The most successful male pop solo artist of the past two decades has just been announced as next year’s Super Bowl headliner. But he can’t confidently take the stage until he confronts the sins of his past.
On February 1st 2004, Janet Jackson’s career was destroyed.
She was headlining the Super Bowl . She performed a medley of chart-topping hits from her then- two decades long solo career, and for the grand finale welcomed then burgeoning break-out solo artist Justin Timberlake onto the stage for a duet of ‘Rock My Body.’ On the last line of the song (‘I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song’) Timberlake pulled off a part of Jackson’s costume – part of a last-minute costume change. He was supposed to pull away Jackson’s rubber bustier to reveal a red lace bra, but the garment collapsed and accidentally exposed Jackson’s right breast, which was partially covered by a piece of nipple jewellery. Jackson’s breast was exposed for less than a second on national TV.
What followed has since gone down in pop culture history. Jackson became the scapegoat for the controversy – ‘Nipplegate’ – and was blacklisted by every radio station and music television channel in America, which fundamentally ground her mainstream pop career to a halt. It’s a move that she still hasn’t completely recovered from, more than a decade on. Timberlake, meanwhile, managed to handily side-step any direct involvement with the incident and managed to cement his status as a pop culture icon with his blockbuster second album FutureSex/LoveSounds.
And now, it seems, things have come full circle, with Timberlake returning to the stage that ruined one woman’s career and handily provided the worldwide platform to launch him as a worldwide superstar. But, Timberlake can’t, and decidedly shouldn’t, perform at the Super Bowl before giving Janet Jackson the one thing she was deserved and denied of; an apology.
It’s bad enough that, ever since the event, Timberlake has continuously sidestepped and avoided questions of Jackson and Nipplegate, let alone reached out the woman whose mainstream career he inadvertently tainted. Because, yes, accidents happen, but we also apologise for our actions. Even though Jackson bore the brunt of the controversy and the backlash,
Timberlake was never fully reprimanded for his part in the incident. Let’s not forget, it was Timberlake who tore away Jackson’s bustier and her bra, not Jackson herself. It was a genuine mishap and a manufacture, yes, but not one of her own design or actions.
There are obvious ramifications about the mainstream media’s inherent sexist and racist inclinations, and it speaks volumes that Timberlake – a straight white man – has been allowed to flourish and prosper whilst Jackson – a black woman whose written potently about sexuality and race in her music – has largely been cast aside and forgotten.
Timberlake takes to the stage next year in a remarkably similar fashion to Jackson herself in 2004. Both experiencing career all-time highs and commercial domination, Timberlake with the biggest hit of his career, the saccharine ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling!’ and Jackson with her disco-tinged mega single ‘All For You.’
Amongst the controversy, Jackson’s career achievements and her legacy as a boundary-breaking pop star has been somewhat swept aside as the effects of her media blacklisting still ripple down to her career today; where every new release is harkened as a ‘comeback’ and a ‘return to the form.’
Justin Timberlake has built a career around being an intensely charismatic figure, and his release ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling!’ positioned him as the Nice Guy of pop music. But this won’t ever feel authentic until Timberlake reconciles with the sins of the past and his decade-long non-apology to Janet Jackson.
He side-stepped a potentially career-ending controversy by allowing a powerful woman to take the brunt of the venom and vitriol for an event for which he was a major player. The closest he came to an apology was when he admitted that the media was “harsher on women and unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” This is, quite simply, not enough.
In a perfect world, the Half-Time show at 2004 would have been a moment where Jackson’s icon status, as one of the most popular entertainers the world has ever seen, was solidified. This never happened and someone needs to apologise for the fall-out and the controversy that has arisen ever since.
And that person isn’t Janet Jackson.
Words by George Griffiths