A Primer On The Janet Jackson And Justin Timberlake Super Bowl Shitshow

It's time to revisit one of the most messed-up chapters in pop culture history.

Justin Timberlake Super Bowl

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2004 was a wild time in America. Mark Zuckerberg and friends founded Facebook, President George Bush won reelection in the heat of the Iraq War, and Donald Trump the “You’re Fired” guy from TV still identified as a Democrat.

But amidst all the year’s world-altering events (did we mention Friends ending and Lindsay Lohan’s debut album?), there was no upstaging ‘Nipplegate’. Too young or addled by age to remember it? Let’s rewind.

Here’s the one-sentence summary of what happened: performing alongside Janet Jackson for 90 million viewers, Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson’s outfit, briefly revealing her breast.

Timberlake’s return invite has reignited debate about how Jackson was treated in the Nipplegate aftermath, with #JusticeForJanet trending on Twitter. A lot of thorny questions on race, gender and white privilege can spiral out from 9/16ths of a second.

So, What Happened?

Super Bowl 2004 was Janet Jackson’s show. Her career was seven albums in, including the incredible ’90s one-two punch of Janet and The Velvet Rope. Like her brother Michael, who gave an iconic halftime performance in 1993, she was a proven live powerhouse.

Justin Timberlake was a late addition to her set, very much in the ‘special guest’ role. At the time, he was still hot from the success of his debut solo album, Justified. Bringing him out to perform one of its hit singles was a no-brainer.

Justin and Janet weren’t the only halftime entertainers that year in Houston. They were joined at centre field by a perfectly 2004 cast: Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Nelly… and future Trump ally Kid Rock doing ‘Bawitdaba’ and ‘Cowboy’ in a stars and stripes poncho.

Jackson’s section of the 12-minute show was mostly pretty electric, with expertly choreographed versions of ‘All For You’ and ‘Rhythm Nation’. Then JT emerged from the floor in his khaki pants and oversized suit jacket, stalking Jackson around the stage to the tune of ‘Rock Your Body’.

In the final moment, timed to the line “better have you naked by the end of this song”, Timberlake pulled Jackson’s right breast cup off, revealing a flash of nipple. The camera cut away quickly to exploding fireworks as millions of people asked, “Did he just…?”

And just like that, the term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ entered the popular lexicon.

Moral Panic 101

The explanation of what happened seems pretty straightforward.

As Jackson’s spokesperson said at the time, Timberlake was “supposed to pull away the bustier and leave the red-lace bra” but accidentally took the whole thing. But nothing really stayed straightforward about Nipplegate.

“Even though he was the main culprit, Timberlake kept on doing just fine”

That 9/16 of a second kicked off a huge controversy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received over 500,000 complaints, bolstered by a campaign from the pearl-clutching Parents Television Council.

This backlash prompted the NFL to condemn the MTV-produced halftime show. MTV and its parent company Viacom, in turn, shunned Jackson, dropping her music videos from their rotation. Her new album, Damita Jo, which came out a month after the Super Bowl, underperformed.

Even though he was the main culprit, Timberlake kept on doing just fine.

Tepid Timberlake

So here’s the bit still riling people up today: Timberlake never adequately accepted his part in the whole fiasco.

In one surly interview with Entertainment Tonight back then, he left his stage partner firmly under the bus. “I was completely shocked and appalled. I was completely embarrassed,” he said, alleging the plan to rip off part of her clothing was Janet’s alone. “I don’t feel like I need publicity like this.”

Jackson, on the other hand, recorded a hostage video for CBS shouldering the blame. The bustier pulling bit (the G-rated version, not what actually happened) was apparently added after the final rehearsal. “MTV, CBS, the NFL had no knowledge of this whatsoever,” she said. “Unfortunately the whole thing went wrong in the end.”

“I was completely shocked and appalled. I was completely embarrassed,” Timberlake said.

Timberlake didn’t exactly redeem himself at the Grammys a week after the Super Bowl. Accepting the trophy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, he half-heartedly apologised “if you guys were offended”.

CBS said Timberlake and Jackson could attend the ceremony only if they apologised from the stage. Jackson was originally scheduled to take part in a Grammys tribute to Luther Vandross but “declined the invitation” following Nipplegate. (Either that or she was simply uninvited.)

In March 2004, Jackson endured a fairly creepy interview on The Late Show in which David Letterman commented on her dress (“That’s almost malfunctioning, isn’t it?”) and how good she smelled. Her discomfort at reliving the halftime show was palpable.

Timberlake, meanwhile, wondered why people still cared when there were other important ’04 issues, like finding those pesky weapons of mass destruction. He did however eventually acknowledge the systemic forces at play. “I probably got 10-percent of the blame,” he admitted to MTV News. “I think that says something about society.

“I think America is harsher on women. I think America is unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”

Nipplegate Never Left

Nipplegate had repercussions beyond the careers of its two protagonists.

In an extreme reaction, the 2004 Grammys telecast ran on a five-minute delay to catch any unscheduled nudity. More significantly, a five-second delay was widely implemented for live broadcasts.

The Super Bowl halftime shows also took a conservative turn. The next few years favoured seasoned men of rock like Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. (As we know, even rock alpha males aren’t immune to wardrobe malfunctions.) The next halftime show controversy came in 2012: M.I.A.’s middle finger apparently ranked as more offensive than LMFAO’s invitation to perform.

Nipplegate also helped birth YouTube. In 2004, a Silicon Valley upstart called Jawed Karim was trying to find the clip online and got the idea to create a hub for online videos. Karim founded YouTube with Chad Hurley and Steve Chen the following year. “Janet Jackson” also the most-searched term and image at the time, while subscriptions spiked on the digital video recorder TiVo. In short: everyone’s a perve.

Those technology milestones lead pretty neatly to our current #JusticeForJanet moment. It’s tempting to think that if Nipplegate happened in the Twitter age, we’d rally to Janet’s side. Now is also the perfect time for Timberlake to speak on the privilege that helped him emerge unscathed. And it needs to be something more forceful than “that won’t happen this time”.

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York.  He is on Twitter