It lasted just 9/16 of a second, but the backlash is still felt to this day.
On the night of Feb. 1, 2004, the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots clashed in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The nationally televised mega-event was held at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. Hometown girl Beyoncé sang the national anthem. And the game was a nail-biter, with the Patriots clinching the victory with four seconds left on a game-winning 41-yard field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri. Led by quarterback Tom Brady, the Pats took home their second Vince Lombardi Trophy, winning 32-29.
But that was all an afterthought.
The night’s big story came during the halftime performance. Pop diva Janet Jackson began by performing a medley of hits, including “Rhythm Nation” and “All for You,” before she was joined by a suit and tie-less Justin Timberlake for a duet of his new single “Rock Your Body.” After a litany of sexy dance moves between the two pals, Timberlake purred the song’s final line, “Hurry up ‘cause you’re taking too long … better have you naked by the end of this song!” before tearing a piece of Jackson’s black latex Alexander McQueen-designed costume off, revealing her right breast—covered by a Starfish-esque nipple shield. Gasp.
I watched the incident live from my friend’s basement, surrounded by friends and family members—including some kids—and we all figured it was part of the act. It looked choreographed, and was a natural, albeit slightly risqué, call-and-response. I do remember uttering Whoa, channeling my inner Keanu Reeves. But there was no sense of outrage.
America, however, went nuts. It became the boob seen ‘round the world, with 143.6 million people tuning in. The FCC received 540,000 complaints, and the ensuing controversy earned the unfortunate nickname “Nipplegate.” It was an election year, and apparently, America had finally found Saddam's elusive WMDs in the unlikeliest of places.
The pearl-clutching came fast and furious. It was seen by the most uptight of us as a symbol of America’s moral decline, as if this errant black boob had the trappings of a sordid Oedipal saga, forever blinding a generation of impressionable children. FCC chairman Michael Powell deemed it “classless, crass and deplorable.” Mea culpas abounded. MTV, which produced the CBS-aired show—the two networks share a parent company, Viacom—said, “The tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance. MTV regrets this incident occurred and we apologize to anyone who was offended by it.” CBS stated, “We attended all rehearsals throughout the week and there was no indication that any such thing would happen. The moment did not conform to CBS broadcast standards and we would like to apologize to anyone who was offended.” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue laid down the hammer, releasing a statement that said, “The show was offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans. We will change our policy, our people and our processes for managing the halftime entertainment in the future in order to deal far more effectively with the quality of this aspect of the Super Bowl.”
Despite the fact that only one-third of viewers found Nipplegate offensive, on Sept. 22, 2004, the FCC fined Viacom the maximum penalty of $27,500 for each of the 20 CBS-owned TV stations, totaling $550,000. Also, MTV was banned from producing further Super Bowl halftime shows, and a 5-second delay was implemented for future performances. This was, it seems, the epoch of “indecency” and moral policing, so, on Nov. 24, 2004, Viacom was forced to shell out a record $3.5 million in FCC indecency fines, mostly targeting Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting radio stations, including shock jocks Howard Stern and Opie & Anthony, with the latter coming under fire for airing a radio broadcast back in 2002 where a couple allegedly had sex inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. However, they challenged the $550,000 Super Bowl fine.
What followed was pretty remarkable. The Nipplegate case was tied up in the courts for ages. In March 2006, the FCC concluded once more that the halftime show was “indecent,” but CBS appealed. Then, on July 21, 2008, the court threw out the FCC’s fine against CBS, claiming a lack of precedent. On May 4, 2009, the Supreme Court threw out that judgment and sent it over to the Third Circuit to be reassessed, and then, in Nov. 2011, the Third Circuit finally deemed Nipplegate legal because it followed the then-FCC guidelines providing for “fleeting indecency,” so long as it’s unintentional. The FCC challenged the ruling again, only to be shot down on June 29, 2012, by the Supreme Court. To recap: the FCC spent over eight years obsessing over punishing those responsible for Nipplegate.
But that wasn’t the craziest part. Jackson was cast as the villainess—the “mastermind” of this whole bloated controversy. CBS forced her to tape a video apology for the incident, wherein she somberly said, “My decision to change the Super Bowl performance was made after the final rehearsal. MTV, CBS, and the NFL had no knowledge of this whatsoever and unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong in the end. I am really sorry if I offended anyone, that was truly not my intention.” She was nixed from the 2004 Grammys by CBS. Jackson was also blamed for widespread censorship on the airwaves, which went all-out in banning any sort of nudity or profanity. Howard Stern was subsequently targeted, as was the televised Victoria’s Secret Show, and even the NBC TV series ER, which was forced to edit out a shot of a dying old woman’s breast. Jackson was, it seems, being held to a higher standard; she’d become a pariah, and a symbol for “indecency.” Some suspected that race was a factor in the media’s unfair treatment of Jackson.
“She’s been turned from the tapioca dominatrix no one could possibly take seriously into the stereotypical sex-mad Negress who’ll corrupt all she touches—or might touch,” wrote L.A. Weekly’s Ernest Hardy in a piece entitled “Fear of a Black Titty.”
Timberlake, on the other hand, wasn’t forced to tape a video apology by CBS. He told Access Hollywood shortly after the incident, “Hey man, we love giving all something to talk about,” before issuing a bland written apology, stating the incident was “not intentional and is regrettable.” In short, he threw Jackson under the bus, letting her take almost all the blame for the “wardrobe malfunction,” while shouldering none of it himself—this, despite the fact that Jackson had been a longtime friend of Timberlake’s, having given him a career boost when she tapped ‘N Sync to open for her on her globe-spanning 1998 Velvet Rope tour.
She’d later tell Queensland’s The Sunday Mail: “I do think Justin is very talented and that he has a very big career ahead of him … But he seems to have changed in recent times. He’s gotten cocky. Cockiness is something that’s never impressed me. If there was a contest between Justin and, say, Usher, Usher would win hands down. They’re both talented. But I’ve never been fond of cockiness. Some people can handle success and some people can’t. I’m starting to wonder if (the latter) is the case with Justin. And it hurts me to say that.”
Timberlake would finally express regret over the way he handled the incident two years later, while promoting his double-album FutureSex/LoveSounds.
“In my honest opinion now… I could’ve handled it better,” Timberlake told MTV. “I’m part of a community that consider themselves artists. And if there was something I could have done in her defense that was more than I realized then, I would have. But the other half of me was like, ‘Wow. We still haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction and everybody cares about this!’”
He added, “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.”
Timberlake, of course, is now arguably the biggest pop star on the planet, having released two No. 1 albums in 2013 alone, including 20/20 Experience, which was the year’s top seller, moving 2.5 million copies. And the Super Bowl halftime show cast a laundry list of mostly controversy-free fogies for the show in the years following Nipplegate, including: Paul McCartney (2005), The Rolling Stones (2006), Prince (2007), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (2008), Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band (2009), and The Who (2010). They were also all, with the exception of Prince, very white.
Janet Jackson’s career, on the other hand, never fully recovered.