Women In Crisis: Revisiting ‘The Velvet Rope’ and ‘Butterfly’ 20 Years On

During the autumn of 1997, two of the biggest names in music invited listeners into their lives of disarray-divorce, depression, insecurity and pain. Exorcising their demons, they changed the musical landscape.

What do you do when you have it all? The career, the marriage, the adoration. You do nothing, because in those silent moments of emptiness where there is only you-not what everyone thinks you are or wants you to be-it will not add up to anything.

In 1997, Britpop and ‘Cool Britannia’ had reached a zenith that only a Tony-Blair-Be Here Now-sized colossus could take it down and, jesus, did the party die quickly. Biggy was killed, while the Spice Girls were devilish overlords of the world. Despite this, the world appeared to be hurtling towards the 21st century with optimistic frenzy. This palpable hope for the millennium was contrasted with two of the most soul-baring and introspective albums of the female artists of the era (Madonna’s Ray Of Light should be placed within this bracket but followed in 1998). Both was the respective singers’ magnum opus, and neither have bettered them. Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope and Mariah Carey’s Butterfly destroyed the myth of the popstars as untouchable beings, replacing it with the vision of fragile human beings who bleed like us. It is perhaps a coincidence, or a testament to the spirit of the nineties, that both records were released within a two-month period.

Due to their current standing, it is slightly hard to convey how famous both women were in ‘97. Janet had overtaken Michael’s popularity in America for the first time, and was fresh off releasing three seminal and influential albums (1993’s Janet. sold 14 million records worldwide, and in 1995 had extended her contract with Virgin Records for $80 million – a world record at the time) while Mariah had already accumulated 11 number one’s (equaling Madonna) in the space of six years. Personally, both were experiencing the most tumultuous periods of their lives.

Before recording Velvet Rope, Janet had suffered a breakdown due to years of suppressing her depression and insecurities. It was a introspective time; trying to solve the puzzle of the self, going all the way back to childhood. This meant that whilst the recording was fraught with delays due to Janet emotional difficulties, the music produced came from the realest place. While Michael lashed outwards for History, Janet looked inwards.

In a different part of America, Mariah Carey was experiencing the breakdown of her relationship to Tommy Mottola. Married in 1993 and head of Sony at the time, Mottola was a domineering and controlling figure in Carey life. Dictating what songs she released, her ‘sound’, her image, her videos (Mottola was not a fan of Mariah having fictional love interests) until eventually rumours abounded that she was being kept as a prisoner in the home they shared together (something Carey has never confirmed or denied, but hinted at). Feeling that her public persona-the one Mottola created did not correlate to who she truly was, Carey sought a change of sound and vision.

Butterfly is a transitional record and a reflection of her breaking free from the influence of her former husband. This meant pursuing collaborators such as P Diddy, Missy Elliot and Nas-producers The Trackmasters for her music to be more urban and hip-hop based, as well as dressing more provocatively to distance herself from the “90s Mary Poppins” image. The album covers for both gives you warning of what to expect on the inside. The Velvet Rope has a downward looking Jackson, wary and morose; in strong contrast to stark artwork for Janet. Butterfly contains a midriff bearing Carey holding a butterfly against a bare backdrop; the freedom and fragile beauty of the insect with the empty surroundings could be said to represent the divide between sadness and liberty which the album itself often teeters on the edge of. It’s the end of something. And the beginning.

The Velvet Rope is an exploration of ‘97 Janet’s state of mind; everything is stripped bare. It tackles insecurity, depression, death, homosexuality, domestic violence, sadomasochism. Janet identifies with all those in society who exist on the outside, the downtrodden. The main theme of the record is the idea of belonging and self-worth and while you do not come away feeling any more educated about the big questions such as how do we achieve long term happiness, you are hopeful. The confessional nature of the record lent itself to be a hard listen at times. You (“Unleash the scared child you have grown into”) is a much too relatable diatribe, with Kendrick Lamar’s U only reaching similar heights of self-hatred in recent times, while What About‘s painful howl of “What about the time you told me you didn’t fuck her / She only gave you head” is the moment the abused refuse to be the victim any longer. Even the overtly sexual songs have an air of loneliness and melancholy about them, with My Need appearing to be more of a desperate plea of affection to avoid isolation rather than an ode to sexual desire and the ‘three way’ of Tonight’s the Night ends with Janet’s soft request to “Not leave her alone”.

