It’s been 10 years since Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl during a halftime performance with Justin Timberlake and as much as things have changed, many things have stayed the same.
Before getting to that, let’s recap what happened. The famed singer and actress from the legendary Jackson clan was on stage performing an upbeat track called “Rock Your Body” from Timberlake’s debut solo album. Timberlake sang the final line of the song, “Better have you naked by the end of this song” and ripped off the right side of Jackson’s bustier. But instead of revealing a sexy bra underneath, America got a glimpse of Jackson’s bare breast, adorned only with nipple jewelry. Jackson quickly covered her breast and the lights went out to mark the end of the performance, so Janet Jackson’s chest was only on the screen for less than a second, but that was enough to cause a major media firestorm.
Michael Powell, son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission at the time of “Nipplegate.” A comprehensive ESPN piece about the infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction notes that prior to that incident, the FCC received just a few indecency complaints a year, but that event alone garnered over 540,000 complaints. Powell described the breast baring as a “classless, crass and deplorable stunt” and he promised a swift and thorough investigation. Today, Powell admits that he wasn’t terribly outraged by seeing a woman’s breast for 9/16ths of a second, but at the time he had to play the part.
In the end, Powell testified on Capitol Hill about the incident for a total of nine hours, Viacom (the parent company behind MTV, the show’s producer) was fined $550,000, the next six Super Bowl half-time performers were middle-aged men and Facebook and YouTube both launched shortly after the 2004 Superbowl.
The last FCC fine was logged against singer M.I.A for putting up her middle finger during Madonna’s halftime show in 2012.
As for Jackson and Timberlake, their post-Nipplegate paths could not be more divergent. In the immediate aftermath, both entertainers apologized and both suggested that the partial nudity was an accident. Not many people believe the “accident” theory and Jackson bared the brunt of criticism for the incident. Shortly after the Super Bowl, Jackson released the album Damito Jo, which was her lowest-selling album since 1984’s Dream Street, but it still went three times platinum. She pulled out of a Grammys performance in 2004, presumably due to public relations pressure. Meanwhile, Timberlake not only performed at the Grammys, but took home two awards.
In the years since then, Jackson has put out two more albums, one in 2006 and another in 2008, they went platinum and gold respectively. Timberlake focused on his acting career for a good part of the last decade, but also put out three more platinum-selling solo albums in that time period.
As far as the Super Bowl, Beyoncé (who as of late is at the center of every feminist pop culture debate) gave a sexy, un-fined halftime performance in 2013. This year’s Super Bowl halftime show will feature Bruno Mars. The Grammy-winning singer has a sexually explicit song called “Gorilla” and in 2013 he gave a steamy performance of the track for the MTV European Awards featuring a very talented pole dancer. No word on which songs he will perform for the halftime show, but surely the powers-that-be will screen and re-screen his performance in this post-Nipplegate era.
Then again, perhaps the FCC wouldn’t have an issue with a scantily clad woman in a more “traditional” role as a background accessory for a man’s performance. While so much scrutiny has been given to the halftime shows, the Super Bowl commercials haven’t gotten any less sexist, insensitive or racist.
The Madonna/whore complex and the politics of respectability sometimes converge in society today and the result is an intense almost bipolar rejection and celebration of female sexuality expressions. Just look at the editorials on Beyoncé, Lena Dunham and Nicki Minaj to see how race, body-type, beauty standards, perceived “ladyness” and such intertwine to form complex opinions.
And really, it was just a boob. Does a bare breast really hurt anyone? It wasn’t a live sex act in front of school children. It was a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of a breast. Big whoop. Are we puritans or progressives?