Op-Ed: 15 Years After Super Bowl XXXVIII’s “Nipplegate,” Janet Jackson Still Won
Fifteen years ago, on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004, the Carolina Panthers faced the New England Patriots for Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, Texas. Outside of the game, the entertainment lineup was superb. Due to the game taking place one year after the shuttle Columbia disaster, multi-platinum singer and actor Josh Groban started the pre-game show by performing “You Raise Me Up” in tribute to the crew who lost their lives. Miss Third Ward Houston native Beyoncé then sang a rousing rendition of the national anthem, and Aerosmith took the stage to perform “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Dream On.”
The first half came and went, and then it was time for the part of the Super Bowl that everyone loves: the halftime show, which was produced by MTV and CBS Sports. Jessica Simpson, Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, Justin Timberlake, and Janet Jackson were all set to perform during the show centered around the Choose or Lose campaign, which was started by MTV in 1992 to encourage their audience to register to vote.
After doing a solo performance of “Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson was joined on stage by Timberlake for a duet of his song “Rock Your Body.” As expected for a song with that title, the duo performed a few suggestive moves much to the audience’s delight. Then, it was time for the song to end, and no one was ready for what came next. With the final line “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” Justin pulled a part of Janet’s outfit that revealed her right breast which was decorated with a nipple shield. CBS cut away from the stage, and the massive fallout began.
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Through her representatives, Jackson issued a statement on Monday following the game. The next day, she issued a video apology for her part in the incident. "The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals," Jackson said. "MTV was completely unaware of it. 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."
MTV followed with a statement that evening, saying, "MTV was as surprised and shocked as anyone last night. Janet Jackson acknowledged that we had no prior knowledge of her plans. We will continue to investigate the circumstances. Our goal with the Super Bowl Halftime show was to produce an entertaining stage experience with a positive message about empowerment and voting. We are disappointed that this message has been overshadowed by the unfortunate incident. MTV apologizes again to anyone who was offended."
However, the apologies weren’t enough to keep CBS from being fined for the incident. Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered an investigation insisting that “somebody had knowledge of it.” In the end, the FCC fined CBS an astounding $550,000 (later voided in 2011).
And so began the modern day “He-Man Woman-Haters Club,” or maybe just a He-Man Janet Jackson-Haters Club. No one could guess just how long the fallout would last and how it would affect only one party: Janet Jackson.
The 46th annual Grammy Awards were one week later and were set to also air on CBS. Timberlake was nominated and scheduled to perform, while Jackson was set to present to Luther Vandross. A longer tape delay was also planned due to the Super Bowl incident. However, CBS used the Super Bowl incident to their advantage and allegedly worked behind the scenes to have Jackson removed from the program due to her not agreeing to issue yet another apology. Timberlake stayed in line with the old boys’ club and issued several apologies. One such apology happened on stage during his Grammys acceptance speech where Timberlake stated, “What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended.”
It was apparent that due to Janet Jackson not playing by CBS’ rules, she would ultimately face the harsh reality of being shunned and blackballed in the industry. The youngest in the Jackson clan went from superstardom to very little promotion and even less support from those who once praised her every move.
CBS' now former CEO and Viacom’s then co-president and Co-COO, Les Moonves, led the charge in blackballing Janet. In his eyes, Jackson wasn’t “sufficiently repentant” and caused him embarrassment. Reportedly, he demanded her songs and music videos be removed from rotation on VH1, MTV, and all Viacom-owned entities. When it was reported several years later that Jackson secured a book deal through Simon & Schuster once they were under CBS, Moonves was irate. Sources reported him saying, “How the f**k did she slip through?”
Obviously, the same way his sexual misconduct slipped under the radar, that is, until the summer of 2018. The longtime CBS chairman was ousted when he joined a long list of powerful men being brought down by the #MeToo movement. In a detailed report from The New Yorker last August, more than a dozen women including former CBS employees, delivered powerful statements regarding sexual misconduct by Moonves. In turn, he was let go from the position that he held for over 20 years and was denied $120 million in severance pay. He was stripped of the same power that he used to blackball Jackson and deny her the spotlight to advance her career.
However, Moonves wasn’t been the only party to suffer due to their disregard and mistreatment of Jackson. Timberlake, who used the momentum and press from the Super Bowl to catapult his solo career into high gear, also recently suffered in album sales and popularity, particularly in the black community.
Following the Super Bowl mishap, Timberlake’s star was on the rise. Thanks to his laughable apology, he was allowed a spot on the Grammy stage and took home two Grammy awards that year. He went on to grace stages worldwide, star in movies, start a family and release more solo albums. He also eventually admitted to Jackson receiving more criticism for the mishap than he did.
“If you consider it 50-50, then I probably got 10 percent of the blame,” Timberlake said in a 2006 MTV interview. “I think America is harsher on women. I think America is unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
Then, it was announced that he was performing at last year’s Super Bowl LII and releasing a less than soulful album with Man of the Woods. The album produced the lowest first-week sales Timberlake has ever garnered for his five albums, sans NSYNC, moving 293,000 units in its first week. That was a major drop from the sales of his previous album, The 20/20 Experience, which sold 968,000 units during its first week. His 2018 Super Bowl performance also garnered mixed reviews and ample side eyes. It was preceded with a #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay hashtag, which was one of the top trending topics on Twitter the entire day of the Super Bowl, somewhat overshadowing his return to the Big Game’s stage and rightfully so.
In the midst of the ridicule, shame and complete disdain for an act that involved more than one party, Janet Jackson has held her head high and persevered. She released her eighth studio album Damito Jo two months after the incident with little to no promotion. However, the album still went on to debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 charts. Although she suffered a personal loss with the death of her brother Michael in 2009, she still pressed on with hit albums, numerous awards and film and television roles. In 2015, she inked a major partnership with BMG, which included the beginning of her own label, Rhythm Nation.
Since “Nipplegate,” Jackson has rocked arenas around the world on four highly-anticipated tours. For her Unbreakable World Tour, Jackson partnered with Uber to give fans in more than 25 cities the chance to win tickets by just using the app for rides. The State of the World Tour, which included 78 stops between 2017 and 2019, grossed over $44 million in sales.
Jackson even went on to star in a real-life “role” of a lifetime when she welcomed her baby boy, Eissa Al Mana, on Jan. 3, 2017 at 50 years old. Just last year, she won the Icon Award at the Billboard Music Awards, the first black female artist to do so. And most recently, in December 2018, it was announced that she is joining six other inductees for the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame class.
In addition to her many accomplishments, she is also revered and respected by her music peers, and she has inspired the career of many of today’s pop and R&B stars, including Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and especially Ciara. During the 2015 BET Awards, the Princess of Crunk & B paid tribute to her idol with rousing performances of “If” and “Rhythm Nation.” Then in 2018, Ciara re-expressed her love for Janet to Billboard saying, “Everything she does is perfection. It says a lot to me. It says you gotta care, you gotta give 100 percent every time... She is queen of creating those iconic moments that we still talk about today. She has been a huge influence in my life.”
That level of impact in a career that spans more than four decades cannot be denied nor held down. Following “Nipplegate,” she may have endured a few hiccups and been shunned, but her star will forever shine brightly. She has proven that much with her success before and definitely with the “Black Girl Magic” she has displayed since then.
What a difference 15 years makes, huh? In the end, Janet “Miss Jackson If You’re Nasty” won.