It was a whole different world in 2004 when Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson‘s nipple for a fraction of a second during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in the “wardrobe malfunction” that shocked the nation. The incident took place a year before YouTube launched, two years before Twitter and six before Instagram made every screen grab, meme and nip slip an instant global sensation.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for the roll-out of the first wave of popular consumer DVR’s by TiVo in 1999, it’s possible the whole thing might have blown over much faster and had a much less devastating impact on Jackson’s solo career. But of course, it didn’t, and Jackson’s career suffered immensely, while Timberlake appeared to skate away nearly scot-free, going on to a mega-Platinum film and music career.
So, what if the same thing were to happen today? When every second of everyone’s lives is tweeted, ‘grammed, ‘chatted, ‘tubed and otherwise socialized instantly? Previously verboten four-letter words and sexually suggestive language, among other things, have creeped even further into prime time, via shows like You’re the Worst and Game of Thrones. Add in last year’s explicit Access Hollywood tape starring then-candidate Donald Trump, the avalanche of sexual assault and harassment charges against Harvey Weinstein, actors, politicians, studio heads and other execs — the blink-and-you’d-miss-it flash of skin during the annual NFL extravaganza suddenly seems like no big deal, right?
While a five-second delay was implemented for live TV performances following Nipplegate, one thing hasn’t changed: The Federal Communications Commission — which answered the many complaint calls about the incident — did not and does not now monitor programs or performers, but enforces the prohibition on obscenity, indecency and profanity in response to complaints.
With Timberlake again booked for the halftime show at 2018’s upcoming Super Bowl LII, Billboard asked some experts to weigh in on how “Nipplegate” might play today.
Dan Charnas, author, The Big Payback, contributor to The Source, associate professor at Clive Davis Institute at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University
There are a lot of folks who think Justin Timberlake threw Janet under the bus… and Janet was left with the responsibility for “sullying” this family event with a nipple, from which all young children are fed. Flip to 2017 and Justin is headlining the Super Bowl, and a lot of folks think that’s all kind of wrong. Because here he is, the survivor, performing in the midst of the most politically charged NFL seasons ever. In the wake of Beyoncé being excoriated for her political statement [in 2016], the Super Bowl halftime has become American political and racial theater.
You have Weinstein, Black Lives Matter, the president… Things have changed, and Janet Jackson isn’t as big a star. We’re in a hugely different political time now. It’s not about some revealing of a nipple and who takes responsibility. This is about black protest in the middle of an authoritarian regime.
Would a wardrobe malfunction have the same impact? Maybe not, because there is so much other shit going on. There are still black artists getting the short end of the stick, there are always double standards — and hypocrisy, on the field, during halftime, off the field.
Ann Powers, NPR, Los Angeles Times pop critic, author Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music
I definitely think things have changed in pop culture in two complementary but also contrasting ways: we have the most explicit content on television ever, in film we’ve seen superhero movies go off-color with Deadpool, and even mainstream entertainment intended for children or teens — which is, of course, what the issue was with the Super Bowl performance — is incorporating more sexual explicitness.
Anyone who thinks young kids are not experiencing explicit content is deceiving themselves. Explicit content is easily concealable and we’re not paying attention to what the person next to us is consuming… we could be sitting next to our partner, and they’re watching hardcore porn and we don’t notice because we’re updating our Facebook page. We have to recognize that people get upset because for some [the Super Bowl] is like secular Christmas. It’s still one of the few cultural events that adheres to the old rules where we all watch together, children are involved, we sit as a family and consume bland foods and in the middle there’s this pop spectacle.
Though things have changed, I’m not sure the Super Bowl has changed. Whether or not he does the right thing and brings Janet out — which he absolutely should — I’m not expecting nude dancers, or, god forbid, Justin exposing his body. If [Nipplegate] happened now I think it would happen differently… When we see explicitness now it’s so distant from sensuality. What was startling about that moment was it felt really sensual, it was a real boob with real flesh and this ornament on it that looked like something a certain kind of woman would wear in her private life. It didn’t look like a staged moment. You look at recent examples of women crossing boundaries on stage — Miley Cyrus with Robin Thicke — and they’re super-staged and comical.
It couldn’t happen the way it did, but there could be a version of it… She’s 50 now, she’s a mom and it could be a moment of reclamation and not an apology on her part, a reassertion of her dignity. And the evolution of Justin’s career — he’s aligned himself more and more with the center of the mainstream but could have gone in a more musically complex direction. He’s a family entertainer, courting the country music crowd. But music is the way we express our sexuality and celebrate it and I see no harm in expressing ourselves through our bodies. I wrote a book about it! Janet took a chance and maybe it was not executed in the perfect way and she overestimated the ability of the audience to accept a very natural thing, which is her body.
Robert Thompson, Director, Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School
It’s tempting to say a lot has happened and everything is different since then… we’ve seen so much more on TV than when Janet and Justin did the Super Bowl. The kinds of things that are talked about at the top of the news cycle because of the whole Access Hollywood thing has made the halftime show seen like a quaint performance from Colonial Williamsburg.
What drove me crazy was this idea that the Super Bowl was like Christmas — we get the kids in jammies on the couch and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and watch the Super Bowl. It was already absurd by then that this violent, militaristic event, with cameras lingering on cheerleaders and not one but two sponsors of erectile dysfunction that year, that that half-second from 50 yards away — which I missed, by the way because I happened to be looking down — completely annihilated the idea of family-friendly viewing.
While culture may have changed a lot it may not be that we would get that different a response because in the end it was not a content issue. It was about something else entirely. It was about planting the flag in the institution of the Super Bowl to complain about the evil ways in which Hollywood and TV were leading the culture. It’s possible that the response could be more extreme [today], but back in 2004 there was this old-school culture war where people who didn’t like Hollywood, supporters of “family values” found a way to rally around the Super Bowl at a time when the Internet gave them a way to mobilize people to complain.
Those situations are still intact, but it’s more complicated than us vs. them, the lewd, obscene peddlers of smut in the big entertainment industry vs us good, all-American types. I think what happened with the NFL between 2004 and now, what happened with issues of indecency and hyper-sexualized, vulgar things outside of Hollywood, the Access Hollywood tape… if this were to happen this year you would need a scorecard to keep everyone straight on the field, but also to keep the arguments straight.
It would be a complicated argument, with some people rolling their eyes about complaints over Hollywood because after the last couple weeks nobody can roll their eyes over Hollywood. This idea that it was an extreme reaction given the culture of the time — if it was so extreme back then, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be as extreme now.