On February 1, 2004, Janet Jackson, then 38-years-old, and Justin Timberlake, then 23-years-old, caused a wake of mass cultural hysteria when, at the end of Jackson’s Super Bowl Halftime performance, Timberlake made a surprise appearance to duet “Rock Your Body.” At the end, Timberlake tore off a piece of Jackson’s black Alexander McQueen dress, revealing her right breast with the nipple covered by a starbust-shaped shield. CBS broadcasters cut to an aerial view of the stadium after 9/16 of a second, but as far as the FCC and family-oriented audience of 143 million viewers was concerned, the damage was done.
Now, 13 years later, Timberlake is set to take the Super Bowl Halftime stage once again, this time sans Jackson and promising “the wardrobe thing won’t happen.” But questions and legitimate concerns over the NFL’s choice—particularly in a highly sensitive cultural climate where breaking accusations and allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from major players in the entertainment industry, most notably Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein, are being unearthed hourly—still abound, mainly because of the proceeding, controversial fall out from what’s now known as “nipplegate.”
So what exactly happened after that fateful “wardrobe malfunction”?
Immediately following the “incident,” MTV and Viacom, the channel producing the Halftime Show at the time, published a statement apologizing for such indecent exposure, explaining that, “The tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance.”
While at first the narrative was that this was a publicity stunt gone awry, as talk and severity of the incident grew, so did the explanations. “Justin was supposed to pull away the rubber bustier to reveal a red lace bra. The garment collapsed and her breast was accidentally revealed,” Jackson’s publicist said in a statement, while CBS placed responsibility on Jackson and Timberlake, stating that “we all attended rehearsals and there was no indication that something like this would happen.” The FCC even took CBS and Viacom all the way to the Supreme Court in FCC v. CBS Corp., demanding the $550,000 fine for indecent exposure on live television be reinstated based off the incident, which Michael Powell, then President of the FCC, described as “a new low for primetime television.”
While Timberlake, the one who actually committed the physical act of exposing Jackson, skirted under the radar with a quick statement to Access Hollywood (“hey man, we love giving you all something to talk about,” he said) Jackson was made a public example of; the new millennium’s modern witch put on trial.
On the Monday after the incident at Super Bowl Sunday, CBS had Jackson release a written statement apologizing, taking full blame for what they were now calling an unfortunate “accident”. “The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended – including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL.” Then on Tuesday, the networks asked Jackson to tape and release a video apology, reiterating her decision to change up the performance.
“My decision to change the Super Bowl performance was made after the final rehearsal,” Jackson said in her televised statement. “MTV, CBS, [and] the NFL had no knowledge of this whatsoever and unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong in the end. I am really sorry if I offended anyone, that was truly not my intention.”
But the public shaming of Jackson—to which the singer herself told USA Today was “truly embarrassing”—didn’t stop. The Grammy’s were the following week, which both Timberlake and Jackson were scheduled to present and perform at, but Jackson was outright banned from the event, despite previous assurances from the Academy that both would attend, saying “there’s such a big difference…to putting a stage on Astroturf than an appearance at the Grammys.” Timberlake, on the other hand, attended and was allowed to perform. Clear Channel Communications, which owned Infinity Broadcasting and Viacom (MTV and CBS), blacklisted all of Jackson’s singles and music videos, banning her music from all the TV channels and radio stations the company owned, stifling airplay and making her new album, Damita Jo, her lowest-selling album since 1984. The disgraced singer was forced to resign from a set movie deal she had just signed, and even a statue of Mickey Mouse wearing Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” costume was dismantled following continued backlash. In an attempt to break the heat of constant bashing, Jackson went on SNL, mocking the entire situation.
At the time of the incident, America was in a cultural war of sorts (in addition to actually being in two young wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well), fighting between the First Amendment principle of freedom of speech and the desire to protect the minds of its youth. In 2003 news networks aired live the very first bombing of Baghdad, initiating round-the-clock, in-your-face media coverage that would make the Iraq War the most-watched war in human history. Howard Stern’s radio show was one of the most popular shows on traditional network air and the Real World, with its Jacuzzis and naked three-ways, was MTV’s claim to fame. In response, the Parents Television Council partnered with the FCC to crack down drastically on the battle between smut and wholesome viewing, airing censored versions of the film Saving Private Ryan so there was no war scene and fining networks left and right for the use of “obscene language” and indecent exposure, which (shockingly) included instances like when Fox ran a rerun of Family Guy and showed Stewie, the cartoon character’s, naked butt. So Jackson’s bare boob? Yeah, that caused an uproar, and was, as many have argued, the perfect opening for the FCC to pounce with only light objection (Jackson’s exposure received 540,000 complaints filed to the FCC), ready restore morality and a sense of order to American pop culture and television.
Also unfortunately for Jackson, the tech boom was blowing up, causing “Janet Jackson” to become the most Googled search term in history (it even made the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006). The incident allegedly inspired the idea for YouTube (Jawed Karim once said he founded YouTube out of “frustration” that he couldn’t find the performance clip), was the catalyst for Howard Stern switching to FCC-free satellite radio, despite the platform having very few listeners at the time. To this day, the incident is still considered one of the most controversial moment on television to date.
Timberlake’s solo career, on the other hand—he had just left *NSYNC in 2002—really took off. At the same 2004 Grammy’s, Timberlake was nicknamed “the Teflon man,” and a whole two years later, in 2006, finally issued a formal apology (of sorts) on MTV while promoting his album Future Sex/Love Sounds. “In my honest opinion now, I could’ve handled it better,” Timberlake said of the incident. “I’m part of a community that consider themselves artists. And if there was something I could have done in her defense that was more than I realized then, I would have. But the other half of me was like, ‘Wow. We still haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction and everybody cares about this!'” Adding, “I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”