Even Michael Powell thinks Nipplegate was overblown, now.
I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on. Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we're gonna do?...I personally thought that was really unfair. It all turned into being about her. In reality, if you slow the thing down, it's Justin [Timberlake] ripping off her breastplate.
[There was a video here]
You don't actually have to slow the video down to see that. No one who was watching the show live needed endless replays on YouTube (which, inspired by the ordeal, would come into existence a few months later).
No one was ever under the illusion that the material covering Jackson's right breast just flew off unassisted.
No, we know exactly how it happened: At the end of their live duet of Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," the finale of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, the former 'N Sync member sang, "Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song," reached over, and pulled off the plate-and-lace combo covering Jackson's right breast. She whipped her head back and then down, and inched her hands up toward her exposed boob (clad only in a sun-shaped piece of nipple jewelry). It was a shocked expression of theatrical proportions.
The condemnations came swiftly and loudly. Powell made the media rounds (including network morning shows) and called the nipple reveal "a classless, crass and deplorable stunt" and "a new low for prime time television." "I personally was offended by the entire production," he said on Good Morning America—sounding very different from the man who told ESPN Magazine that Nipplegate was "the last great moment" of a TV-as-national-controversy.
But that's easy to say with a decade's remove. "She probably got what she was looking for," he told CNN at the time, sounding like a real creep. She didn't, though. Her next album flopped, and she's all but disappeared from glossy magazines and MTV, while Timberlake is still winning Grammys and Michael Powell is presenting a revisionist history of the event to ESPN Magazine.
But how? How did this happen? How did the superstar scion of one of America's most recognizable families come completely undone in 9/16ths of a second, while the boy-band refugee became one of music's biggest stars? How did Janet lose the Super Bowl, and how did Justin win?
Cry Me a River: The Timberlake Stories
Powell is right about one thing: It was unfair. Jackson bore the brunt of the blame, while Timberlake weaseled out of accountability. As early as February 4, 2004—three days after the Super Bowl—People was referring to Timberlake as "the teflon man" (keep in mind this all happened over two years before his quadruple platinum magnum opus FutureSex/LoveSounds). Jackson was effectively barred from the Grammys, which took place a week after the Super Bowl and were broadcast on the same network, CBS.
According to People, Jackson was being pressured to bow out of the music awards ceremony or risk being disinvited; she was initially supposed to be an award presenter, but that offer was revoked. Meanwhile, Timberlake showed up, won two awards (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album), and during an acceptance speech, made amends over the horrible incident that had happened one week prior:
[There was a video here]
"Listen, I know it's been a rough week on everybody," he said, his earnestness breaking when the audience responded with laughter to his melodrama. "What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended."
This was, though, just the most recent version of the story, which would change several times through the years, starting with Timberlake's drastically different reaction on Access Hollywood recorded the night of the Super Bowl. I couldn't find footage of this online, but there's a transcript in Frederick S. Lane's book The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture:
He cheerfully described the show for co-hosts Pat O'Brien and Nancy O'Dell: "It was fun. It was quick, slick, to the point."
"You guys were getting pretty hot and steamy up there," O'Brien pointed out to Timberlake.
"Hey man, we love giving you all something to talk about," Timberlake laughed.
By 11:47 pm that night, Timberlake's tone had shifted: "I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl," he said. "It was not intentional and is regrettable."
A few more days later, in an interview with Los Angeles' KCBS that was also broadcast on Entertainment Tonight, Timberlake described himself as "shocked and appalled."
At what, though? The answer should have been himself, if we're taking his narrative at face value.
[There was a video here]
Jackson's spokesman, Stephen Huvane, told the New York Times that "Timberlake was supposed to 'peel away' Jackson's rubber bustier 'to reveal a red lace bra...but the garment collapsed.'" Timberlake's mention of a wardrobe malfunction seemed to corroborate this story. If we believe it, Timberlake's hand was the one that set the malfunction in motion.
Of course, none of that makes sense. Imagine what the finale would have looked like with one boob hanging out in red lace, slightly less covered than the other. And I don't know what a "collapse" in that patent leather action-figure armor would look like, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't look like Justin Timberlake reaching over to snatch the material covering Janet Jackson's right breast.
I think it's pretty clear that what happened was exactly what was supposed to happen, and it was only the negative crowd reaction that sent those involved scrambling to revise.
It didn't take long for Timberlake to show his hand, as he did in the aforementioned KCBS interview:
The fact of the matter is, I've had a good year, a really good year, especially with my music, even me personally. I don't feel like I need publicity like this. And I wouldn't want to be involved with a stunt, especially of this magnitude. I immediately looked at her, they brought a towel up onstage, I immediately covered her up. I was completely embarrassed, just walked off the stage as quick as I could.
