14 years after 'Nipplegate,' fans demand #JusticeForJanet at Super Bowl LII

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show. (Wireimage)
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show. (Wireimage)

On Sunday, it was announced that Justin Timberlake will be the halftime show performer at next year’s Super Bowl. Many Janet Jackson fans were not happy to hear the news, citing Timberlake’s NFL comeback as a classic case of white male privilege, and they have taken to social media to demand #JusticeForJanet.

Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII appearance, which will take place Feb. 4 at Minneapolis’s U.S. Bank Stadium, will mark his return to the NFL stage 14 years after “Nipplegate,” his controversial duet with Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime headliner Janet Jackson. At that 2004 event, watched by 143 million people, as Timberlake sang, “Gotta have you naked by the end of this song” from his own hit “Rock Your Body,” he forcibly ripped the bodice of Jackson’s costume, exposing her bejeweled right breast.

Public outrage over the racy spectacle — which perhaps not coincidentally was produced by MTV, known for its sexy, buzzy VMAs productions — was fast and furious, with the FCC receiving a whopping 540,000 complaints. The incident actually resulted in an eight-year battle over FCC censorship that nearly went to the Supreme Court. While all parties involved apologized and claimed the bosom-flashing was unintentional (hence how the term “wardrobe malfunction” forever entered our lexicon), it was Jackson, a woman of color, who bore the brunt of the backlash while Timberlake, a white man, enjoyed a flourishing post-Super Bowl career that went from strength to strength. As the Village Voice’s Michael Musto put it, “Janet became a symbolic Joan of Arc to burn at the stake.”

At the time, a spokesperson for MTV’s parent company, Viacom, told the Charlotte Observer that MTV, VH1, and BET were “bailing” on Jackson’s eighth studio album, Damita Jo, which came out a month and a half after the Super Bowl controversy, because the “pressure is so great, they can’t align with anything related to Janet. The high-ups are still pissed at her, and this is a punitive measure.” Radio similarly blacklisted the album’s excellent singles, “Just a Little While,” “I Want You,” and “All Nite.” A statue of Mickey Mouse wearing Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” uniform was even removed from Walt Disney World, with a Disney rep telling Entertainment Weekly, “Considering all the controversy … we talked it over for a couple of days and decided it would be best to replace her [statue] with a new one.”

But most notably, just four days after Super Bowl XXXVIII, Timberlake appeared at the 46th Grammy Awards, while Jackson’s invitation to be a presenter on the telecast was rescinded by CBS, according to an Access Hollywood report. During his acceptance for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 2004 Grammys, Timberlake offered an apology described by Billboard as “laughable,” joking “I know it’s been a rough week on everybody” but offering no words of support or defense for his absent colleague.

Fast-forward to now, and much has changed. For one, in 2014, former FCC chairman Michael Powell admitted in an ESPN interview that the controversy was blown out of proportion. An NFL league spokesperson has assured Entertainment Tonight that Jackson is not banned from performing at the Super Bowl next year with Timberlake if asked, and a source close to Jackson, who is in the midst of a career revival with her successful “State of the World” tour and critically heralded Unbreakable album, tells ET that while Jackson has not been approached by Timberlake to join him onstage, “If Justin or his team did reach out, Janet would perform with him again in a minute.”

And, of course, social media didn’t exist in 2004. If it had, perhaps more people would have come to Jackson’s defense back then.

Many Jackson fans are hoping Timberlake will extend a Super Bowl LII invitation to make up for Jackson’s grossly unfair treatment, although Timberlake’s brief interview on NBC Sunday Night Football about his forthcoming Bowl performance, in which he said, “That won’t happen this time,” indicates that Jackson won’t get a much-deserved do-over.