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.
It’s not too far a reach to suggest that an artist singing at a football game can help shift public perception; there are people who work for the NFL whose sole job it is to navigate the league’s image, and they are assuredly prioritizing appeasement and trying to offset takes like J.Cole’s, who suggested boycotting the NFL. Perhaps they’ve got their ideal Plan B with Timberlake, an artist who has mainstream, bubbly pop hits, was a beloved member of NSYNC, and also has plenty of hip-hop-leaning bops with Timbaland, Pharrell and others. His fanbase covers a wide demographic, for sure. But his selection is no solace.
Timberlake’s Twitter declaration that “we’re all one race” after Jesse Williams’ BET Awards speech earlier this year was a troubling statement that encapsulated his place as an often tone-deaf white man who dips and out of Black culture at his convenience, and, like many, could be perceived as feigning appreciation for Black people while disrespecting their humanity — unintentionally or not. That may make him a good choice to be an owner of an NFL team, but he’s no consolation for the erasure of Kaepernick.
The league and its partners seem to be trying whatever they can, from celebrating a Marshawn Lynch sideline dance routine that likely would’ve been criminalized and fined by the “no fun league” years ago, to using battle rappers to promote games, to reaching out to Tinashe to have her “Light Up The Night” track become the new song for Thursday Night Football — a spot usually reserved for country singers like Faith Hill and Hank “Obama is like Hitler” Williams — extending olive branches to a consumer base that it has largely overlooked or offended for the past decade and beyond.
Seemingly grasping at straws to quell the tension, the NFL’s shortsightedness is the problem, as evidenced by the league’s recent co-opting of Kaepernick’s on-field demonstration. Before Trump’s recent comments about “son of a b*tch” athletes who protest, just 48 players had sat, kneeled or raised a fist in solidarity with Kaepernick’s refusal to honor the Anthem to raise awareness for the plunder of Black bodies at the hands of police. After Donald Trump’s speech, 200+ and counting have demonstrated.
Many NFL players and owners have said the September 24 demonstrations were anti-Trump, which sounds good on a surface level, but they come in defiance to Trump’s comments that suggested Kaepernick shouldn’t have a job because he kneeled. How could the NFL protest Trump’s assertion that Kaepernick shouldn’t have a job when he doesn’t have a job and is suing the league for colluding against him with Trump’s coercion?
As much as the NFL made pleas for “unity,” the ultimate burn to Trump would have been uniting a pen with a contract to bring Kaepernick back into the league. Until truly affirming their athletes’ rights to protest injustice trumps the fears of owners of upsetting conservatives, it won’t matter who’s performing at the Super Bowl — I’m not watching. In Timberlake, they opted for a conciliatory choice who appeals to a wide block of fans, but his return to the Super Bowl stage won’t distract us from facets of white supremacy at play in the sports world and popular culture, it will re-affirm it — just ask Janet Jackson.