In American culture, we’ve had plenty of scandals, but one infamous incident rocked the public consciousness like no other: the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show of February 1, 2004.
Although the show began like any other run-of-the-mill halftime concert, its denouement became [allegedly] unintentionally salacious when Justin Timberlake ripped off a part of Janet Jackson‘s costume to reveal her bare right breast to millions of viewers tuning in to the event. What followed was a frenzy of cultural and political backlash, The Federal Communications Commission serving a $550,000 fine to CBS, and the invention of YouTube by one Jawed Karim who got the idea while feverishly searching for a clip of the incident after missing the show on TV.
In the trailer for her new documentary on Lifetime, simply titled Janet Jackson., a moment shows Randy Jackson, Janet’s brother who is also her manager and co-producer on the film, saying, “Justin and his team have been trying to contact us about you doing the Super Bowl” — then cutting to a contemplative Janet.
Below we take a look at the complete timeline of the uncanny and culturally curious events involving the two performers and reflect back on the halftime show that rocked the world.
Janet Jackson Is Announced To Perform
In December 2003, the NFL announced that Janet was set to headline the 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII show to be produced by MTV and shown on CBS. According to a 2002 report from Entertainment Weekly, the Poetic Justice actress was originally in talks to perform at the 2002 Super Bowl, but network executives allegedly changed their minds due to the solemnity that permeated the U.S. post-9/11. Execs apparently had a change of heart after attending a U2 concert in the aftermath of the tragedy, causing them to opt for the Irish rock band instead to “set the right tone.”
”There is no bigger spectacle than the Super Bowl,” Janet said in a press statement released around the time of the announcement of her headlining for 2004. ”It’s a unique and exciting experience that I have looked forward to for many years.”
Justin was added as a surprise addition to the halftime show, set to perform a rendition of his hit track “Rock Your Body” with Janet. Toward the end of the performance, when Justin sang the lyrics, “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” he ripped off the right side of Janet’s costume to reveal her right breast, which featured a piece a nipple jewelry. Janet looked down at her exposed breast in what appeared to be shock as the show abruptly ended and the cameras cut away.
Following the shock of the incident — which was broadcast to 150 million viewers — network execs scrambled, as Janet and Justin’s teams both professed it to be an accident, hence where the term “wardrobe malfunction” was coined. In Jan. 2018, USA Today spoke with MTV executive Salli Frattini who implied the idea of Janet’s breast being exposed was a concept conceived between Janet and/or Janet’s stylist which was then presented to Justin in Janet’s dressing room before the show.
“There was a meeting right prior to the halftime [show],’’ Frattini stated to the outlet. “The idea was pitched to Justin. Janet’s stylist or whoever else was in the room. [Justin] went along with it and the mistake happened.” Salli also noted their teams were originally playing with the idea of Justin removing her skirt instead during previous rehearsals, but ultimately forwent the stunt. “There wasn’t supposed to be any reveal,” Salli continued. “There should not even have been an action moment or anything ever ripped off her body.’’
Moreover, FX’s The New York Times Presents series released the documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson in Nov. 2021 in which Salli spoke about feeling “betrayed” by the incident. “My instincts told me that there was a private conversation between wardrobe, stylist and artist, where someone thought this would be a good idea. And it backfired.”
Just days before the event, Janet’s choreographer, Gil Duldulao, also promised MTV News that there were “shocking moments” that would take place in the performance — a comment that was later used by conspiracy theorists and disbelievers that the whole thing was plotted out for a publicity stunt. To this day, the publication has an inserted “Editor’s Note” in the text assuring fans the malfunction was indeed an accident.
Janet Bears The Brunt Of The Backlash
As the aforementioned documentary noted, the day after the halftime show, Janet issued a written apology, which stated in part, “The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals…MTV was completely unaware of it,” she said at the time. “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 issued a similar statement on video two days after the incident.
Justin also issued an apology immediately after the game when he made an appearance at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 8. “I know it’s been a rough week on everybody,” the “Sexy Back” singer said during his acceptance speech after winning two trophies at the event. “What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable and I apologize if you guys are offended.” CBS said in a statement Justin’s apology was part of an agreement made with the network so he could appear at the Grammy’s. They also stated they extended the same offer to Janet, but she declined.
Although both sides issued apologies, the aftermath was infinitely more harsh on Janet, who was “vilified” in the media and temporarily blacklisted from several radio stations and networks in the wake of the scandal. Her music career was also impacted, with her eight studio album, Damita Jo, being affirmed by critics but unsuccessful commercially as her only album to not hit No. 1 in the U.S. since 1984.
In 2006, Janet went on the Oprah show to discuss the halftime show and insinuated hurt feelings by Justin ostensibly abandoning her following the incident. “Justin has reached out — we haven’t spoken — but [he] has reached out to speak to me and … friendship is very important to me,” she stated, obviously dismayed. “[There are] certain things you just don’t do to friends. In my own time I’ll give him a call.”
After the release of The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears documentary, Justin issued a public apology on Instagram noting how “deeply sorry” he was for “the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem” and where he “did not speak up for what was right.” He continued in his statement, “I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism.”
The New York Times Presents series and numerous other reexaminations of past cultural events through more gender- and racially-enlightened lenses have definitely shifted the zeitgeist in order to better understand the past. Although Janet undoubtedly took a hit from the mid-aughts scandal, her new documentary shows how much times have changed and perhaps how significantly the culture can look back on “Nipplegate” as a salacious scandal that perhaps didn’t need to be identified as such.