I have a lot to say about The Velvet Rope, the Janet Jackson album that “Empty” appears on. So much to say that I’ve considered drafting a proposal and sending it to the folks at 33 ⅓ (the folks that put out books about records). The Velvet Rope was a ridiculously daring album, graphic in its exploration of sexuality, the struggle to define oneself as an individual, personal loss, romantic loss, and a variety of other topics.
“Empty” was ahead of its time for several reasons. Lyrically, it was one of the first songs (the first in my memory) to discuss online relationships. Janet has become enamored of someone she’s met through the magic of the internet (hell, it seemed magical to me in 1997), and has developed a serious attachment. “When I close my eyes/I can see your face…If I can’t read your thoughts/Then I feel empty”.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact that the early days of the internet and what eventually became social media had on lonely people. Hell, I was late to the internet revolution (I didn’t get my own computer until 2000), but I fell victim to the chat room crush, too. Eventually, we learned…well, most of us learned…well, some of us learned that virtual crushes, friends and partners were no substitute for the real flesh-and-blood thing. While the internet serves as a good jumping off point for beginning a relationship (or maintaining one when distance is a factor), there’s definitely a false sense of security that can be gotten via the formation of online relationships that can reverse course and smack you right in the face. Watch an episode of “Catfish” if you need any further proof.
Sonically, Janet and her partners Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis couch “Empty” in a wash of synths. Half way in, a drum-and-bass inspired beat kicks in, marking one of Janet’s only nods to that particular subgenre.
With twenty years passed, I have to laugh at the fact that “Empty” begins with the sound of a modem and ends with Janet mumbling “damn…disconnected”. There are now full grown adults who have never had to contend with dial-up internet. Crazy, huh?