DON’T DO IT, Janet.
Do not be swayed by Justin Timberlake’s false generosity, should he invite you to join him on stage as he headlines this season’s Super Bowl halftime show. You do not need the self-serving magnanimity of a man who suffered no consequences for an act that nearly derailed your career.
Of course, I’m referring to the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show performance in 2004. As he sang the song “Rock Your Body” — and specifically the line “I’m gonna get you naked by end of this song” — Timberlake tore away Janet Jackson’s bustier, revealing far more than either one of them intended. Reaction was swift and predictable: thousands of calls from irate viewers, lots of harrumphing from the FCC, and a then-record fine of $550,000 for CBS, which aired the Super Bowl.
Then came something few anticipated. Only Jackson was blamed for what became known as “Nipplegate.”
Suddenly Jackson, who had spent much of the late 20th century as one of the world’s biggest pop stars, was a pariah. MTV, which produced that year’s halftime show, apologized and called it “inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance.” The obvious inference was that Jackson lied to producers.
Others accused Jackson orchestrating the whole mess as a publicity stunt, as if she planned to expose her breast before more than 140 million viewers. CBS forced Jackson — and only Jackson — to issue a video apology, washing the network, MTV, and NFL clean of any prior knowledge of what ultimately occurred. Timberlake offered this classic sorry/not sorry: “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable.”
Jackson’s apology would not be enough. She was barred from attending that year’s Grammys, which aired the following week; Timberlake was not. Her music was banned from all Clear Channel Communications stations; Timberlake’s was not. It was Timberlake who exposed Jackson’s breast, instead of just her red bra as he was supposed to, but he was treated like The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Jackson, meanwhile, was a modern-day Hester Prynne. But instead of a scarlet A, she was marked by the elaborate nipple-piercing jewelry revealed during the botched performance. Timberlake’s career soared while Jackson’s stalled. Her album “Damita Jo,” released the following month, had the worst sales of her career.
Two years later, Timberlake gave MTV a wan acknowledgement that Jackson was treated “sort of unfair” and that he “probably got 10 percent of the blame.” He added, “I think America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
From the cornrows he once wore while churning out boy band pabulum with ’NSync to a solo career that has bordered on Michael Jackson cosplay, Timberlake has studied, appropriated, and regurgitated black musical idioms for the pop masses. It was Jackson who gave ’NSync an early break when she brought them on tour as an opening act, and she invited Timberlake as a surprise guest during their ill-fated Super Bowl performance. Yet only she was punished over a stupid mishap for which they bore equal responsibility. In solidarity, he could have boycotted the Grammys from which Jackson was exiled. Instead Timberlake, a man so thirsty he has a body of water in his name, quickly distanced himself from Nipplegate, which literally had his fingerprints all over it.
Now he’s planning his next Super Bowl close-up. An Entertainment Tonight source claims that if Timberlake asks, Jackson “would perform with him again in a minute,” while a USA Today columnist says inviting Jackson would “give her back a moment that was overshadowed by controversy” and that “we all love redemption stories.”
All these years later, there is nothing Timberlake can give Jackson. Any appearance with him will imply that she’s excused him for turning his back on her. Given an opportunity, he couldn’t even bring himself to explicitly say that in this country second chances and forgiveness generally belong to white men, not black women.
Jackson does not need to be redeemed or made whole. Her musical legacy is secure; Timberlake’s contribution to our culture is the phrase “wardrobe malfunction.”
When “Football Night in America” host Mike Tirico asked Timberlake if the NFL wanted assurances that there would be no controversies, the singer said, “That won’t happen this time.” I hope it won’t happen because Jackson will steer clear of the NFL, and decline any Timberlake invitation that would only offer him, but not her, public absolution.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.