Nine-sixteenths of a Super Bowl second forever changed the halftime game.
We all remember Nipplegate, when Janet Jackson’s breast became a weapon of moral destruction. Ta-Ta the Terrorist devastated the country, and even Justin Timberlake, who tore the material that exposed her boob, was a victim.
He apologized. She apologized. While Janet drew a lifetime penalty flag, Justin catapulted into superstardom. And 14 years later he’ll headline the halftime show this Super Bowl Sunday. Perfectly timed, his new funk-and-flannel album, “Man of the Woods,” came out Friday.
In an open letter earlier this week, the Parents Television Council wrote of their hopes to not see a 2004 repeat. They asked for a safe show. But I’d like to know if a breast really is so much more dangerous than the inequity of race and gender?
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Since that 2004 Super Bowl, Justin has been happily riding the wave of white male privilege. He was at the Grammys just after the nip slip. Janet was discouraged from attending. The NFL, FCC and family values advocates scapegoated her.
According to Rolling Stone, Viacom blackballed her, keeping her videos off MTV, VH1 and radio stations. Babies are breastfed every day, but hers, revealed by accident for less than a second, crippled her career.
And Justin? Two years after the nip slip, he was in a “Saturday Night Live” digital short singing about his “Dick in a Box.” It won an Emmy. A white man can sing about his penis and be celebrated. But a woman, especially a black woman, is vilified because her bra broke.
“I personally thought that was really unfair,” Michael Powell, who was FCC chairman during The Incident, finally told ESPN 10 years later. “It all turned into being about her. In reality, if you slow the thing down, it’s Justin ripping off her breastplate.”
Justin knows he got off easy.
“If you consider it 50-50, then I probably got 10 percent of the blame,” he told MTV News in 2006. “I think America is harsher on women. I think America is unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
But he never took action, never used his platform to lift her or speak out on the injustice of it all. So it makes sense Janet wasn’t interested in taking his call around then, as she told Oprah in a 2006 interview. He left her hanging.
Salli Frattini, the producer of the 2004 halftime show and the first woman to hold that honor, claims Justin did the right thing.
“I believe he kind of manned up and talked about it all, and I’m not sure she really did, you know?” Frattini told USA Today. “I’m glad his career has continued to flourish. I’m still a supporter, and I have no regrets and disregard for Justin.’’
But she told them Janet’s remorse failed. I guess she should have asked her brother Michael Jackson (Justin’s blueprint) to Moonwalk around her apology for believability. Or maybe J.T.’s white maleness was enough to win everyone over instantaneously.
It’s taken almost all 14 of the years since Super Bowl XXXVIII for Janet to forge a comeback.
Last year’s “State of the World” tour was her moment to celebrate more than 10 studio albums spanning nearly four decades. She’s headlining at both Panorama and Essence Fest this summer, but the NFL decided it was Justin, and only Justin, who was worthy of the grand stage.
But we’re talking about the NFL, where discrimination is rampant. Remember when CBS dumped Rihanna’s music from its Thursday Night Football intro during a Ravens-Steelers game in the aftermath of the Ray Rice domestic abuse tragedy?
In the promo for the Super Bowl performance, NBC sportscaster Mike Tirico, who was accused of sexual harassment by several women during his ESPN career, interviews Justin. He jokingly asks about the “wardrobe thing.” Justin laughs, saying, “That won’t happen this time.”
Tone deaf, much? So he and Justin get to laugh about an incident that become a scarlet letter for Janet.
For over a decade, Justin has said he should have handled Nipplegate better. Yet he continues to act like a boob. This is a guy who says he supports #MeToo and #TimesUp but happily works with Woody Allen.
I get it, Justin is likable and charming and talented. But none of us are beyond accountability. Yet he continues to dodge it.
He told Beats 1 Radio DJ Zane Lowe he had his wires crossed and can’t change what happened, but he can move forward and learn from it. I wonder what he learned.
He claimed he and Janet made peace: “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.”
It’s not his job to publicly right what was a very public and devastating wrong? He has said he’s not bringing Janet on stage at the Super Bowl. She doesn’t need it, but the gesture would mean a lot, much like when the Miss America pageant finally said sorry to Vanessa Williams three years ago. It was an apology that was three decades in the making –– they dethroned the first black woman to win the crown when nude photos were published without her consent.
On his new album, Justin has a song called “Say Something.” It’s inspired by a misunderstanding he had on Twitter about cultural appropriation.
He sings, “Sometimes, the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.”
Not this time, J.T. Say more. Do more. You can’t keep profiting off the culture and sitting on the sidelines when it counts.
On Super Bowl Sunday, without Janet, there’s something more insidious than Justin’s new folksy funky soul sound. Because he isn’t just a man of the woods. He’s a man of white privilege.
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist, @jeneeinkc
Where to watch
The Super Bowl airs Sunday on NBC. Kickoff is at 5:30 p.m.