Critic’s Notebook: Justin Timberlake, Back at the Super Bowl. What About Janet?


After Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl performance in 2004, her career plummeted while his continued to rise. Credit Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

When Justin Timberlake was announced as the performer for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, the memory of one of pop’s biggest traumas resurfaced.

The last time Mr. Timberlake played the Super Bowl halftime, it was in an MTV-produced hodgepodge in 2004 that also included Janet Jackson, Kid Rock, P. Diddy, Nelly and a marching band. (Mr. Timberlake had already been in one of those MTV mash-ups three years earlier as a member of ’N Sync.) After some raunchy rap-rock from a flag-draped Kid Rock, Ms. Jackson strutted through a fiery, heartfelt performance of “Rhythm Nation” — demanding, “People of the world, unite!” — that few now remember.

It was overshadowed, of course, by Mr. Timberlake’s closing duet with Ms. Jackson, in his blatantly Michael Jackson-styled song “Rock Your Body.” Staged as a flirtation with Ms. Jackson, it ended with Mr. Timberlake singing “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song” as he tore away more of her costume than had been planned, to reveal — live and televised worldwide for a full 9/16 of a second — her uncovered breast (though jewelry hid her nipple).


Mr. Timberlake is expected to perform material from his new album, “Man of the Woods,” during his halftime show. Credit Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press

Her career, far more original than his, plummeted. MTV and other radio and video outlets effectively blacklisted her music, wrecking the commercial prospects of her 2004 album, “Damita Jo.” Meanwhile, Mr. Timberlake’s career kept moving along. At the Grammy Awards, which that year followed the Super Bowl, he won two awards, while apologizing for the “unintentional” incident.

More than a decade later, particularly in the context of the #MeToo movement, the situation comes across as a demonstration of the victim-blaming that sustains male privilege. He grabbed, she was vulnerable — yet she faced the consequences. In a video promo for this year’s Super Bowl show, an interviewer, Mike Tirico, puts upfront a question about the “wardrobe thing”; with a laugh, Mr. Timberlake assures him, “That won’t happen this time.” Later, Mr. Timberlake declares that the theme of the 2018 halftime show will be “unity.” Ms. Jackson has maintained her silence.

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