After weeks of speculation, the NFL confirmed Sunday that Justin Timberlake will headline the halftime show at Super Bowl LII.
Moms everywhere squealed with glee when they heard the news. Facebook exploded with predictions of a surprise *NSYNC cameo. And Timberlake’s forever bro Jimmy Fallon was predictably ecstatic.
When I read the confirmation, though, I just sighed and served up an extended eye roll. To be exact: I tweeted out a series of side-eye GIFs featuring the living legend, Janet Jackson.
That’s because I’m still not over what happened in the weeks and months that followed Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, Texas, when two of 2004’s biggest pop stars pulled a silly stunt, but only one walked away unscathed.
To re-tread, Jackson headlined a bill that included P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock and Jessica Simpson. During the finale, Timberlake, who’d opened for Jackson on the Velvet Rope World Tour in his *NSYNC days, joined her for a surprise rendition of “Rock Your Body.”
Then he yanked off part of her Alexander McQueen bustier, revealing her breast as he hit his mark: “I’m going to get you naked by the end of this song.”
The whole thing lasted all of a second, but it incited months of pop culture chaos. First came moral outrage, aided by an onslaught of FCC complaints (A nipple! Children were watching and they saw a nipple!), then a series of strange, conflicting explanations and apologies, most notably one CBS reportedly forced Jackson to film solo, without Timberlake by her side to bare his share of the blame. The words “wardrobe malfunction” officially entered the pop culture lexicon. And, finally, the cultural queenmakers of the day straight up blacklisted Janet Jackson.
MTV, which produced the show, swiftly threw her under the bus, claiming Jackson “engineered” the stunt, though ESPN later reported the production team had walked through multiple choreography options, including one that involved Timberlake ripping off Jackson’s skirt. The network also pulled its support of her videos from Damita Jo.
Timberlake, meanwhile, basically ghosted. To use a Swiftian turn of phrase, he excluded himself from the narrative as best he could. Initially, his response was glib (“Hey man, we love giving you all something to talk about”), but he eventually wised up and released what I like to call a Real Housewives apology: “sorry that anyone was offended,” not “sorry for what I did.”
Then he slipped away, his reputation more or less intact. A week later, the Grammys pulled Jackson as a presenter, but Timberlake picked up two awards and performed as scheduled. His next album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, went on to sell 10 million records. Jackson’s next album, 20 Y.O., sold just 1.2 million—less than half of Damita Jo.
The moment that nipple came out was the end of Janet Jackson as we knew her. Her commercial career simply never recovered. It’s only now, 13 years later, that Jackson is starting to claw her way back to the mainstream consciousness with her critically acclaimed State of the World tour. At 37, world domination may have been in Jackson’s rear view by the time the Super Bowl came around (when was the last time you heard a woman north of 40 on pop radio?), but as a fan, it’s hard not to feel like her years of mid-career creative exploration were stolen.
Which brings us to Timberlake, who gave an anemic apology, then coasted off on a cloud of white male privilege. Let’s set aside the boring, fruitless conversation of who knew what prior to the reveal to lay the facts out plainly: a white man exposed a Black woman’s breast on television. The Black woman then bore the brunt of the criticism and, 13 years later, the white man was invited back to headline the very same TV gig.
As backlash from Jackson fans mounted this Monday, the NFL was quick to claim that there is no “ban” on Jackson as a Super Bowl performer, potentially opening the door for her to make a cameo during his set. But that’s not really what I want.
What I want is for Justin Timberlake to offer Janet Jackson a true apology.
Timberlake didn’t even address the gendered way Jackson was treated or the role race played in the post-Super Bowl moral outrage until 2007.
“I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society,” he told MTV three years after the incident. “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
Hey Justin: YA THINK?? And BTW, it doesn’t just say something about society. It also says something about you. Where were you to defend Jackson while “society” ripped her to shreds? In fact, where were you in 2008 when you hosted the ESPYs and joked about your role in Nipplegate? (A quick refresher: you said, “I wanted to be the only guy at a football game to get to second base.”) Oh right, you were hosting the ESPYs and mocking an incident that was seriously detrimental to your co-performer’s career.
So before we start talking about cameos or even about the show, it’s time Janet gets the apology she deserves. It has been more than a decade since Timberlake used his privilege as a getaway car to flee the scandal of Super Bowl XXXVIII. Before he takes the stage in February, how about calling that privilege out and trying to right an old wrong?
If he weasels around the issue the way he did back then, I’m out on this year’s Super Bowl. While everyone else is dipping nachos and bobbing their heads to “SexyBack,” I’ll be at home, giving my favourite Janet Jackson records a well-deserve spin.