The announcement that Justin Timberlake would play this year’s Super Bowl halftime show—as is strangely the norm now for the midgame, Pepsi-sponsored concert widely hailed as “eh, just leave it on”—has already become a firestorm of controversy. While choosing a performer as broadly popular and blandly inoffensive as Timberlake might have seemed like a safe bet by the NFL, the league has since been beset by protests from people whose memories and Google searches can still recall Timberlake’s last performance. That 2004 show—when a guest appearance from Janet Jackson put the words “wardrobe malfunction” and “Nipplegate” in our lexicon—reverberated long after that half-second when Jackson’s breast met the February air. From more intense FCC crackdowns to literally giving us YouTube, the consequences have been dire. Mostly for Jackson, anyway. Timberlake was fine, as his invitation to come back will attest.
But for Jackson, who wantonly owned the breast that Timberlake uncovered, the punishment was swift. Her music was immediately blacklisted on MTV and across radio stations worldwide. She was forced to drop out of playing Lena Horne in a TV movie. A statue paying tribute to her at Walt Disney World was torn down. Most publicly—and most embarrassingly—she was pressured to drop out of the following week’s Grammys, where she was slated to present a tribute to Luther Vandross. Jackson became the national symbol for America’s rapidly declining “moral values,” the sunburst nipple shield setting slowly over the horizon, plunging us all into darkness.
Timberlake, meanwhile, was great! While it was his forceful yanking that had left Jackson exposed, he was able to play it off as the left hand not knowing what the choreographer’s hand was doing, sympathetically painting himself as “shocked and appalled” by what Jackson and her team had planned ostensibly without his knowledge. Both he and the show’s producers at MTV put the blame on Jackson for having “engineered” the stunt and not telling him about it until moments before they went on—something Jackson, with all the sincerity of a hostage video, said in a taped statement released the next day. And as Jackson essentially went into hiding, Timberlake remained what People dubbed “The Teflon Man,” even turning up at the same Grammys she was all but formally disinvited from to collect some trophies and offer a sort-of apology, saying, “I know it’s been a rough week on everybody. What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended.”
As Timberlake’s “rough week” ended—his career flourishing, his sponsorships intact, the whole scandal fading to the kind of thing he could jokingly reference at the ESPYs and on Saturday Night Live—for Jackson, it dragged on for years. While her album sales were fine thereafter, her status as a guaranteed hitmaker was tarnished by the years when radio took her out of rotation. In the mayfly memory of the music industry, that brief hiccup meant her career never fully recovered, and she remained dogged by “Nipplegate” ever after in reviews, interviews, and TV appearances. Meanwhile, Timberlake finally came around a few years later to acknowledge that he “could’ve handled it better,” adding, “I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” He has since said that he wished he could have “been there more for Janet.”
As scores of people have pointed out in the last few days, here’s his chance. Rumors have persisted for years that Jackson was officially banned from ever performing at the Super Bowl again, but—fully aware of the shitstorm stirred by booking Timberlake—the NFL denied that yesterday in a statement, where it also took the opportunity to teasingly leave open the possibility of her return. “We are not going to comment on any speculation regarding potential guests. There may be no guests,” it said, before going on to sing Timberlake’s praises as “the ultimate global superstar who we know will put on an entertaining and unifying show.”
The NFL could certainly use one of those right now. In the midst of its blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, when the President is spending every toilet break railing against its players, and as the entire league has become the arena for our cold civil war over racial injustice—of which the only positive thing that can be said is, hey, at least it’s momentarily distracting from that whole brain trauma thing—the NFL desperately needs even the shallowest, most purely symbolic gesture that it’s not completely up its own ass right now. It reportedly tried that when it courted Jay-Z, whose rejecting the offer to be the first-ever rapper to headline the Super Bowl tells you everything you need to know about just how toxic the NFL is right now.
Falling back on his Magna Carta Holy Grail mate Timberlake may have seemed like the next best thing, according to the muddled boardroom logic that usually dictates this sort of stuff. But as the brewing “#JusticeForJanet” controversy suggests, the NFL didn’t fully consider the optics of hiring the white guy who hung a black woman out to dry while shrugging that it was, y’know, society, man, or who memorably responded to the call to “stop appropriating our music and culture. And apologize to Janet too” by shrugging, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
Or even more cynically... Maybe it did? Maybe this whole controversy—along with the subsequent, anonymously sourced rumors that “if Justin or his team did reach out, Janet would perform with him again in a minute”—is just part of the show, a baked-in publicity gamble guaranteed to spin outrage headlines for the weeks leading up to Jackson’s “surprise” redemptive return during Timberlake’s concert.
If so, then Justin, buddy, I say this as a blindingly white man whose interest in professional football is best described as “tolerant,” who hasn’t been excited for a Super Bowl halftime show since that one weird tribute to Indiana Jones, and whose career is actually boosted by those outrage clicks: Don’t play that game. Just fucking invite her and announce it, right now, in public. You can save the surprises for when the rest of NSYNC drops out of a helicopter. And if it’s not happening, just say that too. No one needs this right now. Definitely no one needs your little giggles about how we shouldn’t expect another “wardrobe thing.” You’re just making it worse.
Either announce that it’s happening and feed off the anticipation that it will naturally stoke, or say it isn’t and issue a statement on why—preferably one fully acknowledging that you have been granted an enormous privilege that she was not, and that the symbolism of that invitation, particularly in the current, racially charged moment in which it was extended, has not been lost on you, and so on and so on. Look: Jackson has supposedly, anonymously, already said she’s too busy, even, making this announcement half-written for you. But don’t spend the next three months making us replay Nipplegate over again. This time it doesn’t promise to end as well for you.