That is not to say the album does not have joyous moments. The stripped back, J Dilla ghost-produced Got Till It’s Gone is a slice of soulful humanity, with Q Tip stating what we already knew – “Joni Mitchell never lies.” And who could forget the Grammy-winning video which explores a beautiful culture not represented enough in mainstream media (Janet performs at a club, no makeup, in 60/70s apartheid era South Africa, the visual just exploring this remarkable community of people) while Together Again provides one of the strongest songs of her whole career; a life affirming disco-house number for a friend who died of AIDS but resonates with all who have lost a loved one. A 90s Last Dance. To this end, Velvet Rope is a proudly queer record that is not afraid to push the boundaries of sexuality and exploration with a rejection of constriction. As Free Xone states “Free to be who you are / One rule, no rules”.

One of the most noticeable things about the record is how innovative the production is. The Janet-Jimmy/Jam partnership was already on par with Michael and Quincy Jones in producing subversive and futuristic R & B, but the quest for inventive and forward-thinking sounds was pushed to new extremes this time round. It took much influence from the British dance scene of the time, from D & B (You in particularly descends into a wall of frenetic beats like an urban Björk), trip-hop (Anything) and, of course, house. Aside from Madonna, who as already mentioned would later also do to great effect a year later, no popular American artist had attempted to incorporate British dance music into their work, and certainly not in R & B, yet made it seem like it was their own. Janet was forging her own path.

Where Velvet Rope was expansive and wide reaching, Butterfly kept close to Carey’s own human experience. The album deceptively opens with Honey, one of those fun, bright 90s jams and what it lacks in depth it makes up for in a fresh, hip-hop based production (courtesy of P Diddy and The “Ummah”-Q-Tip, J Dilla and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) and a light hearted Bond themed video. However, the mood never reaches these heights again (except for the deep house liberation of Fly Away) as each song that follows is filled with pain and longing.

While previous critics had complained of her music being bland and overblown, Carey’s voice on this recorded is much more controlled yet versatile. Babydoll is velvet to the ears, while My All is a melancholic whisper. The title song, explores the dynamics of her ended marriage (“It’s what I wish he had said to me”), while The Roof, My All and Fourth Of July (which successfully evokes the feeling of remembering back to youthful summers, but is yet still underpinned by an unattainable happiness- “And I think I will never truly feel the way that I felt that Fourth of July”) are reflective and full of yearning.

Carey is very underappreciated for her lyrical ability, with her lyrics never being more poetic and personal than on this album. The Roof is so effective with its imagery that you feel you are standing in the rain, on that roof, on that ‘November night’ with her (that moment in the video where Carey stares into the camera, soaked in rain with eyes of regret and longing is heart-stopping), Breakdown describes the anguish of a dying relationship with brutal truth (“Do you hold on in vain as they just slip away?”), Close My Eyes infers suicide (“Nearing the edge/oblivious I nearly fell right over / A part of me will never be able to able to feel quite stable”.) Similar to Velvet Rope, Carey deals with the concept of identity and inclusion yet unlike Janet’s optimism, Butterfly offers no resolution or suggestion things will improve. Ending on the sorrowful Outside, a song that speaks for those who feel always on the precipice of normal society-always in reach, but never quite there or quite right (“And you’ll always be/the one the outside”).

Neither record is perfect; as it should be. Special is poignant but suffers from a theatrical production and Go Deep does not fit with the introspective mood of the album, while Whenever You Call is one of Carey’s most generic ballads, one that stinks of pressure from the label for more songs that sound like her ‘old stuff’. However, the influence of Velvet Rope can still be felt in the new generation of musicians. Take Solange, whose 2016 record A Seat At the Table reminisced in terms of message and aesthetic, heavily singing its praises. The sonics can be heard in artists as diverse as Kelela, Banks, MNEK, The xx, FKA Twigs, Shura and many more, all living in the house Janet built. Butterfly was not as influential but it’s near immaculate quality still shines through now. It was a personal triumph for Carey (who cites it as the album she is proudest of) and was the beginning of the second, more legitimate phase of her career building a bridge between pop and urban music as well as shattering the idea of what ‘celebrity’ meant in the process.

Both artists later had further mountains to climb (safe to say this was not the end of eithers personal woes), but in 1997 they were brave and shared their deepest thoughts. Darkness never looked so light.

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