What Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ says about America 20 years later

Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson just before he tore away the right cup of Jackson’s bustier during their halftime performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston on Feb. 1, 2004. (David Phillip/AP)

Nearly 100 million people watched two of the world’s hottest pop stars engage in a sort of sexy tango, none of which indicated that they were seconds away from etching themselves into national infamy.

Justin Timberlake was the final cameo of Janet Jackson’s 11-minute halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1, 2004. For the next 72 seconds, he pursued her around the stage while singing his 2002 hit song “Rock Your Body.”

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Then came the finale: As Timberlake sang the closing line - “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song” - he reached up with his left hand and tore away the right cup of Jackson’s bustier.

There it was: Jackson’s breast, including a jewel-covered nipple.

It’s been 20 years since that “wardrobe malfunction” gave rise to what would be called “Nipplegate.” The glimpse of Jackson’s breast during the most-watched TV event of the year instantly flared into an outrage over indecency and smoldered for nearly a decade. It changed how we watch TV and use the internet. And as Super Bowl LVIII approaches, that moment takes on renewed relevance amid fresh debates over the place of another female pop star - Taylor Swift - capturing attention in the traditionally male-dominated space of NFL football.

“In the end, it was ninety million who saw her bared breast in a fumbled costume reveal that transformed her from the personification of sexual empowerment into a global avatar of indecency and inadvertently changed the way we consume media forever,” wrote journalist Sarah Ditum in her new book “Toxic: Women, Fame, and the Tabloid 2000s.”

In the book, Ditum reports that Timberlake was summoned to Jackson’s dressing room for a last-minute conference before the halftime show. But even 20 years later, no one has ever revealed what was discussed during the meeting.

Then it was time for an MTV-produced halftime show that starred Jackson and featured P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock and Timberlake. It seemed to go flawlessly until the last second of the show when - in contrast to his smooth, rehearsed movements up to that point - Timberlake fumbled with the left cup of Jackson’s bustier and tore it off. TV crews almost immediately cut away to a long shot showing fireworks exploding behind the sage.

“Something does seem to go wrong,” Ditum told The Washington Post. “Janet looks horrified as her breast is exposed.”

“It’s a shocking moment,” she added.

Ditum said that, as a Brit, she didn’t grasp the significance of the Super Bowl in American culture at the time. Once she understood that tens of millions of people from different generations, political persuasions and socioeconomic backgrounds tune in to watch the same thing at the same time, she comprehended that “this was definitely a high-stakes thing to do for that audience.”

The fallout came quickly. When asked about what had happened during an interview immediately after the show, Timberlake said, “We love giving y’all something to talk about.” Jackson, on the other hand, left the stadium right after the performance, Ditum said.

The next day, CBS, MTV and the NFL apologized while claiming they hadn’t known about the costume reveal. In a statement to CNN, Jackson apologized, saying that the decision to have a reveal at the end of her halftime show came after final rehearsals. One of her spokesmen at the time said it “was a malfunction of the wardrobe; it was not intentional. … [Timberlake] was supposed to pull away the bustier and leave the red-lace bra.”

That same day, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell ordered an investigation into what happened, telling CNN he wasn’t convinced it was an accident. “Clearly somebody had knowledge of it. Clearly it was something that was planned by someone,” he said. “She probably got what she was looking for.”

Powell said in a statement released at the time, “I am outraged at what I saw during the halftime show of the Super Bowl. Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt.”

Ditum said that based on the singers’ facial expressions and statements she’s read from those who were involved, it’s clear that what happened was not completely intentional. But no one has ever spelled out exactly what went wrong. Was the bustier poorly constructed? Did Timberlake grab more of it than he was supposed to? Were the lights supposed to go down a second earlier?

It was a mistake, Ditum said, but “there’s never been a definitive answer over what kind of mistake.”

Representatives for Jackson and Timberlake did not respond to requests for comment.

Unbeknownst to Jackson, a perfect storm had formed to make Nipplegate a nightmare for her: new technology, a national fight against indecency and growing anxiety among conservatives during a presidential election year, Ditum said.

DVR systems helped drive interest in the halftime show in the days after the Super Bowl. Because Jackson’s breast had appeared for only a split second, viewers who watched in real time wanted to make sure they hadn’t imagined it. Those who hadn’t watched it live wanted to see what everyone was talking about. And so the “wardrobe malfunction” became the most replayed moment ever on TiVo and drove demand for the product.

“People could watch it again and again and again,” Ditum said, “and they wanted to.”

But not everyone could watch easily enough for their liking. Computer programmer Jawed Karim grew frustrated by the difficulty of finding an online video of the halftime show, and he realized that no one had created a large-scale website to which users could upload videos they created, according to a USA Today article. He teamed up with two other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and a little more than a year later, they launched YouTube.

“It’s directly driven by technology,” Ditum said of the wardrobe malfunction, “and it drives technology.”

Another pitfall for Jackson was a latent fight against indecency on TV. For years, the nonprofit Parents Television Council had waged campaigns over what it considered indecency in the media. Before 2004, one of its main targets was World Wrestling Entertainment, which it accused of glorifying violence to children. That campaign ended poorly, with the TV watchdog group paying millions in damages to WWE and issuing a public apology.

But Nipplegate was “a gift” to the group, Ditum wrote in her book. It was “legitimately gratuitous, apparently premeditated and broadcast live on network television to a vast audience that included millions of children.” The internet again played a hand in fanning the flames, allowing the council to direct the outraged to online complaint forms they could send to the FCC with a couple of clicks instead of having to write them out and make sure they got to a mailbox.

At the end of 2004, the FCC said it had received more than 500,000 complaints about the halftime show. The commission would fine CBS $550,000, but in 2011, a federal appeals court tossed the fine out. A three-judge panel ruled that the FCC had for three decades established a precedent of allowing “fleeting” nudity, and so the agency “acted arbitrarily” by punishing CBS for airing Jackson’s breast for nine-sixteenths of a second.

The third factor that hurt Jackson was that MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign to register voters was ostensibly nonpartisan, but it helped Democrats because the TV channel’s viewers skewed young and were left-leaning. That stoked conservative ire during a presidential election year in which Republican President George W. Bush would take on Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

“And so it just ballooned into this incredible nightmare for her,” Ditum said.

And it was a far bigger nightmare for her than for Timberlake, something he acknowledged during a 2006 interview with MTV, when he said he probably received 10 percent of the blame that critics hurled at them, citing gender and race as factors for the disparity.

Two decades later, America is living with the legacy of Nipplegate, one that will color Sunday’s game. During the 2023 season, a segment of NFL fans grew increasingly annoyed about the budding romance between Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, bemoaning TV cutaway shots of Swift during the game broadcast.

Once again, America finds itself in a presidential election year, and some conservatives - irked by Swift’s 2020 endorsement of Joe Biden - have threatened to wage a “holy war” if she endorses him again this year. Others are pushing a conspiracy theory that their entire romance is a government plot to get Biden reelected. And some football fans, Ditum speculates, are just upset because she’s a successful, self-made woman who they feel is encroaching on their territory.

“I think you are seeing pockets of resentment about girl culture intruding on man culture,” she said.

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