People say hindsight is 20/20, but for Janet Jackson, looking back must mean remembering that the game is rigged.
In 2004, I was one of the lucky million who watched in real time as Jackson’s breast sprung out of her top at Justin Timberlake’s hand. The shot of her sunflower nipple ring was visible only for a split second but that nip slip had an extreme impact on the Super Bowl Halftime Show for years to come. With the exception of Prince playing “Purple Rain” in the rain, Super Bowl producers played it safe with rock legends. Contemporary fun was over and we would endure the slow, public death of Janet Jackson, black pop superstar. And for what — a dubious “wardrobe malfunction”?
From the arrival of her 1986 breakout single and album Control, Jackson had reigned as a music industry juggernaut. She pushed musical boundaries with intricate videos like 1989’s “Rhythm Nation” and challenged sexual norms with the steamy “Any Time Any Place.” Janet even appeared on the cover of this publication topless for her 1993 self-titled album wearing only the hands of then-husband Renee Elizondo as a shield.
Her star power began to wane with the release of 2001’s All for You, signaled by the departure of her longtime choreographer Tina Landon. But her track record for hit songs and albums helped her hang on to her brand. Madonna, Mariah and Janet ruled pop music’s early aughts while starlets like Britney, Ashanti and Beyoncé duked it out for whatever remained.
At home, Janet was just the second biggest star in the Jackson royal line, after her older brother, Michael. But after her breast greeted nearly 89 million television viewers and possibly became the inspiration for YouTube itself, the pop star was unfairly crucified, which even an FCC executive now concedes. Timberlake, a relatively new solo artist trying to shake his boy-band roots — and the guy who actually removed Jackson’s top — publically apologized and severed ties with Jackson, even though she’d given him a boost by appearing on his debut album, Justified. Maybe his quick apology saved Justin from the fire. Or maybe society had already begun a witch-hunt for Janet because she is a black woman in America, and as much as we try to disentangle race from our lives, stereotypes and their harmful blowback haunt us.
In her book Sister Citizen, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry writes that black women are often trying to stand up straight in a crooked room tilted with stereotypes and socioeconomic factors that can put them at a disadvantage. Jackson may have thought Nipplegate was a mere “wardrobe malfunction,” but the flash of nudity went beyond that: She had unwittingly sparked America’s dismal Jezebel trope surrounding black female sexuality — the idea that black women are irrational sexual beings that must be controlled and stamped out. Janet bore the blame for Nipplegate alone — everyone associated with the production claimed ignorance and after his vague apology, Timberlake didn’t discuss the event again.
Janet’s subsequent album Damita Jo saw little radio rotation and received so few MTV video spins that many assumed she was banned by the company who had produced the infamous Super Bowl Halftime Show. The FCC fined CBS $550,000, who in turn cut ties with MTV. As Jackson burned professionally at the stake, Timberlake’s 2002 album cruised to the top of the charts and earned a Grammy award, though many in the African-American community were still upset with him for attending at all after awards show essentially disinvited Jackson when she refused to apologize again during the telecast.
Years later, Timberlake admitted that he was wrong to desert Jackson and she herself conceded that his actions were unexpected from a friend, but by then it didn’t matter. Janet, the global star adored for “If” and Poetic Justice, was now loathed for Nipplegate 2004.
These days, Jackson is probably better known by Tyler Perry fans for her roles in the Why Did I Get Married seriesinstead of The Velvet Rope. In 2013 she announced, or rather the media figured out, that she was married to Qatar billionaire Wissam Al Mana and she’s no doubt enjoying a lavish life. I’m happy for her, but as a fan looking back, I’m sad and angry. The woman who helped build the very throne that Beyoncé is surfboarding upon is remembered not for her glory but her tragedy. And that’s not even close to being fair.
Hillary Crosley is a staff writer at Jezebel and a tea addict.