at work—gospel to soul to disco to house. You can hear the yearning for transcendence that’s behind so much great music.” Then he says, “‘Together Again’ also just slaps hard,” because that’s how Tom rolls. No lies detected.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.