Revisiting the Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson Wardrobe Malfunction, Minute by Minute
We remember the wardrobe malfunction. We remember the manufactured outrage, the armchair bare-breast analysis, and the mountain of complaints to the FCC. We remember people dropping the term “nipple shield” glibly into conversation, as though they’d been doing it forever (which who knows, maybe they had; if we’ve learned one thing in the last couple of years, it’s that this country is much freakier than it wants to admit). But there was so much more to the glitterbomb that was the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show, and we do ourselves a disservice to forget it. Let’s take a look at what else happened in those fateful 12 minutes (and then do a Zapruder film-esque inspection of that infamous moment of boob-liberation, because that's really why you're here).
First and foremost, it is important to remember that this was the Super Bowl XXXVIII AOL Top Speed Halftime Show, a title that would have taken about 40 seconds to download over AOL Top Speed Internet. And this is a time before video streaming, before Spotify, before YouTube even. From today’s perspective, this is like the Super Bowl XIV Poor Richard’s Almanack Halftime Show (featuring Paul McCartney).
The unmistakable voice of Sway reads a list of performers, most of whom will not later be implicated in a breast-related catastrophe. In addition to the names you’re expecting, we hear those of P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson, and the producers of the whole thing, MTV, who could still be counted on to make a big splash. And then we’re into a montage of still more stars—Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Tom Cruise, former Esquire intern Tony Hawk, Elijah Wood, and Elijah Wood’s chin-beard, to name a few—who list off the things you are able as a human being to choose: your team, your music, whether or not to pursue your dreams, etc. We get into pictures of Rosa Parks and clips from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech more quickly than is tasteful, because the whole point of this thing is to urge you to choose to vote. It was an election year, remember.
Okay, are you clear on the theme of this whole thing? That it is your right and responsibility as an American to make your voice heard in the ballot box, and that civic engagement is what makes America great? Cool, because it is literally never going to come up again in the Super Bowl XXXVIII AOL Top Speed Halftime Show.
Instead, we cut to the field and shake off anything remotely serious. Jessica Simpson, styled like a lion tamer in the live Atlantic City staging of The Greatest Showman that you and I both know is coming, shouts, “HOUSTON, CHOOOOSE TOOOO PARTYYYYY!” And, spoiler alert, that’s all she does.
Marching-band versions of popular songs already seem so archaic, but that’s what we get next, as a whole bunch of college bands rooty-toot and rat-a-tat their way through the number-one song at the time, Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” (At a time when we were very much still dropping Bombs Over Baghdad, just saying.)
From there, it’s Janet Jackson’s first appearance. She descends on a stage elevator, dressed like what I can only describe as a Linens N’ Things sex pirate. In a silent moment, have you ever wondered what A Clockwork Orange would have looked like if it had been choreographed by Paula Abdul? Well, don’t even trip, because Janet’s backup dancers have your answer. We do get a few close-up looks at the wardrobe which will later malfunction, and at first glance, it looks like Janet is wearing a leather bustier with some kind of red bra or teddy underneath. We will later find out this is not the case at all.
Her “All for You” ends, the lights go down, and then, from a thick cloud of stage fog, emerges P. Diddy. And right away we get a lesson in male privilege. The actual first words out of his mouth are “I’m the definition of half-man / half-drugs.” How many complaints to the FCC do you think there were about that line? I have done no research on this at all, but I am confident in my answer: zero. He does about 15 seconds of “Bad Boy 4 Life,” and I suppose he could have brought Ben Stiller out for a cameo, since he’s in the video for that song, but he does not.
What happens is much worse.
What happens is this: the track for Toni Basil’s “Mickey” plays, and they swap the word “Mickey” out for “Diddy.” So: “Oh, Diddy, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Diddy.” Then Nelly gets his name put into the song, as he approaches the stage in the red race-car bed Milhouse’s dad sleeps in. He launches into “Hot in Herre,” and at the famous “I am getting so hot, I’m gonna take my clothes off” line, the cheerleaders yank their tops and skirts off. So very near the top of the show, a theme of forceful clothing removal has emerged.
