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Nipplegate Revisited: How Justin Timberlake’s Previous Super Bowl Performance Rocked the World and Changed the Internet

For years after the 2004 Super Bowl performance by Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson scandalized the world, the halftime pageant’s producers lived in terror of going near anything that could be considered filth. So it’s a measure of how far we’ve come that Justin Timberlake will presumably be singing his current hit, “Filth,” as part of Super Bowl LII. Fourteen years was enough to ensure the 50-yard line was no longer toxic for the superstar, who’ll be bringing sexy back but leaving nipple shields in their place in history.

In the days following “Nipplegate” — in which Timberlake tore off a piece of Jackson’s jacket, accidentally revealing her mostly bare breast, under mysterious circumstances that are debated by conspiracy theorists to this day — there looked to be damage to her career, damage to his career, and a crackdown on sexual leniency on TV. But only the first of those came true, as Jackson’s career took a dive from which she’s only recently recovered. (Fans argue over whether there was a direct correlation, or a career downslope was inevitable two decades into a pop career anyway). Meanwhile, Timberlake has had four No. 1 singles since 2004, and “Man of the Woods,” his Friday album release, is about to be his fourth No. 1 album since the scandal. Oh, and the decency crusades that rose up in the immediate wake of the boob flash? Those quickly fell off the hit parade.

There may be a significant lasting legacy to Nipplegate, though: YouTube. It didn’t exist until a year later, but savvy minds realized that there was a need to be filled when “Janet Jackson” immediately became the most-searched term in Internet history, but all it turned up for most users was censored still photos. TiVo signups soared immediately afterward, but viewers could hardly be sure of which channel to record for the next spontaneous outrage. One of the three young Silicon Valley founders of YouTube, Jawed Karim, has said the Super Bowl incident was what convinced him that a video-sharing service would blow up.

So Brent Bozell and the Parents Television Council’s campaign to make sure that America never had to see anything like that again quickly gave way to “How can we see that again… and again, and again?” Jackson’s exposure lasted less than a second before a trigger-finger network expertly cut away, but it still became the first true viral video, right before there was such a thing as a viral video. You can find in this one of the great social-media ironies of all time. In 2011, Timberlake took an ownership stake in an attempt to relaunch MySpace that was doomed to failure. But you could really give him credit for his inadvertent part in the origin story of YouTube.

It’s the Jackson family, though, that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for making the Super Bowl halftime show into something America anticipates as a pop-star extravaganza instead of a marching band-filled bathroom break. In 1993, Michael Jackson was the first superstar to perform a medley of hits at the Bowl. That was a direct response to the debacle of the previous year, when serious counterprogramming first reared its head. The Puppy Bowl hadn’t been invented yet, but in ’92, Fox put on a live episode of “In Living Color” as counterprograming, drawing more than 20 million viewers away from an official halftime show on CBS that was configured as a tribute to the winter Olympics, with Gloria Estefan joining figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano.

Before Jackson inaugurated the modern halftime show as we know it, the Bowl was most famous for offering the secular-inspiration troupe Up With People a steady gig. Up With People performed at the halftime shows of 1971, 1976, 1980, 1982, and finally 1986. Things were a little hipper in 1972, when a tribute to Louis Armstrong featured Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Channing, and Al Hirt. Other performers in the ‘70s and ‘80s: Andy Williams, Chubby Checker, Woody Herman, Doc Severinson, George Burns, Mickey Rooney, and an Elvis-impersonator magician. In 1991, Disney had the savvy to bring in actual then-current stars, New Kids in the Block, for a “Small World”-themed anniversary tribute to the Super Bowl… but it was tape-delayed and broadcast after the game so that ABC could air a Peter Jennings news report about Desert Storm.

Michael Jackson’s ’93 breakthrough didn’t lead to an immediate succession of superstars. The following years brought such underwhelming concepts a country medley (Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, and the Judds) and a Motown salute (Boyz II Men, the Temptations, and Queen Latifah), along with the B- and C-list likes of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the post-John-Belushi Blues Brothers, Patti LaBelle, and Toni Braxton. It was only in 2001 when the show got back on its current all-star course for good, with a “Kings of Rock and Pop” kitchen sink of random big-name talent that included Aerosmith, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Nelly, and… ‘N Sync, with young Timberlake briefly making the first of what will soon turn out to be three Super Bowl appearances.

