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An illustration of a newspaper showing a Janet Jackson photo and the headline “janet’s dirty trick,” with furious scribbling of pink highlighter on the Janet photo. Hélène Baum-Owoyele for Vox

Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction erased an icon of unapologetic sexuality

Janet Jackson was able to transcend America’s misogynoir — until the Super Bowl.

In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

There was something in the air in the 2000s. It was as though American culture was obsessed with ripping away women’s clothes and then blaming them for it. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian. Upskirt photos, leaked sex tapes, leaked nudes; teary-eyed apologies, snide jokes on late-night television, righteous op-eds in the newspapers. Every day we were acting out literally what was happening in the cultural marketplace, where women faced commercial and structural pressures to market themselves with highly sexualized images and then were called whores and sluts for doing so.

Perhaps no event more clearly captures this moment in cultural history than what happened to Janet Jackson after the Wardrobe Malfunction of 2004.

The Wardrobe Malfunction (also known as Nipplegate) occurred on February 1, 2004, during the Super Bowl 38 halftime show live on CBS. Pop supernova Janet Jackson had finished performing her 1989 classic “Rhythm Nation,” and the young up-and-comer Justin Timberlake had just joined her onstage to croon his new single “Rock Your Body.” As Timberlake arrived at his final line — “Gotta have you naked by the end of this song” — he reached for Jackson’s black leather bustier and tugged. The leather collapsed, and Jackson’s breast, partially obscured by a silver nipple shield, appeared on TV for nine-sixteenths of a second.

For that fraction of a second, the FCC would receive a record 540,000 complaints and fine CBS a record $550,000 (the fee was later voided by a federal appeals court, which noted that advocacy groups may have been behind many of the complaints). Jackson would see her career go into a tailspin from which it would never truly recover.

She was disinvited from the Grammys. Her new album was panned. When she showed up on TV for interviews and performances, many stations made a point of announcing they had adopted a five-second delay, lest she be tempted to show her breasts to America again. Her songs stopped playing on the radio, on MTV, on VH1. Sales of her music plummeted.

The consensus at the time was that Jackson brought all this on herself on purpose — that she had cunningly plotted to expose her bare breast on TV in a tacky publicity stunt, a sleazy demand for attention from an aging pop star past her prime.

Jackson herself maintained otherwise. What actually happened, she said, was that Timberlake was supposed to have removed part of her bustier to reveal a red bra in a sort of PG-13 striptease — but he ended up accidentally ripping the bra along with the rest of her top.

This story made little impact. Neither did photographs of the aftermath of the so-called Malfunction, which saw Jackson huddling into her torn clothing and trying desperately to cover herself, with the face of a woman who very much did not intend to show America her nipple.

Janet Jackson covers herself post-Malfunction as Justin Timberlake looks on at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Everyone seemed to instinctively know, back then, that when a woman’s body and sexuality were violated, the person to blame was the woman, especially if she was a woman of color. She brought it on herself by having a body.

From the vantage point of 2021, the racial and gender overtones of that credo look fairly clear. Even Timberlake, who despite doing the actual clothes-ripping received almost none of the blame for the malfunction, acknowledged as much. “America’s harsher on women” and “ethnic people,” he explained to MTV in 2006. (Earlier this year, Timberlake offered an apology to Jackson for letting her take the fall.)

But it’s worth taking a closer look at how the controversy interacted with what had been Jackson’s image up until the 2004 Super Bowl. For much of her career, Janet Jackson was an exemplar for an unusually carefree model of the sexuality of Black women, an icon of a Black woman whose sexuality was neither predatory nor shameful but only unapologetically focused on her own pleasure. The Wardrobe Malfunction ripped that image to shreds, in ways that still have consequences today.

“She’s one cool girl, this Janet Jackson”

Janet Jackson debuted her first album in 1982. She was 16 years old, managed by her father Joe Jackson, and at Joe’s insistence just beginning to transition away from her child star acting roles into the sort of music Joe approved of for a young lady: sweet bubblegum pop.

Two weeks after Janet Jackson came out to modest critical and commercial success, another Jackson dropped a record. Janet’s older brother Michael released the instantly iconic Thriller, and from then on it looked as though the story of Janet Jackson was set. She would be one of the also-ran Jacksons, one of the siblings who wasn’t Michael. She was, the public seemed quick to conclude, riding on his coattails to fame with a passable voice, admittedly impressive dance skills, and a few forgettable tunes.

Instead of accepting this second-rate status, Janet Jackson changed the narrative. She fired her father, brought in new producers and a new image consultant, and in 1986 she released the album that would be her commercial breakthrough. It was called Control, as in Janet Jackson is in... . It sent the message that Janet Jackson was no longer an also-ran. She was one of the Jacksons to watch.

