Justin Timberlake made a bet almost 14 years ago, and it continues to pay off for him. Janet Jackson took the identical risk, and she lost big time.
This week’s announcement that Timberlake would headline the Super Bowl LII halftime show in February brought back the memory of when JT and Miss Jackson performed together on a similar stage.
It was halftime during Super Bowl XXXVIII, on Feb. I, MMIV. (Sorry, the Roman numeral thing is contagious.) Jackson was the headliner and performed two of her hits, “All for You” and “Rhythm Nation,” before Timberlake, the “surprise” guest, joined her onstage at Houston’s Reliant Stadium (now NRG Stadium).
The pair made a sexy duet of Timberlake’s song “Rock Your Body.” At one point, he reached for her bustier and pulled, momentarily revealing Jackson’s right breast, adorned with a metallic sunburst decoration on her nipple.
Whether intentional or — as Timberlake’s meek apology statement put it — a “wardrobe malfunction,” the damage from “Nipplegate” was done.
A week after the Super Bowl, Timberlake made a public apology at the Grammy Awards, where he won two trophies that year. Jackson was barred from attending the ceremony after refusing to apologize for the Super Bowl incident. (The Grammys and the Super Bowl both were broadcast on CBS, which spent years fighting off FCC fines over the incident.)
Jackson’s next album, “Damita Jo,” sold a fraction of the copies her previous ones did, and all her albums since have sold even less. Corporate radio and MTV’s channels effectively blacklisted her for years, and she lost movie roles. She bounced back, in such venues as BET and Tyler Perry movies — but many people still haven’t forgiven her for what happened at that Super Bowl.
Timberlake’s next album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds” (2006), sold 10 million copies worldwide. His two-part album “The 20/20 Experience” (2013) was a multiplatinum success. His single for the movie “Trolls,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” was a No. 1 hit and earned him an Oscar nomination.
Timberlake also has found success as an actor. His filmography includes “Alpha Dog” (2006), “The Social Network” (2010), “Friends With Benefits” (2011), “Runner Runner” (2013), “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) and this year’s Woody Allen movie “Wonder Wheel.”
And, last Sunday, the NFL announced that Timberlake would perform at halftime of Super Bowl LII, Feb. 4, 2018, at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium.
Fans of Jackson quickly took to the Internet to voice their anger. There is an online petition demanding she be part of Timberlake’s 2018 halftime show, and of course there’s a hashtag: #JusticeForJanet.
The protest got the NFL’s notice. The league issued a statement Monday denying that there’s a ban against Jackson, but asserting the NFL was “not going to comment on any speculation regarding potential guests. There may be no guests.”
This week’s announcement raises some serious questions about sexual and racial messaging and the NFL’s staggering lack of self-awareness.
Consider the message embedded in that 2004 performance: A domineering white man looking down on a considerably smaller black woman (Timberlake is 6’1” and wore sneakers, Jackson is 5’4” and was in military-style boots), boasting that he could have his way with her. The lyric he sang just before tugging at her breastplate: “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song.”
Why would a league that continues to deal with its players committing domestic violence want to remind people of that image?
Why would the NFL do so at a moment when sexual harassment and sexual assault — with the revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and filmmaker James Toback, new details about former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and the lingering memories of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape — are headline news?
And why would the NFL — currently deep in an internal argument between its rich white owners and its players, the majority of them black, over the right to protest about police violence and injustice against African Americans — exacerbate that tension by rehiring the white guy who played the aggressor in that 2004 moment? (Having Jimmy Fallon, Timberlake’s friend and apolitical hair musser, help out on NBC’s announcement video was just icing on the white-privilege cake.)
Like most Americans, I hope the Super Bowl halftime show will be the “entertaining and unifying show” that the NFL says Timberlake will deliver — if only to distract from what is, traditionally, a really boring game and a slew of overproduced TV commercials. I wouldn’t mind seeing Timberlake, and the NFL, make amends to Jackson as part of that unifying moment.