20 years ago, a Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction changed more than Janet and Justin's careers

Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl
Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl
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In a collection of interviews published in 2005, British novelist and cultural commentator J.G. Ballard put forth a pithy new theory: “Sex times technology equals the future.” By then, his hypothesis had already been proven a thousand times over. It was the rabid demand for photos of Jennifer Lopez’s green Versace dress, for example, that led to the creation of Google Images in 2001. Three years later, Facebook was born from a similar notion. The list goes on. Ballard likely didn’t know that yet another major advancement was underway as he spoke: one that would forever change the nature of privacy and media as we know it.

20 years ago this month, Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast live on television at the end of their Super Bowl halftime performance. If you weren’t one of the millions of people who watched the show that day or in the months and years that followed, here’s a quick refresher. At the end of her set, Jackson brought out Timberlake as a surprise guest to perform his song, “Rock Your Body.” While singing the final lyric (“Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song”), Timberlake accordingly tore off a piece of Jackson’s costume, revealing her bare breast. (Jackson was wearing a nipple pasty at the time.) The rip was intentional, but the amount of fabric that came off was not.

It was an incident that indelibly altered the course of both artist’s careers: Jackson in the immediate aftermath, as she was effectively blacklisted from the industry as a result of those few seconds, and Timberlake in the long term, as his inaction in the face of Jackson’s massively outsized punishment continues to cast a long shadow over his work even two decades on. That aspect of the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” has been litigated and re-litigated time and time again. But the whole thing also led to a lesser acknowledged, but no less earth-shaking consequence: without “Nipplegate,” YouTube may have never been invented.

Opening the door for YouTube

Despite then-FCC chairman Michael Powell’s insistence that the incident led to “thousands” of complaints from an “outrage(d)” American public the next morning, the truth of the matter is that people really wanted to see Janet Jackson’s breast. A few days after the incident, then-fledgling brand TiVo reported that those few seconds were the service’s most rewatched moment of all time, causing a 180 percent spike in viewership as people realized they could actually rewind and replay the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frame. One of those users may have even been Powell, who made a whole lot of noise about the situation for someone who was supposedly so disgusted by it. He had previously referred to TiVo as “god’s machine,” so he was clearly taken by the technology as a whole.

Another man inspired to action by the wardrobe malfunction was Jawed Karim, who—with his PayPal buddies Chad Hurley and Steven Chen—lamented the fact that videos of the incident were so hard to find online. What if, he suggested, there was a place regular people could go to rewatch footage of a celebrity losing her career in real-time, or on-the-ground recordings of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, or anything they wanted, really? “I thought it was a good idea,” Karim told USA Today in 2006. In 2005, Karim uploaded the first-ever clip to YouTube—a 19-second video titled “Me at the zoo” that’s now racked up over 300 million views—and thus the now-omnipresent video-sharing site was born.

Janet Jackson is far from the only woman whose violated privacy led to massive advancements in technology. It happened to Pamela Anderson in the ’90s and it’s happening to Taylor Swift today. In a frustrating parallel to Jackson’s situation, Swift’s recent presence among the NFL elite has led to a similar campaign to humiliate and punish the celebrity for her position.

A few weeks ago, a series of sexually suggestive, AI-generated images of the singer popped up on Twitter/X, where they remained (at least in one case) for as long as 17 hours, even as outraged fans flooded the platform with posts of their own to bury them as best they could. Still, in the time the fake images were up, they racked up hundreds of likes and reached thousands of eyeballs. Two decades later, an innocent pop star’s non-consensual exposure once again became something for faceless strangers to consume over and over again, purely for their own pleasure.

A Taylor Swift moment

There is one key difference between Swift’s and Jackson’s situations, though. In 2004, Nipplegate was treated as Jackson’s fault. Among her other punishments, the singer was made to apologize on the network’s behalf the next day, writing (via Billboard), “the decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV [which produced the halftime show] was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended—including the audience, MTV, CBS, and the NFL.”

The FCC even took CBS and parent company Viacom all the way to the Supreme Court over the incident, arguing that Jackson’s nudity was “shocking and pandering” during a broadcast advertised as a family event (via CNN). While the court eventually ruled in the networks’ favor, the decision was essentially based on a loophole: the FCC had only clarified its “no exceptions” expletive policy after the fact. CBS and Viacom were legally pardoned; Janet was not.

While what happened to Swift is obviously extremely shitty, there could be one small silver lining to the whole thing. Deepfakes—especially pornographic ones—are far from new; having a name as big as Swift’s attached to them is. The pop star’s victimization seems to have finally kicked the White House into gear to develop legislation to prevent this sort of “nonconsensual sharing of digitally altered explicit images” from spiraling too far out of control in the future. For once, a female star’s unfair treatment may lead to the regulation of technology rather than its proliferation. If so, we may actually be witnessing the beginning of the end of a cycle that has affected Jackson and so many other women for far too many years now.