Janet Jackson was one of the most popular pop musicians from the late 1980s to early 2000s. At that time, she sold more than 100 million records worldwide. But Jackson’s superstar status was undone by a fraction of live television — during her “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, known as “Nipplegate.”
“Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” a documentary streaming on Hulu, examines that infamous Super Bowl halftime performance and how it damaged Jackson’s career for years. Presented by the New York Times and FX, the film is part of the same series that detailed Britney Spears’ life under her conservatorship.
“Malfunction” director Jodi Gomes says that pre-Nipplegate, Jackson was an icon who redefined what a pop star — especially an African American one — looked like.
“She had laid the foundation for women taking ownership of and control of their image. She in fact put out a groundbreaking album called ‘Control’ that was literally about that very fact,” she tells KCRW. “She paved the way for a lot of the artists that we see today. Her music videos were iconic. Her records were top of the charts. She was winning awards everywhere you went. And I just think she was undeniably a star.”
MTV was in charge of the halftime show and it teamed up with the NFL. “There was concern over putting on a presentation that was family-friendly, not scandalous, unlike much of MTV’s programming,” says New York Times reporter Rachel Abrams, senior producer on “Malfunction.”
When the fraction-of-a-second wardrobe malfunction took place, Abrams says that many viewers didn’t even notice. That includes MTV and Viacom executives in Houston at the game. Viewers at home caught it partly because they used TiVo.
“The executives and MTV were celebrating that the show had seemingly gone off well, [until] everybody started getting phone calls saying, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that?’ And then the phone starts ringing off the hook, with calls from reporters seeking comment,” Abrams says.
At the time, CBS executives were furious over the incident and suspicious over whether MTV planned it — partly because a prior press release promised “shocking moments.”
What actually happened at halftime?
Gomes says that initially, a skirt-tearaway was planned during the Jackson and Timberlake performance of “Rock Your Body.” But then it was removed from the script because the NFL, MTV, and CBS voted against it.
“By the time we got to the Super Bowl, of course, there was a reveal. And even according to Janet herself, the reveal just went wrong. And there were a lot of surprises and a lot of fallout that came from there.”
Timberlake pulled away Jackson’s blouse and revealed her nipple, and because it had a piece of jewelry on it, it appeared to be intentional. But that wasn’t the case.
Gomes says, “What we do know is that we were supposed to see a red bra lace underneath Janet's costume, that was supposed to be revealed. How it went too far? I don't know that we'll ever know the truth of that.”
As a result, Jackson lost lucrative opportunities, such as her record label deal, movie deals, and corporate sponsorships. A Mickey Mouse statue at Disney World was even stripped of his uniform representing “Rhythm Nation,” Jackson’s fourth studio album. In contrast, Timberlake’s career continued to flourish, and he was invited back to the Super Bowl in 2018 to perform.
“What we wanted to really measure was the ascension and [descent] of both of these careers and how corporate America dealt with both of these people,” Gomes explains. “There were two people on stage that night, and one person clearly, her career was diminished while another one ascended and it's undeniable that that happened. And it's something that we wanted to speak truth to power in the film.”
Gomes attributes the lack of consequences to the “boys will be boys” attitude: “It's a matter of who he is, and what our society says about young white males and what they can get away with. It's not necessarily a Black or white thing. I think it was a male-female thing. … You have to look at the intersectionality of ageism, sexism and racism — they all happen to collide on February 1, 2004, for this particular film.”
Media treatment and the power of fans
“I see a few, but one of them is just the absolute loss of control over one's own narrative and image,” Abrams says. “The way that Janet Jackson became a punch line and a punching bag really reminds me very much of Britney Spears, and raises the question yet again of, ‘Why was everybody okay with this?’”
She adds, “This incident … provided so many hours of material for newscasters, for comedians, for television hosts. It's really remarkable.”
Gomes says that despite the backlash Jackson received in 2004, there’s been a cultural shift in how fans and others perceive her. Fans pushed her album “Control” back into the number one spot in honor of its 35th anniversary, and they aired their support on social media.
“Fans and admirers of Janet's career have more of a vocal place where they can actually support her,” says Gomes. “Seventeen years ago, we didn't have the internet. And so there wasn't a place for fans to … push back and say, ‘Hey, this is lopsided. Hey, this is unfair, look how you're treating her. … Her fans, by and large, played a big role in her turnaround, but also the tenacity that she has as an icon. I think she was down but not out. And I think that speaks volumes about the level of career and the magnitude of her star power.”