Justin Timberlake once brought sexy back. But in 2018, he couldn’t bring Janet Jackson back — and regardless of whether he tried (and we actually have no idea if he did), that should have been a requirement of any JT-fronted Super Bowl halftime show.
After all, as evidenced on Sunday by the #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay, fans haven’t forgotten what happened in 2004, when Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” had a chilling effect on the broadcast industry — and Jackson’s career.
And not acknowledging Jackson or what happened seems particularly tone-deaf in a year of #TimesUp. Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show seemingly kicked off by taunting his critics, starting with his latest track, “Filthy,” which begins with the line, “Haters gonna say it’s fake.”
But then Timberlake launched into his 2002 song “Rock Your Body” — yes, the song he performed with Jackson in 2004 that got him in so much trouble. On Sunday night, Timberlake sang the song right up to the infamous lyric, “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song.” In stopping himself before singing that line, Timberlake practically winked at the camera, giving some fans one last fake-out that Jackson might appear. She didn’t. And plenty of folks will be dissecting what Timberlake was trying to do or say in taunting viewers with that song and stopping right at that line.
But beyond that, it was… a bit of a tame show. Timberlake opened below the stands, in what looked like a nightclub, then came out and sang. He’s an effective showman, going through a litany of hits including “SexyBack,” “Cry Me a River” and “Suit and Tie.” It led to a tribute to Minneapolis’ Prince, done more tastefully than had been rumored — no hologram, just the Purple One projected on a tremendous sheet as Timberlake dueted a stripped-down version of “I Would Die 4 U” with a Prince recording.
Timberlake avoided guest stars (other than that Prince cameo), eschewing what had become a recent Super Bowl halftime tradition — but as a result, it felt a bit more like a fine Grammy Awards performance than what had been touted as “music’s biggest moment of the year.” Surrounded by dancers and an orchestra, Timberlake effortlessly moved from style to style, reminding audiences of his undeniable talent. He ended the show by climbing into the crowd and singing the feel-good “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” as streamers rained down and the crowd around him took “Super Bowl selfies.”
But for those who still remember what happened in 2004, it didn’t quite erase the aftermath. Neither Timberlake nor Jackson ever really explained what happened during that show, when Timberlake pulled off a portion of Jackson’s bra, revealing her nipple. It was seen for less than a split second, but this was the early days of blogs — when screengrabs of the nipple were quickly posted across the Internet. Soon, the FCC was involved, and broadcast TV and radio stations across the country clamped down on content, fearful of similar reprisals.
The scandal impacted both Timberlake and Jackson, but Timberlake made an apology on the Grammy Awards weeks later. Soon, most of the blame fell on Jackson, who was blacklisted by Viacom. (MTV was the producer of the halftime show that year.)
“This wardrobe malfunction had heavy consequences… for Jackson,” Ira Madison III wrote for the Daily Beast in September. “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… [I]t’s still damning that Timberlake will be rewarded after he was never punished in the first place.”
In the years since, Timberlake’s involvement in Nipplegate has mostly been forgotten — but Jackson’s career has seemingly never recovered. Still, it seemed like a stretch for the NFL to ever invite back either performer, given the grief they experienced that year. And indeed, in the years that followed, the NFL played it safe with its halftime shows.
However, there are a finite number of big, crossover entertainers suitable for halftime. And you can only invite Bruno Mars back so many times. It’s been 14 years, and Timberlake has a new album to promote, “Man of the Woods,” his first in five years. The reviews have been, well, mixed — Rolling Stone gave it three and a half stars out of five — so a Super Bowl halftime show is just what he needed to cement sales and his place as a pop icon. It probably didn’t hurt — but haters gonna say it’s fake.