That's pure careerism: Slimy, but good for business. Three years later, the discrepancies between his stories still being ignored, he managed to paint himself as a regretful nice guy, placing blame on the feet of "society." Once again, Timberlake shifted the narrative to his advantage:
In my honest opinion now … I could've handled it better. 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!" … 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.
Great call. Way to strike a blow against America's unfair treatment of "ethnic people," instead of, you know, using it to your advantage.
Control: Janet's Story
Like most of the work credited to Janet Jackson, the halftime show wouldn't have been possible without a team of producers, musicians, backup singers, managers, marketers, publicists, trainers, makeup artists, etc., or Timblerlake himself. But while Jackson was the show's headliner, it's hard to conceive a scenario in which Timberlake would have been forced to do anything he wasn't OK with as a media-trained performer (since 1993!) with his own brand to maintain.
As with any superstar, Janet Jackson was the face of the Janet Jackson industry. When Janet Jackson achieves a hit record, it's rare that anyone else who assisted in that hit gets name-checked in casual or written discourse. You don't say, "Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, her A&R guy, her engineer, and everyone else behind the scenes and in the studio went to No. 1." You say, "Janet Jackson went to No. 1." The Super Bowl incident was just the flip side to this disproportionate credit bestowal: Jackson was almost unanimously blamed for Nipplegate.
And, like a star, she took the blame. Publicly at least. Immediately after the show, Jackson issued a video apology. (Wikipedia says she was "forced" to do so by CBS, and the video that's on YouTube does have a CBS logo preceding it, but I've found no information supporting that.)
"My decision to change the Super Bowl performance was actually made after the final rehearsal. MTV, CBS, 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."
You can imagine how easy it would have been to coerce Jackson into not just apologizing but taking all of the blame, as she does in her 25-second statement when she starts by labeling this "my decision." MTV, which produced the show, and CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl, were both under the Viacom corporate umbrella; all it would have taken was one threat to pull her from all of its networks.
In any event, both channels and the NFL distanced themselves immediately, disavowing any culpability. Judy McGrath, president of MTV networks, went as far as to call the incident "a renegade mistake by a performer." You know which one she meant, and it wasn't the active party. (That kind of blame contradicted the "wardrobe malfunction" story and almost always pointed at Jackson and only Jackson.)
"We are angry and embarrassed that this happened during our superb broadcast and have apologized to our viewers," said CBS CEO Les Moonves.
Tom Freston, chairman of MTV Networks, said, "We were really ripped off. We were punk'd by Janet Jackson."
Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL, said, "The show was offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans."
Unlike Timberlake or Powell, or any of the men that can look back and laugh or sigh and only seem more likable for it, Jackson remained consistent. She returned to CBS in March to promote her Damita Jo album on Late Night with David Letterman. She squirmed through 10 minutes of grilling from Letterman without delivering any substantial answers. Nipplegate was a mistake, embarrassing, not a stunt, and that's about all she had to say about that.
It's hard not to see Letterman's point. The most complete version of the story, the one about the lace bra and the wardrobe collapse, was flimsier than Jackson's costume was made out to be. These questions were uncomfortable but not impossible. And yet they were never sufficiently answered. Not on Letterman, and not a few days later when Diane Sawyer put Jackson through a similar grilling between Good Morning America performances while her gathered fans chanted "Get over it!"
"I've moved on from it," said Jackson, thinking wishfully. "I don't really don't want to talk about it ever again."
Nor did Jackson give much of a clearer picture of how the supposed accident happened in 2006 when she sat down with Oprah Winfrey to discuss Nipplegate for "the first and last time," according to a misinformed Winfrey.
To Winfrey, though, Jackson called the controversy "absurd," agreed that Timberlake left her hanging "to a certain degree," and said that she regretted apologizing. (If any time called for a "I'm sorry if you were offended" non-apology, certainly it was the time a woman was vilified for showing a bunch of drunk football fans what many of them wanted to see anyway.)
"It was an accident," she explained to Winfrey. "Management that I had at the time, they thought it was important that I did it, with a project coming out. I had said before I sat down to record the apology... 'Why am I apologizing?'… They wanted me to say that, so I did."
She also agreed that the furor over a breast was hypocritical "to a certain degree," citing how permissible violence on television is. She expressed similar sentiment to Blender, in a feature that ran in the magazine's June/July 2004 issue: "[It's] is hypocritical, with everything you see on TV. There are more important things to focus on than a woman's body part, which is a beautiful thing. There's war, famine, homelessness, AIDS."
She also suggested that she had been a pawn, a way to divert attention from real issues, and that it was no coincidence that this all went down in an election year.
And that's it. If Nipplegate offered Jackson any opportunities, it was to make explicit the politics implicit in the sexual expression that had taken over her career starting with 1993's janet. album.