Control, for which Jackson took a co-writer and co-producer credit, was her first bestseller. It would go on to sell over 10 million copies and earned Jackson approving press blurbs about how she was “more than a little sister.” Along with its 1989 follow-up Rhythm Nation (12 million copies), Control established the paradox that would come to underly Jackson’s star image for the next decade.

Jackson seemed to represent coolness. With her sharp, confident dancing, her swagger, her style, she was right at the cutting edge of all that was in vogue. But the second she stepped off a stage, her screen presence would turn in on itself. All of a sudden, she would become utterly reserved, sweetly shy and apparently eager to please.

That quality was endearing, a New York Times critic wrote in a 1990 review of a Janet Jackson concert. It kept her from seeming threatening. “Miss Jackson herself is clearly diligent and eager to please,” critic Jon Pareles wrote. “She’s pushing herself onstage — she sweats — and her relative inexperience keeps her from seeming arrogant. Trying to replicate the unearthly perfection of a longtime trouper like her brother may be impossible, and it’s not exactly a good long-term strategy. But in her first tour, she works hard enough and comes close enough to make a listener want to root for her.”

“She’s cool and very self-possessed,” wrote a reporter for Spin in 1987, in a paragraph that conflated Jackson’s social restraint with her refusal to eat during a photo shoot. “Janet gives off the kind of keep-your-distance signals that can chill any attempt at overfamiliarity. … While everyone else stuffs his face over the course of the three-hour shoot, Janet doesn’t eat much. Just an apple, an occasional grape. She’s one cool girl, this Janet Jackson.”

If you like, you could read Spin’s both approving and somewhat mystifying argument that Jackson’s cool temperament and cool appetite are connected as a way of talking about a different appetite: a sexual appetite. The classic racist trope in American pop culture is to imagine Black women as sexually voracious and predatory, their bodies lustful and out of control. But it was clear early on that Janet Jackson kept a firm lid on her desires: She was one cool girl. That would be important when she began developing her image further.

With 1993’s Janet (officially stylized janet.), Jackson introduced a major new element to the star image she had begun to build: sex. Jackson’s early albums had included chastity ballads about waiting for marriage, but Janet featured songs about oral sex, masturbation, and general good old-fashioned fucking (within the confines of a monogamous heterosexual relationship of mutual affection and respect).

“Sex has been an important part of me for several years,” Jackson explained to Rolling Stone, in a cover story that showed her then-husband René Elizondo Jr. cupping her bare breasts with his hands. “But it just hasn’t blossomed publicly until now. I’ve had to go through some changes and shed some old attitudes before feeling completely comfortable with my body. Listening to my new record, people intuitively understand the change in me.”

Improbably, the critics went wild. Even in 1993, it was clear that Jackson’s move was a very big deal. American culture was rarely willing to see Black women as fully sexualized and fully human at the same time — but Jackson had managed to pull off the balancing act without letting anyone rob her of her dignity in the process.

Janet.’s Janet is a more complete sexual being than most of pop’s black women are allowed or allow themselves to be,” Rolling Stone acknowledged in its review. “A significant, even revolutionary transition in the sexual history and popular iconography of black women — who have historically needed to do nothing to be considered overtly sexual — is struck as the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? girl declares herself the what-I’ll-do-to-you-baby! woman. The princess of America’s black royal family has announced herself sexually mature and surrendered none of her crown’s luster in the process. Black women and their friends, lovers and children have a victory in Janet.

Jackson’s transition from sweet teenybopper to sexual woman was a game changer. It established the template that generations of pop stars would follow in the decades to come: not just Beyoncé and Rihanna, but also white singers like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. They know what to do as they set themselves up to perform maturity because they saw Janet Jackson successfully pull it off first.

And part of what made Jackson’s unapologetic sexuality in her albums and on the dance floor so palatable to critics was that she was so shy whenever she wasn’t performing.

In the Rolling Stone cover story, journalist David Ritz describes watching Jackson shoot the music video for her new single “If,” which features some mock cunnilingus. “I’m stimulated,” Ritz admits — but he finds to his apparent dismay that he is unable to say as much to Jackson’s face.

“As silly as it sounds, I sense myself protecting her from the brashness of my own balls-out approach,” Ritz muses. “What is it? Wholesomeness — that’s what it is. Femininity. Up close, in the flesh, she’s being so damn sincere, I question my own sincerity; Janet Jackson gives off a good-girl vibe that only a cad would challenge. Despite this new album and its preoccupation with carnal knowledge, despite this battery of sizzling videos, Janet silently demands decorum on the part of an interviewer.”

