Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at the Superbowl
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

Looking back at Nipplegate, 13 years on

Justin Timberlake is back at the Super Bowl and fans are wondering if he’ll apologise for his 2004 stunt with Janet Jackson. Caroline O’Donoghue reflects on early-noughties celebrity

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

It’s easy to forget, I think, just how big a deal the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show was. We’re currently dealing with a news cycle dominated by Donald Trump and sexual assault. By contrast, the fact that a 2004 wardrobe malfunction led to Justin Timberlake revealing Janet Jackson’s right boob seems so juvenile as to almost be cute. How could anyone be that upset about a boob?

But that one moment led to half a million complaints to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the creation of YouTube, the blackballing of MTV from the Super Bowl, and the public shunning of Janet Jackson – a singer who, four years earlier, had been named by Billboard as the second most successful recording artist of the decade, after Mariah Carey. The Super Bowl’s sponsor, AOL, demanded a refund of $7.5m. The network, CBS, was fined half a million dollars. The only person who walked away clean was the only other person on stage: Justin Timberlake.

We have a hard time referring to the noughties as “the past”. There’s something about starting a sentence with “In two-thousand-and-X” that makes you feel like you’re talking about something that happened two weeks or two months ago. Whereas the 20th century feels distinctly divided – “the 70s” is equally distinct from “the 60s” and “the 80s” in everyone’s mind – the 21st still feels like a mishmash of the same long decade. But the first 10 years of the 21st is culturally distinct from any other decade before. A time when the music videos were obsessively futuristic (No Scrubs, anyone?); the humour was brattish and boundary pushing (thank you, South Park); and the entertainment industry really, really fucking sucked for female celebrities.

The advent of online gossip was, in short, driving everyone a little bonkers. If Britney Spears went out without underwear on, Perez Hilton was sharing the photos by noon the next day. The turnaround for celebrity gossip became insatiable and it resulted in a race to the bottom of who could get the most revealing, most shocking photographs of famous women. Women were always prey to entertainment journalism, but this made them even more vulnerable. Things aren’t much better in 2017, but tearing down women in intensely physical and degrading ways was fashionable in the early noughties in a way that people at least have the decency to be embarrassed about now. Upskirt photos and “wardrobe malfunctions” were the buzzwords of the decade.

The turnaround for celebrity gossip became insatiable and it resulted in a race to the bottom of who could get the most revealing, most shocking photographs of famous women

And then Janet Jackson’s boob appeared on national TV. The official explanation for the event was that Justin Timberlake was meant to tear away a piece of her bodice to reveal a red bra, but the whole cup came off instead. Jackson’s nipple, covered by a piece of jewellery, was on the front of every tabloid in the world. In the same way that Harvey Weinstein has come to symbol of a broken system, people who were outraged about Janet Jackson saw it as a symbol of the end of some kind of public morality.

"It's truly embarrassing for me to know that 90 million people saw my breast,” said Jackson at the time, obviously puzzled by how end-of-the-world the coverage was. “But there are much worse things in the world, and for this to be such a focus, I don't understand.” Jackson’s publicist released a statement saying that she “embodies grace, style and integrity… she has never been known to be a bad person”.

To clarify, after her boob was revealed by accident, Janet Jackson had to defend the fact that she was a good person. Timberlake did not appear alongside Jackson during any of these statements. Timberlake, meanwhile, appeared on Access Hollywood to say: “Hey, man, we love giving you all something to talk about.”

That was it. There seemed to be no recognition of everything that Jackson was going through, or defence of her. The news that Timberlake is returning to the Super Bowl today has prompted many fans of Jackson to say that he should issue an apology, or address the unfair treatment of her in his act. 

I find it interesting, when thinking about the early noughties, to see just how much Justin Timberlake’s career was a product of a time that revelled in punishing female stars, when there was very little robust, active feminist discussion in the culture. Just two years earlier, Timberlake released Cry Me A River, a slick, downbeat song that worked as a counterpoint to his previous work in *NSYNC. It was a move we’re now used to seeing from boyband members who are on a quest to be taken seriously as adult artists – a moody song filled with allusions to sex, and a video to go with it proving that, yes, they are definitely having sex now. But Timberlake had what the members of One Direction didn’t: a high-profile break-up with the biggest and most famously virginal pop star in the world.

The rest is pop history. A Britney impersonator walks into her home to find her ex-boyfriend, Justin, has cheated on her and videotaped it, broadcasting it on every screen in her home. It was supposedly a revenge fantasy for the cheating “Britney” had done, and Justin’s revenge played out for years and years to come. Britney’s “pure” image was ruined and the thirst for pictures of her in various states of pants-less disarray only heightened. Her 2007 breakdown happened in the midst of “Britney-watch”, a 24-hour news cycle that documented the decline of her mental health. Meanwhile, Justin was bringing sexy back.

Both Janet and Britney are doing just fine and neither are sitting by the phone, waiting for Justin Timberlake to apologise. This isn’t intended to “call out” one of the biggest entertainment stars of our time, or an implication that Justin Timberlake hates women. But it’s interesting to look at the stars our culture is prepared to nurture, celebrate and forgive, and the stars we are ready to dispose of once they have served their purpose.

@Czaroline

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