And after a quick, Ma$e-free lip-syncing of “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” out comes Kid Rock to yell at you. He has sliced a head-hole right in the center of an American flag and is wearing it like a poncho, which, if we’re truly thinking consistently about how to behave around an American flag at a sporting event, is surely an offense at least on the level of a silent kneeling protest of police brutality. (And that’s before we find out that “Bawitdaba” also calls out “crooked cops.”) (Again, zero complaints.) (Probably.) He transitions into “Cowboy” and immediately my mouth begins to taste like strip-club-buffet riblets, so in the interest of self-care, I fast-forward.
Alright, now we’re on to the main event. Janet returns with “Rhythm Nation,” complete with the original choreography. Here’s an interesting thing: Janet Jackson was very much a legacy artist at the time, the kind the NFL likes to book for these things. The teenagers who were watching this show as it happened were largely not alive at the time of Control and Rhythm Nation 1814. And now it’s 14 years later, those teenagers are pushing 30, and legacy artist Justin Timberlake is about to do his own halftime show for an audience of teenagers who were not alive at the time of N’Sync. This is all a lot to think about, and I’m sorry.
Anyway, she has jettisoned the dust-ruffle she was wearing at the top of the show, and has added a very The Matrix leather skirt. The bustier, and the red undergarment which appears to be below, remain. The marching bands return, and we get the very woke bridge part from the extended remix of “Rhythm Nation”: “Prejudice? NO. Ignorance? NO. Bigotry? NO. Illiteracy? NO.” It’s a little artless, but it gets its point across.
Justin Timberlake then emerges, beatboxing, from some sort of under-stage netherworld. And listen, he sounds great, he is becoming a superstar before our eyes, it’s an exciting moment. But there sure is an awful lot of hog-wild crowd noise coming from a live stadium audience who we can plainly see are sitting quietly. I spent a few years at MTV, and I will tell you this: generating enthusiasm where none existed was kind of our thing.
Enough already. Let’s get into it. He is following her around the stage in a predatory manner, and, by the terms clearly laid forth in the lyrics, he is obligated to have her naked by no later than the end of the song. Even if your brain moved at AOL Top Speed, you had to have an idea what was coming. And sure enough, he comes up behind her. He tugs. She pops out. Lights go down. Literally tens of thousands of people order TiVos so they’ll have the power to rewind and freeze if such a thing happens again. (Really!)
So what did happen? The official story seems to be this: He was going to rip off the bustier, revealing the bra or teddy or whatever it was underneath. But there are problems with this alibi: first, that is not naked, that is simply scantily-clothed, a thing we have already seen numerous times in the Super Bowl XXXVIII AOL Top Speed Halftime Show. After 12 numbing minutes, we would yawn at a bra. Even Janet’s.
Second, let us take a closer look.
It appears that special effort has been expended to keep the nipple covered. It is as though someone has thought ahead and said: “one nipple shield stands between us and a truly-crippling fine from the FCC. Wanna snap one of these on?” My only question is this: does that go through? Are we not worried about one of those sun-rays snagging on something?
Finally, and most damningly, one entire cup of the bustier has come off in one tug, along with one whole cup of the bra, in one tidy piece. There are no stray bits of red lace, no loose threads. A clean cut has been made. Justin Timberlake can do nearly everything, but he cannot pull that whole thing off a moving body with such surgical precision. Not after all that beatboxing! It was meant to come off easily with one pull.
It was an illusion, wrapped in a lie, sponsored by AOL High Speed Internet. The breast was planned this whole time.
Still, it seems like the blame could have been shared a bit between her and Justin (and Kid Rock, just because I feel like he needs to be blamed for more things). Seems to me like she got the short end of the stick and the only way to make it right is to invite her back for a twirl this year.
I mean, it would be better than “Filthy.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.