Janet Jackson is doing her best to move past the 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” controversy that damaged her skyrocketing career. And she’d like all of us to do the same.
That’s what the pop icon said in her four-part Lifetime and A&E documentary, which began airing on Jan 28. In the third and most recent part of Janet, Jackson — a notoriously private person, especially on this particular topic — gave what should probably be the final word on what tabloids at the time crudely labeled “Nipplegate.”
“Honestly, this whole thing was blown way out of proportion,” Jackson said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Of course, it was an accident. That should not have happened, but everyone is looking for someone to blame, and that’s got to stop. Justin and I are very good friends, and we will always be very good friends. We spoke just a few days ago, and he and I have moved on, and it’s time for everyone else to do the same.”
Jackson fans will likely struggle with her request to just let Justin Timberlake off the hook. But as we saw in Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, a 2021 Hulu documentary about the whole Super Bowl affair, the one perspective on all of this that’s been sorely lacking is Jackson’s herself. Now we have that missing piece.
Many looks back on the incident have shined a spotlight on the sexism and racism embedded into the unequal consequences Jackson faced afterward, while Timberlake got off almost scot-free. Jackson states in Janet that she was indeed “disinvited” to the Grammys that same year. Timberlake not only attended but won two awards. Though she avoided confirming the rumor that powerful entertainment industry and NFL figures “blacklisted” Jackson’s music in the years following the Super Bowl scandal, informed speculation tells us that getting the brunt of the blame stagnated her previously thriving career.
In contrast, Timberlake, who’s now widely judged for having left Jackson out to dry by not publicly defending her more, only saw his stardom and support from the industry grow. Yet Jackson insisted that people’s interpretations and assumptions about what happened were unfounded. For one, she said he did reach out to her at the time to ask about publicly commenting on the Grammys controversy.
“We talked once, and he said, ‘I don’t know if I should come out and make a statement,'” she shared. “I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want any drama for you. They’re aiming all of this at me.’ So I just said if I were you, I wouldn’t say anything.”
Ever since Timberlake returned to perform at the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, the injustice has proved just too much for Jackson fans. They made hashtags defending her trend worldwide, to the point of outshining his performance. The Super Bowl is now low-key considered a day for Timberlake’s yearly shaming, despite the fact that Jackson appeared to encourage a more compassionate response in 2021.
In yet another new revelation from the documentary, Jackson said that Timberlake’s team also did in fact ask if she would like to participate in his 2018 return to the Super Bowl halftime show. But she chose not to.
“When I think about it, would it be nice to be able to perform? Yes,” she said. “Our family, we love entertaining. But on the flip side of it, it’s stretching out the past, reliving something that happened over 10 years ago.”
Janet is the second recent documentary to relitigate the 2004 Super Bowl, after Malfunction. The New York Times-produced retrospective does important work to set the record straight on Jackson’s mistreatment (by the public, the NFL, the music industry, Timberlake, etc), but her absence from the proceedings is impossible to ignore.
In the first part of Janet, she seems to imply that this lack of consideration for her own perspective is part of what motivated this new biographical documentary from Lifetime and A&E.
“It’s just something that needs to be done. It’s never … You’ve had someone write this unauthorized biography or someone else do something. Or they’ll do a movie and it’s candy-coated,” Jackson said, according to a recap from Billboard.
Janet Jackson is, at the end of the day an iconic, multifaceted star. But too much recent discourse focuses on only this one flashpoint in her career, rather than focusing any other aspect of her as a person or an important cultural figure in entertainment. So while it might not be what fans want to do, if the goal is to support Janet Jackson, then listening to what she wants and needs in her own words would appear to be a good place to start.
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to forgive Justin Timberlake for all transgressions, though.
Timberlake is often criticized for capitalizing on the appropriation of Black culture, which remains a valid critique that goes beyond the Jackson incident. After the third part of Janet debuted on Saturday, the phrase “Black Twitter” trended on Twitter, mostly from posts humorously rejecting her request that fans leave the Man of the Woods singer alone.
Then there’s the Brittany Spears of it all. Timberlake also stands accused of throwing her under to bus too — yet another more famous woman caught in the crosshairs of a PR nightmare with him in the early 2000s — by fanning the flames of their breakup to boost his career. Despite Timberlake issuing a public apology to both Jackson and Spears in Feb. 2021, Spears has yet to request anyone leave the man alone for crying his river back in 2003.
Regardless, Jackson fans can at the very least look forward to catching the fourth and final installment of Janet on Feb. 13.