This was a woman who, on her Damita Jo album (released less than two months after the Super Bowl) said, "Relax, it's just sex," and sang with a dick in her mouth (at least, that's what she implied to me) during the slow jam "Warmth." She had the platform, and the ability, to expose the real sexual hypocrisy of the controversy (how different was a jiggling Jackson from the football staple of jiggling cheerleaders?), the ludicrousness of the corporate and personal attitudes on display.
I don't know if it would have helped her career, but given her platform, she could have really said something. Instead she chose a path of quiet deference, an unwillingness to renege on her original story, reminding us in a new way that she is a consummate performer, one of the greatest of her generation.
And On and On: The Aftermath
YouTube was not the only direct result of Nipplegate. The incident was heralded as "the most replayed event" of all time by TiVo and brought 35,000 new subscribers to the service. "Janet Jackson" became the most-searched person of 2004, even as her career was imploding. The term "wardrobe malfunction" immediately entered the popular American English lexicon, and entered the Chambers English Dictionary in 2008.
America suddenly became a more dangerous place for public sexual expression. Broadcasters began regulating themselves even before the FCC raised indecency fines tenfold, up to $325,000, in 2006 (a result of what the Washington Post described as a "culture clash among lawmakers, regulators, broadcasters, interest groups, lawyers and ordinary consumers" that began two weeks before it found a catalyst in Nipplegate).
CBS imposed several seconds of a delay on the following week's Grammy Awards ceremony. A promised orgy scene on America's Next Top Model was censored. ER and Without a Trace were scrubbed of stray shots of nudity. NYPD Blue, a show that existed to push boundaries, was scrutinized. The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was canceled that year. (The chief marketing officer lied and said it wasn't because of the Super Bowl.) The FCC fined Clear Channel $495,000 for Howard Stern's then-terrestrial radio show. The conglomerate dumped him, paving the way for his Sirius show, which has been not just a personal victory but one for the medium of satellite radio.
The Super Bowl halftime show itself became more conservative. Paul McCartney headlined in 2005, then the Rolling Stones the following year. Prince was the star performer of the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, but that was in 2007, after he'd renounced all of that filthy sex-talking he'd done in the past. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and the Who all followed, respectively. It wasn't until 2011 that a woman was even allowed to be a featured performer on that stage—it was Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, who headlined the Super Bowl XLV halftime show. Finally in 2012, a woman who repeatedly reveled in her ability to rile up crowds with her sexuality, Madonna, took the halftime stage. But it was the rogue middle finger of one of her guests, M.I.A., that caused the biggest fuss. Another year, another woman of color's dangerous body part.
In 2004, the FCC fined CBS $550,000 for unwittingly (or whatever) broadcasting Janet Jackson's bared breast, but that was ultimately voided by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2011 ruling. The fear of FCC condemnation has waned over the years, thanks in part to the growing influence of cable television, over which the FCC has virtually no jurisdiction.
That's the Way Love Goes: The Death of Janet Jackson's Career
Given the FCC's waning power—and leaving YouTube aside—Nipplegate's most profound effect was on Jackson's career. Looking back, it seems to have destroyed whatever was left of Jackson's commercial value at the time.
Jackson was once the sort of artist who could release seven commercial singles off one album—all of them from six-time platinum Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 went Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Five out of six commercially released singles from the album that preceded that one, 1986's Control, went Top 10. The six commercially released from the album that followed Rhythm Nation, the six-time platinum janet., went Top 10. Jackson had hit after hit after hit after hit after... She signed a $40 million contract with Virgin in 1991, making her the highest paid musical act at the time. In 1996, she renewed that contract for $80 million.
In the late '90s, she faltered a bit—her sixth studio album, 1997's The Velvet Rope, was a critical success and remains a fan favorite but spawned only two bona fide hits, "Together Again" and "I Get Lonely." The No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 wasn't elusive—she hit it in 1998 with "Together Again," again in 2000 with "Doesn't Really Matter," and again in 2001 with the title track of her seventh studio album, All for You. It was just harder to achieve. All for You, too, signaled a shakeup in Jackson's creative team, as her secret husband of eight years, René Elizondo, Jr., filed for divorce in 2000. Elizondo claimed that he co-wrote 37 songs with Jackson, starting on 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814. If that's true, her music was bound to change post-Elizondo.
So was the pop-music landscape changing. In the early '00s, established divas whose personal brands relied on virtuosic talent, superhuman charisma, or a combination of both had been pushed to the side in favor of a new crop of competent (at times barely so) singers with blank personae: Jennifer Lopez, Ashanti, and Ciara among them. Veteran female solo started flopping left and right: Mariah Carey's Glitter and Charmbracelet, Whitney Houston's Just Whitney, Madonna's American Life, and Toni Braxton's More Than a Woman all sold fractions of releases that preceded them and barely spawned a hit among them. (The biggest was Glitter's lead single, "Loverboy," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, largely due to sales of a budget-priced single, and fell from the Billboard Top 10 after three weeks). Mary J. Blige, whose career was rooted in the youthful sound of hip-hop, was the exception of a diva who'd been around for a while but showed no signs of stopping—she had the biggest hit of her career with 2001's "Family Affair."