Embedded in this passage is the general idea that by dancing in an overtly sexual manner, Jackson has put sex on the conversational table. But what Ritz calls Jackson’s “good-girl vibe” has prevented that transition from actually taking place. Her endearing diligence — that underdog A-student good girl reserve the New York Times spotted in Jackson in 1990 — seems to be somehow protecting her from any prurience.

It was this contradiction, Ritz would conclude, this “tension between the erotic and the innocent” that was “the essence of Janet Jackson.”

Perhaps no one without the status of a Jackson, part of R&B’s royal family, could have walked such a fine line. Regardless, Janet Jackson did it. She managed to unapologetically perform a Black female sexuality that was joyous and unashamed, and the critics didn’t even try to condemn her for it.

Janet Jackson at a children’s charity gala at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in 1991.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Janet Jackson performs in concert at Madison Square Garden in 1993.
Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

They didn’t feel the need to, because Jackson’s image when she wasn’t performing was so icily pure, so wholesome, so palpably flinching away from the spotlight. No one could consider soft-spoken Janet a predator when her eyes went wide and her voice shook every time she gave an interview. Her shyness seemed to give her plausible deniability: It turned the sexuality of her music into a fantasy, something playful and fictional and largely theoretical.

Then her bra ripped on national television, and Jackson’s body and sexuality were catapulted into the realm of the real. Immediately, everything changed.

“Something about Jackson — her impenetrable demeanor, her candy-apple face — doesn’t jibe with her image at its sauciest”

Because it was a cardinal belief of the press in the 2000s that any woman who was the victim of a sexual violation did it on purpose, for the attention, observers of any given scandal could demonstrate their savviness by loudly proclaiming this opinion. The rule held as true for the Wardrobe Malfunction as it did for anything else.

Jackson issued a public apology for what had happened, but it seemed to have little effect. Rapidly, conventional wisdom emerged: Janet Jackson shamelessly arranged to have her clothes ripped off on national TV as a cunning, hyper-sexualized ploy for attention, which she needed because at 37 she was a dried-up old hag whose career was failing. As such, she was proof of the degradation of our cultural values and had personally violated the innocence of America’s children.

“You can argue that Ms. Jackson is the only honest figure in this Super Bowl of hypocrisy,” wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, in a column ostensibly written in Jackson’s defense but with a sneering, condescending tone. “She was out to accomplish a naked agenda — the resuscitation of her fading career on the eve of her new album’s release — and so she did.”

“Of course, Janet was baiting us with that ‘costume reveal,’” argued the Washington Post knowingly, “and just as obviously she didn’t realize at the time how much chum she was throwing in the water.” The Post, like Rich, thought that Jackson had planned the whole thing to promote her new album, Damita Jo — slated for release the month after the Super Bowl — in an attempt to compete with R&B’s younger singers as she neared 40. “Janet has decided that the only way to fight her imitators is get even racier than they get,” the Post concluded. “Even if that might cost her a little dignity.”

“One of the reasons it is difficult to believe in the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ story is because, on the evidence of this album, Jackson is an extremely savvy operator,” mused the Guardian in a review of Damita Jo. “You can see what Jackson is straining for on [the songs] Warmth and Sexhibition, just as you can see why, at 38 years old, she would feel the need to flash her nipple at a television audience of 90 million. The world of R&B is obsessed with novelty and packed with lubricious ladies and lothario lovermen. Jackson is trying to send out a signal: you may be younger than me, but I am prepared to go further.”

Before the Super Bowl, Jackson’s palpable shyness had signaled that her sexuality was not a threat. After the Super Bowl, her shyness became proof that she was dishonest. “In retrospect, the most startling aspect of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl-flasher moment was how unstartling it was,” argued EW. “As amply demonstrated that evening, she works so hard at being sexy and provocative that she’s rarely either. Something about Jackson — her impenetrable demeanor, her candy-apple face — doesn’t jibe with her image at its sauciest.”

This theory that Jackson had intentionally flashed the audience in an attempt to juice up a fading career doesn’t hold up under much examination. Jackson was invited to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show precisely because she was at the top of her career. Her most recent album, 2001’s All for You, had debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, tallied one of the biggest opening sales weeks of any of Jackson’s albums, earned three Grammy nominations, and gone double platinum. Her career wasn’t flagging, and she didn’t need extra attention. She was at the top. She was the establishment.

Moreover, the carefully fine line that Jackson had been walking for the past decade proved that she was very savvy indeed: far too savvy to think that a Black woman flashing her breast on live TV would ever work out well for her.