In most years since, the idea has been to snag either a lone megastar (U2, Paul McCartney, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Lady Gaga) or a superstar-led party (Shania Twain with No Doubt and Sting; Coldplay with Beyoncé and Bruno Mars; Bruno with the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Producers learned that maybe they needed to vet the guests as well as the headliners, when in 2012 M.I.A. let a middle digit fly in the middle of Madonna’s extravaganza. That led to another series of accusations and recriminations, a la Justin and Janet, with Madonna plausibly denying bird-flip foreknowledge.

But a breast will always trump a finger on the outrage scale, and nothing could ever compare to the world-rattling reaction to the Timberlake/Jackson slip. Justin’s apologetic statement introduced the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” into the popular vocabulary and eventually dictionary; as a joke, it will likely be handed down to our children and our children’s children.

But was it really a malfunction? That will be debated as long as the Zapruder film. What’s known is that the grab-and-yank wasn’t a part of rehearsals, and seemed designed to be under wraps so as to escape the scrutiny of the MTV-team producers and CBS execs. For the “Rock Your Body” finale, which had Timberlake vowing to “have you naked by the end of this song,” Jackson’s spokesman said Timberlake “was supposed to ‘peel away’ Jackson’s rubber bustier to reveal a red lace bra… but the garment collapsed,” leaving nothing but that sun-shaped nipple shield to prevent a hard-R rating. The shocked expressions on the stars’ faces, captured in still photographs, seemed to back up their stories that the complete uncovering was a surprise, although MTV Networks’ angry chairman, Tom Freston, believed it was deliberate. He declared: “We were punk’d by Janet Jackson.”

Timberlake got off a lot easier than Jackson in the aftermath. To some, that was simply because he was a cameo player in the performance, which mainly belonged to Jackson; he’d only come in a day before for rehearsal, and the idea for the pull-away and the costume design certainly hadn’t come from his camp. But to others, his seeming absolution, while Jackson continued to take heat, was a sign of white privilege and male privilege among the media and general public. Two years later, Timberlake appeared to accept that explanation, saying, “I probably got 10% 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.”

But it was also clear that Timberlake’s breezy persona offered him better PR skills to cope with the scandal than Jackson’s shyer, more serious, and more recalcitrant personality did. Timberlake appeared on the Grammy telecast days after the Super Bowl, and he used his acceptance speech to apologize — leading off with the casual statement, “I know it’s been a rough week on everybody…” He probably being serious, but it came off as a bit of Why-is-the-world-so-shook-up-over-this? levity, and it lightened the mood. Meanwhile, Jackson didn’t have a chance to make a statement on the Grammys; she wasn’t up for anything and wasn’t about to be declared persona grata now. Instead, she made her apology in what looked like a hostage video. Subsequent appearances with Oprah and David Letterman were touted as tell-all interviews, but she mostly reaffirmed her lack of interest in offering any insight into what had gone down. A woman whose entire image was staked on sexual openness and liberation suddenly seemed defensive and closed-off, which may have confused fans that’d only seen the brazen side of Jackson.

It’s not as if Timberlake and Jackson came off as complete winners or losers out of the controversy. Jackson’s hit streak was coming to an end, however related or unrelated that was, but she remains one of the most revered women in African American pop culture. Timberlake, meanwhile, came out scathed for seeming to come out unscathed. The rapper Common called him out in a lyric he contributed to a Jadakiss song (“Why?”), asking the musical question: “Why did Justin sell Janet out and go to the Grammys?” Asked about the incident on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show in January. Timberlake admitted, “I stumbled through it, to be quite honest. I had my wires crossed, and it’s just something that you have to look back on and go, like, ‘Okay, well, you know, you can’t change what’s happened but you can move forward and learn from it.'” But he said he had “absolutely” made peace with Jackson over it. “And I don’t know that a lot of people know that,” he added. “I don’t think it’s my job to [make the public aware of] that because you value the relationships that you do have with people.”

Did the 2004 elephant in the room come up in network discussions about his return to the Super Bowl? “Naturally, that’s something we talked about,” Timberlake told Lowe. “To be honest, it wasn’t too much of a conversation. It’s just one of those things where you go, like, ‘Yeah, what do you want me to say? We’re not going to do that again!’”

Of course, CBS would love it if Timberlake’s 2018 headlining performance moved the needle even a hundredth as much as his 2014 cameo. Not that they’d want to relive the scrutiny and legal fees that came with the 540,000 complaints that were filed with the FCC, and the $550,000 fine that governing body hit them with before that ruling was voided by an appeals court in 2011. But to have a flashpoint so indelible it launches a million allusions and parodies in popular culture (including complete episodes of “South Park” and “Family Guy”), practically launches a culture war between would-be censors and libertines, and caused a whole new medium to be added to the online sharing revolution? That’s an oceanic water-cooler moment they’d probably take again.

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