In the wake of Jay-Z allegedly turning down the Super Bowl halftime performance, Justin Timberlake has been selected to take his place. Some may be excited that the NFL’s halftime show — regarded by many sports fans as the biggest bathroom break in America — will showcase a contemporary artist with a range of hits. Of course, Timberlake has a lot of range period, as evidenced by his ability to supersede NSYNC, all the way down to a recent cover of “Humble.” But on another level, the announcement that Timberlake has been selected for such a prominent and prestigious show in the music industry is disheartening.
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room straight up: 13 years ago, the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” that occurred between him and Janet Jackson set off a firestorm of controversy that severely derailed her career. For those too young to remember, at the end of his 2004 Super Bowl performance with Jackson, he ripped off a portion of Janet’s top. Jackson’s publicist said only her red bra was supposed to be exposed, but his tug exposed her entire breast — sans covered nipple — to the world. In today’s “free the nipple” culture, the incident probably wouldn’t be a big deal, but back then it became a huge morality cause celebre. In response, the FCC ushered in a 5-second delay on live public broadcasts, and Janet Jackson faced the brunt of a controversy that Timberlake moonwalked right away from.
He’s the one who ripped up her outfit but suffered virtually zero backlash for it. He got to joke about it the next week at the Grammys — the same event that Janet, a music icon, was barred from. The optics here are too emblematic of this country’s racist double standards to ignore; Jackson, a Black woman, had her career irrevocably damaged due to Timberlake’s mistreatment of her body.
Sure, Justin could bring her out next January for a redeeming “gotcha” moment, but that doesn’t seem likely, and it also doesn’t offset the fact that Janet was the sole pariah of the incident for over a decade beforehand. After experiencing a pop culture resurgence in the early 2000s, Janet hasn’t been very hot since that moment. There’s even speculation that poor ticket sales caused her to cancel numerous tour dates in 2016 — not a problem that Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, or other ‘80s icons of her stature have had to deal with in their golden years.
Meanwhile, Justin continued on his platinum path, working with Timbaland and other hip-hop acts, and he’s now being offered a chance to redeem himself to over 100 million people by performing at the NFL’s championship showcase. In the midst of controversy caused by Colin Kaepernick’s veritable blackballing for protesting racial injustice, not to mention an ongoing head trauma epidemic, it’s telling that the NFL is even willing to bring the #Nipplegate controversy back into the public consciousness. It’s a sign that the league, beset by low ratings and millennials turned off by the implicit racism of blackballing a civil rights advocate, is desperate to ingratiate themselves to as many people as possible.
If they really did reach out to Jay-Z, after years of eschewing rappers for the Super Bowl, and ostracizing athletes such as Randy Moss and Terrell Owens who radiate the iconoclastic spirit of hip-hop, then their pandering is all but confirmed. Of course, Jay-Z is an iconic artist who just released the highly-regarded album 4:44, but there are deeper elements to consider. Some Jay-Z critics fault him for using his role as public figure to quell outrage over the torrid gentrification that occurred when his beloved Brooklyn Nets displaced plenty of low-income Prospect Heights residents when the Barclays Center was built in 2012. Did the NFL, headquartered in New York, recall that controversy and think Jay would be their clean up man, convincing Black America to forget their annoyance while celebrating another Jay-Z power move? If that was the case, they thought wrong, as his silent solidarity with Kaepernick on Saturday Night Live demonstrated.