Right on schedule, the rumors are swirling about who will fill the coveted headline slot at the 2018 Super Bowl Half Time show. Since the early 1990s, this performance has steadily become one of, if not the most prestigious musical event of the year. Over the last decade, the performance has become a stepping stone for contemporary artists to join an elite class often referred to as “legends” (Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga,) and a victory lap for established legends (Paul McCartney, Prince, and Madonna, to name a few.) Hundreds of millions of people tune in to watch the 10-to-15 minute spectacle that often involves elaborate staging, pyro, and audience participation (who could forget the entirety of Dolphin Stadium belting the climax of “Purple Rain”…in the rain?) Long story short: it’s an established facet of pop culture that will be talked about across the world, good or bad.
Let’s go back to February 1, 2004 in Houston, TX when MTV was hired to compile a monumental half time show. P. Diddy was there, Nelly was there, and Kid Rock was there; no one remembers them, mirroring their relevance 14 years later. The only two artists anyone remembers about the performance are, of course, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, and all for one moment. No one seems to remember “All For You,” Janet’s opening number, or her return to the stage for a run through of her iconic “Rhythm Nation.” There’s only half of a second of the 10 minute show that remains in public consciousness…that half of a second where, after a surprise appearance to perform a brief segment of his “Rock Your Body,” Justin Timberlake reached across Janet’s body, ripped off a piece of her outfit covering her breast, accidentally exposing her nipple to the world… for half of a second.
What followed was one of the biggest controversies in pop music history, and for all of the wrong reasons. We all remember the backlash; “Nipplegate” and “Wardrobe Malfunction” have their own Wikipedia pages, for God’s sake. Janet Jackson, who was twenty years into her legendary career and still sending songs to the top of the charts and selling out stadiums, saw her commercial viability vanish in, well, half of a second. Her Damita Jo album, released just 2 months later uncharacteristically flopped, as subsequently did 20 Y.O., and Discipline. Radio blacklisted her, the Grammys uninvited her, and she even lost a film role. Even despite issuing an apology for the accident, it took years for her to repair her public image to where it is now, and, still, she can’t seem to find her way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or back to the top of the pop charts.
Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake got to perform at the same Grammys where Janet was barred from presenting, and subsequently brought “SexyBack” just two years later. Ever since, he’s put up 3 #1 albums, almost 20 top-20 hits, including 5 #1s, has worked with the likes of Madonna and Jay-Z, and has won countless awards and recognitions. None of this is to take away from his talents as a vocalist, performer, songwriter, and all-around artist, but the contrast in reaction to this notorious half of a second is quite telling. Janet Jackson quite literally stood there as JT removed an article of her clothing, leaving it up to her reflexes to cover up as quick as humanly possible (less than a second should be applauded in that context.) The entire blame fell on her, while Justin walked away scot-free. With the passing of over a decade, no one has tried to make amends for the disproportionate distribution of blame, and now it sounds like Justin Timberlake could be the next superstar to take the stage at the Super Bowl Half Time show.
While these are still rumors, the fact that his name is the one being thrown around is absolutely disheartening. This incident is one of the biggest blemishes in NFL history (which says something, as it had nothing to do with football,) and it’s not because a nipple was exposed on live television for half of a second, but because Janet Jackson (and I’m gonna go there, so buckle up,) a black woman saw her important career instantaneously pulled out from underneath her, and Justin Timberlake, a white man, go on to have incredible amounts of success. The entire reaction to this incident was racist, was sexist, and was, on all accounts, shameful. No offense to JT, but he should have been heavily condemned for his actions, and Janet should have been met with even a shred of sympathy for being exposed in such a way. Conspiracy theories aside, Janet Jackson did not expose herself (as so many headlines would lead you to believe,) Justin Timberlake exposed her. It was a nipple, and it was for half of a second. Bringing Justin Timberlake back to this stage would essentially be reaffirming the reaction to this incident. It wouldn’t be leaving the past in the past, it would be bringing it back.
It would be astounding if the NFL would choose to reopen this particular wound in the midst of one of the league’s most controversial seasons ever. Considering the number of players protesting race relations in the country, it would be nothing short of completely inappropriate to book a major player in such a racially-motivated controversy. To clarify, this isn’t to say Justin Timberlake is remotely racist or sexist, but he didn’t exactly come running to Janet’s defense, instead opting to let her take the fall. As an artist, he has long since built a resume worthy of this kind of prestige, but not this particular one. There is too much history here, and none of it is resolved.
If the NFL wants to put this incident in the past, book Janet (who is in the middle of a knockout tour at the moment.) Let her have 10 minutes to remind the world why half of a second shouldn’t erase decades of iconic, game-changing career. Please, do not let Justin Timberlake return to this stage and act like it didn’t happen. We can’t pretend like he didn’t expose Janet’s breast. We can’t pretend like he didn’t get to walk away unscathed and leave an artist of this caliber in the dust to take the heat on his behalf. It would be a giant slap in the face to Janet Jackson, to her fans, and, on a much bigger scale, to women of color who are subjected to these kind of injustices ever day. Maybe the rumors are just that: rumors, but that doesn’t make the conversation any less important. If the rumors are true, however, it is going to be a damn shame.