When buzz about a Justin Timberlake Super Bowl halftime show takes hold, only one name should come to mind.
Sure, T.I. could join Timberlake on his 2006 megahits. Yes, Super Bowl 52 would be a golden opportunity for Timberlake to reunite with JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, Lance Bass, and Chris Kirkpatrick and perform as ‘N Sync, as they had 18 Super Bowls ago. And, improbable as it is, “Suit and Tie” leaves the door open for Jay-Z to perform at the halftime show he’s rumored to have turned down.
But enough stalling: I’m talking about Janet Jackson.
Jackson and Timberlake last shared the Super Bowl stage, of course, during the 2004 halftime show. She was an established superstar who had released five multiplatinum albums and 10 number-one singles in the past two decades; he was still in the ascent, after releasing a bestselling debut solo album in 2002. Performing his hit “Rock Your Body,” Timberlake sang, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song," then yanked off a part of Jackson’s costume, revealing her breast, naked except for a piece of jewelry covering some of her nipple. And America exploded.
It’s hard to overstate the enormity of Nipplegate (I don’t name the scandals, I’m sorry) as a cultural event. Jackson had the most googled name of 2004. Jawed Karim cites his difficulty in being able to find the video as an inspiration for creating YouTube a year later. The FCC increased indecency fines tenfold, all the way to $325,000. The Super Bowl would choose relatively safe classic-rock acts for the halftime show for the next several years. This all speaks to the size of Nipplegate’s reaction and influence. But the reasons Janet Jackson deserves to make her way back to the Super Bowl stage are, quite unjustly, less remembered.
A week after the Super Bowl, Timberlake would win multiple Grammy awards, giving him a platform to speak about the recent controversy. Meanwhile, Jackson was given the option to either not attend the proceedings or be uninvited altogether. And though Timberlake’s initial response – “hey man, we love giving you all something to talk about” – went poorly, and it was he who coined the much-mocked euphemism “wardrobe malfunction,” it was Jackson who would continue to be held fully responsible for Nipplegate, who would be dragged over the coals in excruciating interviews by everyone from David Letterman to Oprah Winfrey. She released a new album, Damita Jo, less than two months after the Super Bowl and it flopped. Timberlake’s next album would propel him to superstardom.
Setting aside just how utterly innocuous the supposedly offensive image that appeared on televisions for less than a second was, Timberlake’s action was the cause of that image. Yet the incident was but a speed bump in his career, while a shocking number of people in my generation (25 and younger) know Jackson for Nipplegate and little else.
So why should the NFL allow Justin Timberlake to put Nipplegate behind him without granting Janet Jackson that same opportunity? Timberlake and the NFL owe Jackson something. At least bring her back to join in on “Rock Your Body.” Nostalgia is very in at the moment, after all, and the NFL has already shown that it’s willing to engage in performative bravery in the name of commerce.