What Really Happened After Janet Jackson's Super Bowl Wardrobe Malfunction

Most musicians who sing at the Super Bowl halftime show see a nice bump in attention and record sales after the gig. It's kind of the only reason to do the show, considering how much Super Bowl halftime performers actually make. However, the reaction to pop legend Janet Jackson's performance — yes, that one — in 2004 was not so beneficial to her career. The backlash to the incident of Justin Timberlake exposing her breast on stage and live TV hit her hard in both the short and long term. Of course, it wasn't supposed to go like that. The plan was that the move would only show her red bustier, but the idea was quickly hatched and was never rehearsed according to Esquire

The incident did not please CBS CEO Les Moonves, who ordered Janet and Justin to give him a formal, in-person apology. Timberlake agreed and reportedly "kissed the ring," but Jackson did not. Meanwhile, a racist and misogynistic America was stomping mad that this woman — a Black woman — forced it to see her pierced nipple for a split second, and people and institutions responded with hysterical overreactions. Radio stations refused to play her new album. Her appearance at the Grammy Awards a week after the show was held hostage from her. Moonves demanded that she give him an apology, she again refused, and so he blocked her from appearing. But that night at the Super Bowl would go on to negatively affect Jackson's career for years after everyone lost interest and moved on.

Janet Jackson was stigmatized for the halftime show wardrobe malfunction

While Justin Timberlake received very little flak for the wardrobe malfunction incident, Janet Jackson's career suffered for a long time afterward. According to IndieWire, Jackson was stigmatized from that moment on. While Timberlake has gone on to win several Grammys since 2004, Jackson's Grammy wins stopped in 2001, though she released albums in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2015. Her 2015 album "Unbreakable" did make it to No.1 for one week on the Billboard chart, but the album Jackson released in 2004, "Damita Jo," was her worst-selling record since 1984, per Billboard. Clear Channel also banned all of her videos and hit songs from being played on their myriad TV and radio stations in the aftermath. Meanwhile Timberlake continued to make chart-topping albums and singles and even played the Super Bowl halftime show again in 2018. He also became a favorite guest on Saturday Night Live, where his some of sketches became cultural sensations. 

Although she didn't feel like she had anything to be sorry for, Jackson had to organize a whole tour just to apologize for the incident. The public did not easily welcome her words. People accused them of not being enough to absolve her of her sin against the country's Puritanical ideals. A biopic of her life that was in the works at the time was unfortunately canceled, and she had to deal with being the focal point of a Congressional debate about indecency on TV. 

Justin Timberlake's ongoing apologies

Ironically, many of the men who judged her or determined the fate of her career — including Moonves — were later accused of sexual harassment when the #MeToo movement took off. Moonves resigned over the accusations in 2018. Janet Jackson received what would be viewed as a consolation prize by the music industry when she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, but that honor could not bring back all the opportunities she unjustly lost because we all saw her nipple on TV one night in 2004. 

In 2022 Jackson produced the documentary "JANET JACKSON" so that she could tell her own story. In it, she said that she essentially green-lighted Timberlake to keep his head down about the situation, saying, "We talked once and [Justin] said, 'I don't know if I should come out and make a statement,' And I said, 'Listen, I don't want any drama for you. They're aiming all of this at me.' So I said, 'If I were you, I wouldn't say anything'" (via People). 

He took that to heart. At the 2004 Grammy's where Jackson was slated to perform but was disinvited, Timberlake performed and won two Grammys. He used his acceptance speech to apologize without taking any real responsibility, saying — "I know it's been a rough week on everybody. What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys are offended." But in 2021 Timberlake apologized directly to Jackson on Instagram, saying, "I understand that I fell short ... and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism" (via Business Insider).