It was the wardrobe malfunction seen ‘round the world.
We doubt you need a refresher on what went down at intermission of Super Bowl XLVIII, but here’s the short version of the infamous incident at the 2004 MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show: Janet Jackson headlined and Justin Timberlake appeared as a special guest.
They shared the stage for what was an otherwise epic halftime show performance. Jackson ran through “All For You,” “Rhythm Nation,” and Timberlake joined for the final song, “Rock Your Body.” When Timberlake delivered the final line, “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” he ripped off a little too much of Jackson’s top, exposing her pierced nipple for the world to see on national television and earned the incident a nickname: Nipplegate.
The events that followed and the public reaction were disturbing. MTV’s chief executive at the time, Tom Freston, placed blame solely on Jackson and accused her of “engineering” the malfunction as a publicity stunt. Both artists released statements apologizing to the NFL, MTV, CBS and anyone else who may have been offended.
Of course, it didn’t end there. Jackson was allegedly uninvited to the 2004 Grammys the following weekend by CBS, while Timberlake’s invitation was not revoked. He was even allowed to perform and address the crowd on the incident, apologizing once again. In a 2006 interview with MTV, Timberlake admitted that Jackson suffered much harsher consequences than he did, accurately allowing “If you consider it 50-50, then I probably got 10 percent of the blame. I think that says something about society. I think that America is harsher on women. I think America is unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
A statue paying tribute to Jackson at Walt Disney World was torn down following the performance. She was blacklisted on radio stations. She’s yet to score another top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, despite scoring dozens of them in her career prior to the Super Bowl, including on her most recent album to that point, 2001’s All for You. Timberlake, on the other hand, was fine — in fact, he experienced his greatest solo success on his next album following the Super Bowl, 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, which was certified multi-Platinum and notched three Hot 100 No. 1 hits. The incident barely impacted his career, unless you count the bit of extra camera time he was allotted when journalists asked about it.
Fast forward to 2017. Timberlake, still a chart-topping global pop star, was recently announced as the Super Bowl LII Halftime Show headliner. While Jackson still carries the scars (and something of a scarlet letter) from the incident, Timberlake has been welcomed back to America’s biggest stage with open arms. Sadly, this is not an uncommon theme: Women in entertainment are consistently judged harder, swifter, and face harsher social consequences for public scandals than men – especially women of color.
With his upcoming performance, Timberlake has an opportunity to make an important statement about Jackson, and the disproportionate backlash that she suffered following Super Bowl XLVIII. Simply acknowledging that his privilege is what’s allowing him to be front and center at the Super Bowl once again would be commendable, and a necessary first step in making things right with his former co-star.
But inviting Jackson to perform with him would be an incredible showing of solidarity. Timberlake standing at Jackson’s side and sharing the spotlight with her projects the sentiment that while he may not be able to help his privilege, he can share it with Jackson, and give her the same opportunity to shine — an opportunity that was stripped from her by both the entertainment industry as well as much of the general population. Timberlake owes Jackson — who also once took a fledgling *NSYNC on tour with her in the late ’90s, a major moment of early exposure for Timberlake and his breakthrough group — at least that much, after a decade-plus of enjoying an endlessly flourishing career, while Janet’s career plunged.
This is a moment to leave Nipplegate and all the repercussions that came with it behind, to rewrite history and deliver a spectacular performance that allows both them and the public to have a new, less contentious memory of the duo playing the Super Bowl together. Ideally, Timberlake would not only duet with Jackson — on one of her songs, not his — but would also cede the stage and the spotlight as she performed a song of her own, on her own. (“Rhythm Nation,” anyone?)
It’s difficult to ignore that much of this conversation goes beyond even the Super Bowl performance, and that this timing makes a Jackson appearance even more vital. We’re living in a politically divisive time where women’s rights are still challenged and men are not held accountable nearly as often as they should be. Inviting Jackson back out to perform would not only make a statement about the two of them and what happened 13 years ago, it would be a message for men and women everywhere, that sexism and shaming will not be tolerated, and that we are always stronger when we stand together against those harmful ideas.
Justin Timberlake is an exceptionally talented artist and performer. So is Janet Jackson. Yes, what happened at the 2004 Super Bowl was unfortunate, but one party should not carry all the blame while the other is able to move on as though nothing happened, especially not so many years years later. It’s time that Timberlake sets an example and welcomes Jackson back to the stage with him.