Super Bowl Flashback: The Forgotten Details of Janet Jackson's 'Nipplegate'
A song from Diddy, Laura Bush weighing in and everything else you forgot about the controversial performance and “wardrobe malfunction.”
When pop star Justin Timberlake announced that he would headline the Super Bowl LII half-time show, airing this Sunday on NBC, he reignited discussion over his controversial appearance with Janet Jackson 14 years earlier.
On Feb. 1, 2004, at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Timberlake joined headliner Jackson for a surprise duet of “Rock Your Body” at the end of the half-time show. After Timberlake sang the lyric “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song,” he swiped off a piece of the leather top covering Jackson’s nipple, exposing her bare breast to the 143.6 million viewers for about a half-second.
Memorialized as a “wardrobe malfunction,” the incident immediately captivated American media. The Federal Communications Commission received more than 200,000 complaints. Jackson became the most searched person in history, landing a Guinness world record. Even then-first lady Laura Bush weighed in, telling reporters, “What it represented was a kind of television viewing that we don’t want little children to see.”
On Sept. 23 of that year, the FCC fined CBS $550,000 for “public indecency” in a unanimous vote. Chairman Michael Powell said, “As countless families gathered around the television to watch one of our nation's most celebrated events, they were rudely greeted with a half-time show stunt more fitting of a burlesque show.” (The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, which in 2012 declared the fines unconstitutional in an 8-0 decision.)
MTV, which produced the 2004 half-time show, was removed from future Super Bowl events. Prominent Americans began expressing their concern about the public broadcast of smut, with the House and Senate soon voting to raise the maximum fine for indecency. The performance also helped to create the ubiquitous video platform YouTube. Co-founder Jawed Karim has since stated that his struggle to find a good video of the incident inspired his now multi-billion-dollar company.
At first, MTV and parent company Viacom announced that the wardrobe malfunction was “unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance,” sparking rumors that the move was a failed publicity stunt. Later, however, Jackson’s publicist clarified that “Justin was supposed to pull away the rubber bustier to reveal a red lace bra. The garment collapsed and her breast was accidentally revealed.” CBS was quick to blame the performers, noting that nothing had gone awry in rehearsals.
Yet for what appears to have been a genuine accident, Jackson suffered through much more public vitriol than Timberlake — speaking to the unfair public pressures that women, especially black women, often endure.
While Timberlake was allowed to play at the Grammys the following week, Jackson, who was supposed to perform a song at that event, was banned. She was also pressured to release a statement accepting complete responsibility and absolving CBS and MTV of responsibility: “The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my half-time show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended – including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL.” She followed it up with a taped video apology. Timberlake, meanwhile, made only one statement immediately after the accident. “Hey, man, we love giving you all something to talk about,” he told Access Hollywood.
Two years later, in 2006, he admitted, “I could’ve handled it better,” noting, “I probably got 10 percent 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.”
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey that year, Jackson agreed. In response to Winfrey’s question, “Do you think people were too hard on you?” Jackson said yes: “I think they did put all the emphasis on me, as opposed to us.”
Still, the fact that Timberlake has been invited to perform again after Jackson’s image suffered has rankled some critics, who see it as an example of his privilege as a white male artist.
Though the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show is almost exclusively remembered for the wardrobe accident, Diddy wants you to know that he performed, too. “First of all, I wanna say that I’m still upset about that Super Bowl because I put, like, six months of my life into the preparations and then nobody knew I performed,” he said in a recent interview on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen.
Diddy’s 2004 half-time show appearance isn’t the only one that isn't as readily recalled as the wardrobe incident. The event opened with singer and fashion designer Jessica Simpson standing in the middle of a marching band and shouting, “HOUSTON! CHOOSE TO PARTY!” After Diddy sang his hit “Bad Boy for Life,” Nelly joined him onstage for “Hot in Herre.” Kid Rock played two songs — “Bawitdaba” and “Cowboy” — in an American flag shirt.
But Jackson dominated the night with her hits, including “All for You” and “Rhythm Nation,” before being joined onstage by Timberlake.
Whether Timberlake will address the controversy at his performance on Sunday remains to be seen.