Maybe it was just Jackson's turn to flop, Nipplegate or no Nipplegate. While the 540,000 complaints the FCC received as a result of Jackson's boob is a massive number, it is but a fraction of the estimated 90 million people who were watching at the time—0.6 percent. It's possible that old-school-style Janet greatness could have won back an apathetic or even slightly soured crowd. While not without its highlights, Jackson's next album was merely good.
Jackson released Damita Jo on March 22, 2004, and the set sold a respectable 381,000 its first week in U.S. stores. It went on to sell over a million copies in the U.S.—a third of what 2001's All for You moved. The former Billboard Hot 100 Midas failed to produce a Top 40 single this time, though, and the album quickly faded from public consciousness.
Virtually every Wikipedia article regarding Jackson post-Super Bowl cites a "blackout" as the cause of her chart failings. There's little evidence of this, though, save an anonymous quote from the aforementioned Blender article:
"MTV is absolutely bailing on the record," a senior Viacom executive told Blender. "The pressure is so great, they can't align with anything related to Janet. The higher-ups are still pissed at her, and this is a punitive measure."
"We didn't pull our support," responds Judy McGrath, MTV Networks Group president. "The video didn't seem to connect with our audience. If there was demand for it, it would be on TRL."
McGrath was referring to the set's lush second single, "I Want You," which was produced by Kanye West, back when he used to help women craft lovely R&B songs with equally keen senses of retroism and hip-hop currency. It's impossible to be sure, but the song sounds like something that would have been successful for Jackson given another set of circumstances, as does the similarly underperforming followup single, "All Nite (Don't Stop)."
It only got worse for Jackson commercially. 20 Y.O., released in 2006, sold in the U.S. about two thirds of what Damita Jo did (655,000). 2008's Discipline didn't even go gold. Jackson would never again hit Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100—the closest she came was with Discipline's lead single "Feedback," which briefly peaked at No. 19.
Mostly, her music has lived on through others—Plies' "Bust It Baby" and Kendrick Lamar's "Poetic Justice" heavily sampled vintage Jackson hits ("Come Back to Me" and "Anytime, Anyplace," respectively) and are the highest profile songs Jackson has been attached to in recent years.
They kind of just lost touch. To only have support of the urban department and for (those two albums) to sell what they did, there's a lot to say for that. (At Island) they all come together, and one department knows what the other department is doing. You need that to really move forward. It's teamwork, and that's what Virgin lost.
To support that album, she launched the Rock Witchu Tour. Jackson played smaller venues than on previous tours, when she played at all—she canceled several dates, alternately blaming severe vertigo and the financial crisis.
Jackson's biggest commercial successes in the decade following Nipplegate came via starring in Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too? She also appeared in Perry's For Colored Girls, in which her powerbitch character is ultimately punished by contracting HIV.
In 2010, after releasing two post-Discipline singles that did very little except in niche markets, her ex-boyfriend and collaborator Jermaine Dupri revealed to Vibe that Jackson was throwing in the towel:
Last time I heard she really didn't want to do an album. She wanted to just do singles every once in a while. She's looked at the marketplace—albums are not really doing what they usually do when you put all this budget out there. Janet is just trying to figure out her landscape.
Who could blame her? When you've devoted your life not just to making art, but popular art, when you are defined not just for your output but its ability to command a crowd and that crowd is no longer there, what do you do? How does your public persona as a superstar endure when a key feature of that persona is popularity?
There have been rumors suggesting that Jackson is done with music for good, that she has fled to the Middle East with her billionaire husband Wissam Al Mana (whom she married, secretly of course, in 2012), never to return to the spotlight. More recently, Jackson has hinted at giving music another go. Last year, she told Billboard, "I am working on a new project now. We are creating the concept and initial thoughts on the music."
A comeback arc would be irresistible. America loves that shit. But this is a story about narratives, and from a narrative perspective, there's something spectacular in the finality of Nipplegate. Stars fade or die or grow weird mutant career tails as a result of reality TV exposure, but no one who didn't die mid-career can point to a single moment and say, "This is where it went wrong, this is where it ended." Absolutely no one else can say, "My career died so YouTube, TiVo, and Sirius could live." If Nipplegate took Jackson out, and it did barring a miraculous comeback (virtually inconceivable for a 47-year-old in the ageist world of mainstream pop music), Jackson went out with a bang. That is, at the very least, brand consistent.
In the time since Super Bowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake has sold about 7.5 million albums in the U.S., and charted 12 Top 10 singles in the Billboard Hot 100. Last Sunday, he won a Grammy for best R&B song.
[Art by Jim Cooke]