I still remember being shocked when *NSYNC’s music video for “Gone” appeared on BET’s 106 & Park. The video-countdown show, a black counterpart to MTV’s soon-to-return TRL, usually only featured white artists when they were Eminem or Jon B. But “Gone” was one of the tracks on *NSYNC’s third album, Celebrity, that was designed to cement Timberlake as the boy band’s frontman. Previous albums featured more lead vocals from JC Chasez, the unsung star of *NSYNC, but from the moment the first single on Celebrity dropped, they had become the Justin Timberlake show.
This was OK because somehow, Timberlake seemed down. Those runs on “Gone” still give me chills. There’s no denying the body has verve and vocals. When he dropped Justified and teamed up with Pharrell and Timbaland, it was game, set, match. I’d forgotten about the fact that I once preferred Chasez and fell in love Timberlake’s honeysuckle Memphis twang. How could I have known that honeysuckle could sometimes smell like murdering an icon’s career?
On Feb. 1, 2004, Janet Jackson headlined Super Bowl XXXVIII and brought along with her Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock. No one remembers what the latter three did that day (but we’ll get to Kid Rock momentarily), because Jackson brought along Timberlake as her surprise guest. She’d been featured on his Justified debut, providing background vocals on the track “(And She Said) Take Me No,” so she invited him to perform alongside her on a national stage, in front of an estimated 90 million viewers. During a duet of his song “Rock Your Body,” during the lyric “Gonna have you naked, by the end of this song,” Timberlake grabbed part of Jackson’s costume and exposed her right breast on live television. It was later referred to as a “wardrobe malfunction,” but it led to a massive FCC fine and crackdown (the FCC eventually lost the suit).
But this wardrobe malfunction had heavy consequences… for Jackson. MTV, which produced the halftime show as part of their “Choose or Lose” voting campaign, threw Jackson under the bus immediately, along with its parent company Viacom’s other networks (CBS, on which the Super Bowl aired, was one of them). In the wake of the “Nipplegate” controversy, according to Rolling Stone, it responded by “essentially blacklisting her, keeping her music videos off their properties MTV, VH1, and radio stations under their umbrella. The blacklist spreads to include non-Viacom media entities as well.”
There’s an pulverizing irony in the fact the company that once didn’t air black artists like Jackson’s brother Michael was the same one that wreaked havoc on her career in the mid-2000s, creating an impermeable cloud of negativity over her next three albums. It wasn’t until the release of Jackson’s latest album, Unbreakable, her pregnancy, and return to the stage with the State of the World Tour that she finally broke hold of over a decade of undue blame.
Undue largely because the white artist at the center of the controversy received none of the backlash. At the 46th Annual Grammy Awards that year, Jackson was forced to “bow out gracefully” from the ceremony, where she was supposed to honor former collaborator Luther Vandross. Timberlake, however, was in attendance. As Jackson continued to lose projects, Timberlake retreated to work on his next album and dropped FutureSex/LoveSounds two years later to critical acclaim. The same year, Jackson’s album 20 Y.O. kept her still batting away questions about the Super Bowl. When interviewed by MTV, Timberlake said of the situation: “I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
Oh, you sweet soul, Timberlake. That was the only apology he had to offer Jackson, who not only invited him on her stage at Super Bowl, but had done it years earlier in 1998, when she included *NSYNC as the opening act for her Velvet Rope Tour. Jackson put him on and instead got silence in return. Michael Jackson even aided an MTV performance of *NSYNC’s when they were promoting their Pop album. Timberlake once said he felt the confidence to leave *NSYNC because of Michael Jackson’s inspiration. The utter disrespect he’s shown to the Jackson family, to Michael Jackson’s sister, after so much alleged inspiration is appalling. But not surprising.
Timberlake possesses the type of white privilege that’s benign, but sneaks in whenever his fight or flights kick in. Last year, when Jesse Williams won the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards, he gave a speech about how important it is to support black women: “This is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.”
Perhaps missing the irony while slinging hash at his subpar Manhattan restaurant Southern Hospitality, Timberlake tweeted effusive support for Williams’ speech and claimed to be “#inspired.” A follower quickly clapped back with:
“So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too.”
Timberlake, instead of remembering that one time he definitely didn't do better for a black woman, responded: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
After Twitter users dragged him for his response, Timberlake deleted it and issued an apology: “I apologize to anyone that felt I was out of turn. I have nothing but LOVE FOR YOU AND ALL OF US.”
Cultural-appropriation accusations aside—that’s the least of my problems with Timberlake and most criticisms can be explained away by him being a white boy from Memphis who grew up loving soul music—the overwhelmingly negative response to his tweet should have alerted him to the fact that nobody’s really forgiven him for his behavior toward Jackson.
Jackson’s career has effectively recovered at this point. She doesn’t need the Super Bowl and she sure as hell doesn’t need anything from Timberlake. But it’s still damning that Timberlake will be rewarded after he was never punished in the first place. My only hope is that as Timberlake attempts to return to the Super Bowl arena, he’ll be forced to reckon with the sins of his past.
I don’t however, expect the NFL to confront its sins. The hypocrisy of how Jackson was treated versus Timberlake simply highlights how the institution treats black bodies. There are NFL players with rape and domestic-abuse allegations, but those are swept under the rug much more easily than Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem was last year. It’s fashionable to kneel now, of course, but that’s only because rich white men don’t like being told what to do, even if it’s coming from the president of United States of America.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s never really been about the flag. After all, during the same Super Bowl that Jackson’s breast was exposed, Kid Rock (told you we’d get back to him) wore a poncho made from an American flag and tossed it into the audience, upsetting the Veterans for Foreign Wars and former U.S. Senator Zell Miller. When it comes to the NFL, it's just like America—it’s easy enough to create controversy and get away with it when you’re white.