Ihave lived with depression most of my life. In fact, I think it’s fair to say I don’t really know what it’s like to live without depression. I’ve really only ever known myself this one way. I’ve also loved Janet Jackson most of my life. In fact, the “beginnings” of my depression nearly sync up with my discovery of Janet.
I remember being “sad” as early as five years old. My young life was tumultuous and filled with anger, violence, fear, alcoholics, neglect, and misunderstanding. I have ADHD, and though I was only diagnosed as an adult, it’s always been there. When you realize you have ADHD, your whole life comes into clear view. I understood why I behave the way I do, and why I behaved the way I did as a child. I understood why school was so difficult. I understood why I’ve always been so irritable and quick to anger. I understood why criticism makes me seethe. I also have facial and body tics, anxiety, and mild OCD, and all of these things are co-morbid with ADHD. Depression is also co-morbid, and a hallmark symptom of ADHD.
During this pretty scary and stressful period my whole world was turned around. I moved in with my grandparents, who would raise me. I was medicated briefly for my “nerves” because I was having a very hard time coping with the things I had been exposed to and that had been done to me. I was a child, so none of my coping mechanisms were in place yet. My body reacted to the stress with panic attacks and a constant barrage of hives on my inner thighs. My facial tics kicked into high gear, and I was constantly being criticized for them and being told to “stop blinking” or “stop scrunching” my nose. This led to further stress, which led to massive freakouts, which led to panic attacks, which led to hyperventilation, and so on and so on. The cycle had begun, and this would continue for years. I grew angry and violent and reactionary. I was confused and felt alone and misunderstood, which sent me further into my depression.
Children don’t know what depression is. They have no concept, at least not at an early age. They know “happy” and “sad.” I did have happy times, but I was notoriously solitary. I didn’t really play with other kids very much. I didn’t get invited to a lot of birthday parties. I preferred my own company. I liked playing alone with my G.I. Joes and Jem dolls and reading comic books. I would sing and dance in front of the mirror for hours. I became obsessive over music: I would devour the liner notes for every album and cassette tape I came across. I always knew how to entertain myself. I enjoyed being alone, and I still do. I like my own company.
My childhood and young adulthood were fraught with the usual things you’ll hear from pretty much every LGBT person: bullying, threats, name-calling. I once had a group of boys spit in my hair for the entire bus ride home, and I did nothing because to do anything would invite more belittling and violence and embarrassment. People told me they “kill fags.” I was endlessly mocked for attending a ballet with my piano teacher (and a number of other students). All of this fed into my depression. I felt worthless and sub-human and alone. I literally had no one to talk to and no one who would understand me. Being gay was one thing, and was impossible to discuss, but ADHD fills your head with an impenetrable fog. You can’t pinpoint anything. There are moments of clarity, but they’re fleeting. The frustration from not being able to express myself clearly made me even more depressed.
By the time I was a freshman in high school things had leveled off a little. The bullying faded and I socialized more and made real friends. But depression never leaves. The sadness comes whenever, and you’re unable to push it away. I am depressed every day. That is what depression is. You cope and you deal and you find ways to make it work for you. Depression doesn’t mean you’re always crying or always upset or always mad; sometimes it just is. You can have happy moments and happy days and even happy months and years, but that doesn’t mean you’re not still depressed. Depression lives below the surface, waiting to be triggered and told it’s okay to come out and take over. Sometimes it physically hurts, like something under your skin trying to claw out.
Through all of this I never had a name for any of these things. I didn’t know I had ADHD. I didn’t know I was depressed, or that I was likely suffering from PTSD. I didn’t really understand that yes, I was gay. I still thought I’d have to hide it and push it away, marry a woman, raise a family, and be the Man of the House. I had no one to guide me, so in spite of friendships and socializing and having fun, I was still living so many lives. I presented one face to friends and teachers, another face to my family, all the while doing more and more damage and slipping further and further into my own head
Ihad been into Janet Jackson since my great-aunt, Jud, gave me Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 on cassette for my seventh birthday in 1990. That album opened my young eyes: It was socially conscious and fun. As I got older I faded in and out on her music: I was a little young to really enjoy the janet. album when it came out in 1993 (I was 10). I came back to her when she released her greatest hits album in 1995 (Design of a Decade 1986/1996). She was back on my radar big time then, so I was hotly anticipating some new music. I’d devoured her back catalog, from her early stuff most people didn’t know (1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street) to the classics (Control, Rhythm Nation, janet.), and now I was ready for the NEW Janet. I was there for it.
I was surprised to see a new Janet Jackson. She had this mass of tight, bright red coils all over her head. She had a septum ring, a nipple ring, and tattoos. The music was different, darker; more raw and honest. I found myself identifying with her as a person, which was odd to 14-year-old me. I’d never experienced that with another musician, least of all a “big name” musician. I always listened to music from every genre, though my general tastes at that age leaned more toward “alternative” rock music. But I always had time for pop music, and I especially always had time for Miss Janet.
The Velvet Rope chronicles Janet’s own experiences with lifelong depression. She talked about her gay friends, and had a whole song about how being gay is totally okay (“Free Xone”). She talked about BDSM (“Rope Burn”). She talked about domestic abuse (“What About”). She talked about civil rights (“Can’t Be Stopped”). She talked about finding love online (“Empty”). I was floored, honestly. It was unexpected. Superstars didn’t make albums like this. Superstars didn’t talk about their depression and their nipple rings on Oprah. Superstars didn’t sing anthems to the friends they lost to AIDS (“Together Again”). Superstars didn’t sing about domestic abuse. Janet was on some new, heavy shit.
