Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction — and how Justin Timberlake got off scot-free — reexamined in new doc

"We should never forget what they did to Janet."

That's a sentiment from New York Times culture writer Jenna Wortham in the outlet's new documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson. It looks back at "nipple-gate" — the wardrobe malfunction of all wardrobe malfunctions, when Justin Timberlake pulled off a piece of Janet Jackson's costume during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, exposing her nipple-ring adorned breast for nine-sixteenths of a second, and she paid the price for years to come.

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 1:  Singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium on February 1, 2004 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images) The Patriots won 32-29 to claim their second Super Bowl in three years. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show in Houston. (Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images) (Donald Miralle via Getty Images)

Was the whole thing planned, we'll never know. Producers of the show, which aired on CBS, and record industry execs give their opinions ("From my vantage point, she did look upset," Matt Serletic, former CEO of Virgin Records says in the doc. "She looked distraught.") and suggest a closed-door meeting between choreographer, stylist and talent was had in which a plan was concocted to change the last second of the MTV-produced show. But there's no definitive answer as to whether showing a nipple versus a bra was the intended outcome.


Producers couldn't even get answers because Jackson "fled" after it happened, hopping a flight from Houston to L.A. and her manager didn't answer calls, they detail, saying they were left feeling "betrayed." Meanwhile, Timberlake made light of it in backstage interviews, telling Entertainment Tonight in archival footage, "Hey, man, it's every man's dream."

They both publicly apologized, Jackson twice (print and video), but the now-former head of CBS, Les Moonves, fired from Viacom in 2018 amid sexual misconduct allegations, found them insufficient. Described as having a The Godfather-type complex, Moonves wanted face-to-face apologies, which Timberlake drove to his office and apparently gave while Jackson didn't.

"I just don't know if there is any amount of apologizing that she could have done to mollify the outrage," Wortham said in hindsight.

The Grammys were a week later and Jackson and Timberlake were told they could only appear if they apologized during the awards show telecast as well. Timberlake attended — winning Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for his jab at ex-girlfriend Britney Spears, "Cry Me a River" — and apologized, again. Jackson pulled out of attending.

An irate Moonves, who declined comment for the doc (as did Jackson and Timberlake), reportedly banned Jackson's music on Viacom properties, including Vh1, MTV and radio stations under its umbrella. There is discrepancy as to whether her music was "blacklisted" with a Clear Channel exec saying in the doc maybe there were bans in certain regions, upset over the Super Bowl, but not a universal one. What isn't debatable is that Jackson's album, Damita Jo, flopped.

All of that in itself is really interesting to go back over, but the doc, from director Jodi Gomes, tries to get at the fallout and how the "Rhythm Nation" singer, a Black, female superstar talent with decades of career success, took a piercing hit while Timberlake, a white, male rising star, bounced right back. (Timberlake acknowledged this in a public apology to Jackson and ex-girlfriend Spears in February for "times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem" and he "did not speak up for what was right" as well as "benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism.")

It looks back at that time period. How the Jackson-Timberlake malfunction exploded amid the culture wars of that era — push back against so-called offensive content in music (with warning labels), on TV (backlash over Ellen DeGeneres coming out) and radio (all things Howard Stern). People used it to make an example — and had ammunition because it took place on broadcast TV during a family-friendly viewing event. But Jackson was the one taking the fall. There's a clip of lawmakers, amid the FCC investigation, going on and on about the offensive "Janet Jackson incident" with one lone, Black congressman, Bobby L. Rush from Illinois, asking: What about Timberlake?

"Janet's breast didn't just jump out," her brother Tito Jackson reminds in a new interview.

Like the New York Times Presents... Framing Britney Spears doc — which accelerated the #FreeBritney movement — there is head-shaking archival footage throughout. Dave Letterman's interview style, again, not aging well. Neither does Matt Lauer, like Moonves fired over workplace sexual misconduct, sharing his analysis of Jackson's nipple ring on the Today show.

Wortham described the coverage as "misogynoir," misogyny directed towards Black women, as old headlines and TV commentary described Jackson as a "Black dominatrix," a "trollop," something out of a "S&M catalogue" and a "b**** in heat."

Jackson also faced ageism. "This is a woman who is 37 years old, which is almost geriatric in the age of pop music," one commentator said. Chris Rock riffed: "Janet lost her damn mind, whipping out her t**ty on Sunday afternoon — and a 40 year old t**ty at that. You can't just whip out a 40-year-old t**ty." The New York Times critiqued Jackson's breast, describing it in reporting as "a normal, middle-aged woman's breast." Another said it was "a patheticism on the part of Janet Jackson, who probably has seen the best days of her career."

"What's so painful about that moment was that everything Janet had been working for ... was just taken away," Wortham said, looking back. "In that moment. By this white man."

That brings us to Timberlake. The doc details how Jackson's album flopped and her record deal with Virgin ended. The Poetic Justice and Nutty Professor star never made another mainstream film, and was ousted from a Lena Horne biopic. Meanwhile, Timberlake continued up, up, up. Not just in the immediate wake — like McDonald's sticking with his endorsement deal while a Mickey Mouse statue adorned in a Rhythm Nation outfit was removed at Disney World — but 14 years later, he landed the Super Bowl half-time show, described in the doc as "the most obvious evidence that almost nothing about that incident stuck to him."

The archival footage of Timberlake is largely cringe city. Leering comments about Jackson being "fine" at public events long before they paired up for the Super Bowl. Immediately after the show, him saying, "It was fun. It was quick, slick, to the point. I enjoyed it."

The doc also discusses how Timberlake has been accused of profiting off proximity to Black culture during his career.

Timberlake landing the 2018 Super Bowl show actually helped Jackson. It was October 2017, just as #MeToo exploded with the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Social media became flooded with demands of #JusticeForJanet and calling Timberlake's NFL comeback a classic case of white male privilege. #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay, a movement to celebrate the artist, was planned on the day of Timberlake's show. It's something that's continued on the day of the game with Jackson getting into the action. That movement of Jackson love was thought to help drive her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

The film also looks at how a woman owning her sexuality is now celebrated in 2021, pointing to Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj, versus how Jackson was treated in 2004.

"Janet Jackson laid all that groundwork," Daneyl Smith, the former Billboard editor in chief said in the doc, which also noted the FCC chairman Michael Powell, who led the investigation into the 2004 Super Bowl debacle, has since said the reaction was overblown.

However Wortham said it "feels bittersweet" and it "took too long."

"I'm really grateful we've arrived at this moment of a cultural reckoning and a reevaluation of what happened," Wortham said. "But we should never forget what they did to Janet. We should never forget that outrage. What was the cost for this woman? And was it worth it?"

Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on FX and streams on Hulu.