Predictably, it didn’t work out well. Les Moonves, then newly installed as CEO of CBS Corporation, apparently considered the Wardrobe Malfunction a personal embarrassment. According to a report in HuffPost in 2018, Moonves gave Timberlake a pass because Timberlake called him in tears to personally apologize. Jackson, meanwhile, only apologized publicly, never in private — and so Moonves, declaring her insufficiently unrepentant, vengefully blacklisted her.

Moonves was forced to step down from CBS in 2018, after multiple accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse. But in 2004, his word was law at CBS Corporation, whose sister companies at the time included Viacom properties VH1, MTV, and BET, as well as multiple radio stations and the book publisher Simon & Schuster. All of them were instructed to stop working with Jackson.

According to HuffPost, when a Simon & Schuster imprint signed Jackson’s memoir True You in 2011, Moonves was furious. “How the fuck did she slip through?” he demanded.

“She’s morphing into an aging porn starlet of the most tragic type”

Whether Jackson planned the Wardrobe Malfunction or not, those nine-sixteenths of a second at the Super Bowl destroyed her carefully guarded plausible deniability. Her body and sexuality surged past the boundaries of performance to become something viscerally present, potentially threatening. Simultaneously, her body and sexuality became laughable, ridiculous, an object of mockery. That narrative would spread to the reception of Jackson’s 2004 album, Damita Jo.

In 1990, the sexuality of Janet had been a revelation, a liberation, something to celebrate. In 2004, critics considered the sexuality of Damita Jo to be self-evidently something to mock.

“It’s not just that there’s no depth to her boudoir insights and philosophical musings, or that the bulk of her lyrics manage the unimpressive feat of being explicit and banal,” opined the LA Weekly, “but that she’s morphing into an aging porn starlet of the most tragic type — chasing relevance with ever bigger hair, ever bigger boobs, and a willingness to fall to her knees in mirthless, monotonous mimicry of sexual ecstasy. It’s like, after all the fucking and talking about fucking that she’s done, she has almost no idea what true liberation — or even pleasure — really is.”

“A youngster can get X-rated and come across as a wayward kid who has plenty of time to straighten out her act. Ms. Jackson is 37,” tsked the Washington Post. “When she moans and boasts through ‘Warmth’ — one of the more explicit paeans to oral sex you’ll ever hear on a major label — she sounds like she knows better and is pretending that she doesn’t.”

In the time since 2004, Damita Jo has enjoyed a critical reevaluation. After Jackson’s fan base pushed #JusticeForDamitaJo to trend on Twitter in 2019, a new narrative emerged that argues for Damita Jo’s status as a landmark album within Jackson’s storied career, and as another chapter in her long history of celebrating Black women’s sexuality without apology.

Damita Jo deserves our attention and, yes, justice, not just as a reparative formality but because its specific depiction of sexuality in a mainstream forum — a superstar’s major-label, highly anticipated album — is extraordinary,” declared Pitchfork in 2019. “Damita Jo is not just rare for being a piece of mainstream erotica authored by a black woman — it’s also mainstream erotica that isn’t mired in darkness or shame.”

That Pitchfork reevaluation was part of a larger post-Me Too redemption of Janet Jackson. In 2019, she entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and launched a well-received residency in Las Vegas. She continues to tour and release albums, and she has lasted long enough to see the popular consensus on the Wardrobe Malfunction shift from “She did it on purpose” to “It’s a shame that happened to her.”

Still, Jackson has never again achieved the height of ubiquity, the understanding that her albums would as a matter of course be played on every Top 40 radio station out there, that she had before the 2004 Super Bowl. That level of fame and success was forever stripped away.

And within the context of 2004, Damita Jo existed not as an album worthy of critical appraisal but as evidence for Jackson’s supposed sex-mad deviance. The world was determined to see Jackson as shameless, past her prime, clawing desperately for attention and relevance she had not earned with tacky, trying-too-hard attempts at shocking sex appeal. Damita Jo, along with the rest of Jackson’s career to that point, was all interpreted to fit the argument.

It is worth remembering that this argument was molded by, among others, a white man with a reported history of sexual harassment. And in order to mold that argument, he allowed the white man who actually ripped Jackson’s clothes off to skate through the controversy with minimal consequences. But the overall narrative was produced and disseminated by a culture in which the bodies of Black women are considered inherently sexual, inherently threatening, and inherently humiliating.

It took all of Janet Jackson’s star power combined with all her fiercely held private reserve to force America to treat her as an exception to that rule. The moment her reserve broke — even when Jackson was not the one to break it — she became subject to the normal rules of racism and misogyny once again.

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