Ever since Justin Timberlake tore Janet Jackson’s corset and flashed her right boob to 143.6 million sports fans at the 2004 Super Bowl, the singer has put his *NSYNC agility to work dodging responsibility.
Almost immediately after the incident, Timberlake attempted to distance himself from the “wardrobe malfunction,” relying on entrenched systems of racism and sexism to ensure that Jackson would serve as the primary scapegoat. According to a 2004 CNN update, Jackson was called upon to issue an extensive apology, in which she admitted that MTV was unaware of the intended “costume reveal,” and that, “It was not my intention that it go as far as it did.”
In a subsequent interview with Ebony, Jackson pointed out that “some television stations didn’t run all of her taped apology,” explaining, “Sometimes they cut out that I said it was an accident. That’s what the media does, that’s the way they are because they want it to be told a different way…It is what it is. And it will pass and I’m fine with it.” Ebony added that despite Janet’s taped apology, “she was ‘uninvited’ to participate in the Grammy Awards.” She and Timberlake were later informed that they could attend the awards show on the condition that they apologized on-air; Jackson declined the terms but Timberlake accepted, offering a brief apology while receiving the award for best male pop vocal performance.
Despite Jackson’s hopes, the incident would go on to disproportionately affect her career. Just a few days after the malfunction, Timberlake was already playing into the anti-Jackson sentiment, saying that the “reveal” was Janet’s idea and telling reporters, “I was under the impression of what was going to be revealed was a red brassiere, a bustier, forgive me.” Timberlake continued, “I'm frustrated that my character is being questioned. And the fact of the matter is, you know, I've had a good year, a really good year, especially with my music.” The apparent irony is that Janet Jackson’s character was, at this time, under real attack. FCC Chairman Michael Powell told CNN, “Clearly it was something that was planned by someone,” adding, “She probably got what she was looking for."
In a 2014 article, Rolling Stone detailed the subsequent blacklisting of Janet Jackson, reporting that Viacom “[hit] back at Jackson by essentially blacklisting her, keeping her music videos off their properties MTV, VH1, and radio stations under their umbrella.” The blacklist soon expanded “to include non-Viacom media entities as well.” While Jackson felt the consequences of that performance for over a decade, the misogynistic ways the pop star was shamed by Viacom and the FCC aren’t exactly Timberlake’s fault. But by refusing to publicly stand up for his collaborator, the pop star left Jackson exposed in more ways than one. As Timberlake himself pointed out in an interview years later, “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."
“In my honest opinion now,” Timberlake added, “I could've handled it better.”
While Timberlake was taking his sweet time on the long and winding road toward self-awareness, Jackson’s downward career trajectory had already calcified. As The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III explained last year, “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.” Meanwhile, Madison wrote, “The white artist at the center of the controversy received none of the backlash.”
It’s important to note that Timberlake was a guest at Super Bowl XXXVIII; Janet Jackson, the headliner, did J.T. the honor of inviting him on stage. Fourteen years later, Jackson doesn’t have the perceived clout to carry such a momentous show; either that, or the prospect is just too scandalous to consider. Conversely, Timberlake has been invited back to the Super Bowl stage—and according to sources, Jackson won’t be joining him.
In a new interview, Timberlake appears aware of the push for #JusticeForJanet, but insists that his decision to perform at the Super Bowl “wasn’t too much of a conversation,” joking, “What do you want me to say? We’re not gonna do that again.” When asked if he and Jackson made peace in the wake of the momentous malfunction, J.T. replied “absolutely,” continuing, “And I don't know that a lot of people know that. I don't think it's my job to do that because you value the relationships that you do have with people.”
“I stumbled through [the aftermath], to be quite honest,” he continued. “I had my wires crossed and it’s just something that you have to look back on and go like, ‘Okay, well you know, you can’t change what’s happened but you can move forward and learn from it.’”
Timberlake's refusal to partake in the larger conversation around Janet Jackson’s post-halftime show blacklisting is characteristic. Instead of taking responsibility and reckoning with the implications of his actions, Timberlake cites a personal relationship with Jackson, as if her graciousness excuses his ignorance or makes any of this OK. If Timberlake was truly sorry, he wouldn’t return to a stage where Jackson is seemingly unwelcome—but issuing a non-apology is a whole lot easier than actually taking a stand.
Justin Timberlake might win the award for pairing pseudo-woke rhetoric with a distinct lack of substantive action—and that’s no small feat in Hollywood, where “male ally” has recently become a coveted role. In order to set himself apart in this stacked category, Timberlake has courted multiple scandals. After he tweeted that he was “inspired” by Jesse Williams’ speech at the 2016 BET Awards, J.T. was dragged on social media. According to The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, the former boy bander was quickly dismissed “as a prominent artist who’s appropriated considerably from black culture yet been relatively quiet concerning the Black Lives Matter movement [and] threw Janet Jackson under the bus after exposing her breast during their Super Bowl performance.”
As one Twitter user responded to the pop star, “Inspired to do what? Continue to emulate black culture through your music while ignoring issues affecting black people?”
More recently, Timberlake was called out for wearing a Time’s Up pin to the Golden Globes and posting about the movement on social media, despite having starred in Woody Allen’s latest film. Maybe if Justin Timberlake spent less time making albums no one asked for and more time taking responsibility for his mistakes, he wouldn’t continue to piss off fans.