The whole album (to me) is a narrative. She sets things up with “Twisted Elegance,” which talks about how we all have this need to feel special and how it can bring out our good and bad sides. This sets a tone, and the first song, “Velvet Rope,” is all about that metaphorical basis for the whole album: The “velvet rope” we all put up that keeps our true, inner self from everyone else. We hide from others and we also hide from ourselves, which is what the song “You” is about. She drops into her lower register and sings about taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. She sings about the sadness of lost love, another aspect of depression, on “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” which samples Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and features a rap by Q-Tip (who still makes me swoon).
The sexy songs, which are now her hallmark, were tinged with a sad darkness too. I felt like she was singing about the ways we cope with our sadness, by filling ourselves up in other ways such as sex (“My Need,” “Rope Burn,” “Anything”) or by partying (“Go Deep”). We also fill ourselves up with other people. “How empty of me to be so full of you,” she says before kicking into “What About,” maybe the most cathartic song I’ve ever heard. She sings sweetly about her partner and how he wants to marry her but then breaks into a chorus that just screams with rage:
What about the times you lied to me?/What about the times you said no one would want me?/What about all the shit you’ve done to me?/What about that? What about that?/What about the times you yelled at me?/What about the times I cried? You wouldn’t even hold me/What about those things?/What about that? What about that?/What about the times you hit my face?/What about the times you kept on when I said, “No more, please”?/What about those things?/What about that? What about that?/What about the times you shamed to me?/What about the times you said you didn’t fuck her, she only gave you head?/Huh?/What about that? What about that?
This song shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s almost uncomfortably honest, and was based on her own experiences and those of her husband at the time, René Elizondo. I’d never really heard anything like it, and I’m not sure there really are any other songs like this. She performed this at the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1998. Let that sink in for a second. They wanted her to sing a happy pop song and she basically said if she couldn’t sing “What About” and stage it the way she wanted to, she wouldn’t perform at all.
I mean, the VH1 Fashion Awards.
The song that follows “What About” is what most would probably consider a generic ballad, and it may seem like a strange song to sequence after a song about domestic abuse. “Every Time” is a pop ballad about finding new love and being afraid of what might happen, which is exactly how you would feel after getting out of a violent relationship. “Every Time” flows into the Rod Stewart cover, “Tonight’s the Night.” She sings the song from the perspective of one woman to another, keeping the original lyrics. A song that was, quite frankly, creepy as hell when sung by an older man to a teenage girl became sweet and gentle and caring when sung by a woman to another woman. The song even hints at a bisexual polyamorous situation at the end. Who else was doing this in 1997?
I guess my point is that this whole listening experience was so mind-opening to me. I’d never really given much thought to describing how I felt. I didn’t know that I was depressed. I didn’t understand that depression is always there. I thought it was a phase, something you’d grow out of or only experience when really bad things happen. To know that someone famous, who seemed to have everything, had been through the same things I had was reassuring.
To say I love this album is obviously an understatement. It really did change my life, at an age when I needed it most. It didn’t make my life magically better or anything like that. I still stayed in the closet until I was in college, and even then didn’t come out as fully gay until I was in my 20s. I tried to treat my depression when it was officially diagnosed in my sophomore year, but I eventually decided I didn’t like the way Lexapro made me feel and gave up on being medicated for more than a decade. But, The Velvet Rope assured me that I wasn’t alone. This was the first time I’d ever realized that depression is ridiculously common. We just refuse to talk about it openly because we fear judgment or marginalization.
We’re coming to the end of Mental Illness Awareness Week. Things have gotten better for a lot of us. Mental illness is more freely and openly discussed now, at least more than it was 20 years ago. But the mentally ill still have to deal with people questioning us or offering hot takes about our illnesses. For depression and ADHD it’s usually things like “just get outside more” or “ADHD isn’t even real”. No matter how many times I talk about ADHD and what it feels like to have it, some people I know still continue to think it is something you can control by “applying” yourself or by just “focusing” more. Unfortunately, people with ADHD try those things all the time. They don’t work. Being medicated does work for a lot of people. Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. It all comes down to brain chemistry. I take Wellbutrin for my depression, but I know some people feel absolutely no effects from it when they take it. Maybe they take Prozac instead. But when I took Prozac I had to deal with the sexual side effects, so I decided it wasn’t for me. Different things work for different people.
What worked for Janet Jackson was the cathartic process of writing and recording an album about how she reacted to these intense feelings. Jimmy Jam, her longtime friend and producer, has said that some days she wouldn’t even show up to the recording studio because it was so hard to face the subject matter. But she did, and I personally think she created a masterpiece. This album pushed me to start writing for myself as catharsis, and it would later push me toward other artists who also addressed these topics, like Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and Alanis Morissette. Most people probably wouldn’t lump Janet Jackson in with those three and others like them, but I think it’s a natural fit.
I love The Velvet Rope so much that I can even forgive the “cheesier” moments, like when she says “We must learn to water our spiritual garden.” I know, that sounds corny, but isn’t she really just saying that we need to make time for self care? This is common talk nowadays in marginalized groups, especially in this age when we are all under constant attack just for being who we are and speaking out for our civil rights and the rights of others. This was not common talk in 1997. I found it revolutionary, and as an adult I try to live by that idea. I’m not spiritual or religious, but I do water that garden as regularly as possible: through therapy, medication, self-reflection, and talking about my mental illness as much as I can.