TV is even racier 10 years after a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ rocked the world

The half-second incident prompted outrage, congressional hearings and indecency laws but now seems ‘surreal’

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake moments before the half-second, firestorm-inducing incident in 2004.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

It all happened in a flash. Former boy-band member and rising solo star Justin Timberlake was on his biggest platform yet, the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, sharing the stage with veteran Janet Jackson. They did a sultry number that was going to end with Timberlake taking off her first layer of clothing. But it didn’t. Instead, he took off her top and part of her bustier, exposing a nipple adorned with a sun-shaped metallic ring. It lasted a half a second.

By the end of 2004, most American dictionaries added the colloquial term “wardrobe malfunction.”

Exactly a decade ago, Janet Jackson’s infinitesimal nip slip seemed to be on everyone’s minds, from opportunistic politicians and concerned parent organizations to excited teenagers and confused viewers. It would be a while before celebutantes were caught partying without panties on TMZ, just before MTV became Reality TV and not quite when porn stars were viewed as cool.

CBS at the time was fined $550,000 for the same level of accidental exposure networks show, scot-free, on television today. There wasn’t much context for sudden nudity on television and, as a result, American pop culture seemed to stand still in that winter to simply catch its breath.

“In February 2004, we are in a war, we’re ramping up for a presidential election, and conservative parent organizations managed to get a congressional hearing on the wardrobe malfunction within a couple weeks,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “During that first month, every (major network) TV producer, writer and director was thinking, ‘Are we going to have to go back to the purely sanitized stuff? How are we going to survive with HBO and cable around?’”

It’s revealing to consider the situation now, 10 years later. Last weekend the Grammies — on CBS, no less — opened with R&B singer Beyonce doing a burlesque-inspired act onstage for her husband, rapper Jay-Z. And, of course, the last cultural brouhaha of 2013 was about former Disney star Miley Cyrus simulating penetration with a big foam hand. The 2004 halftime show brought multisecond delay times when broadcasting live performances and, for a year or two, relegated sexier programming to later time slots; CBS famously delayed its Victoria’s Secret show to give the nation a chance to recover. But American entertainment has actually gotten more explicit, not less, and unlike the Super Bowl “accident,” having racier content is now an unabashed choice, not blamed on a malfunctioning wardrobe.

Murky moment

There are reasons Super Bowl XXXVIII had such a pop-cultural impact and has not been matched in the past decade.

Initially, there was a murky cloud around the whole incident: Did it really happen? In 2004’s prehistoric social-media world, there was little documentation that it actually happened, save for any eagle-eyed fans in the stadium, the fraction of TV viewers watching at that very second and CBS’ decision to suddenly cut away to break. It was virtually all word of mouth. In other words, for all the hubbub, it’s doubtful many people at the time realized what took place. (I caught it live, calling to my now wife in the other room, “I think I just saw a nipple.”) Most people just thought something happened; things weren’t confirmed until the media swarm Monday morning, and even then the question asked was who actually saw it. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Super Bowl brought the relatively new media company TiVo its biggest surge of customers.

Also, compared with today’s fast news cycle, national pop-cultural moments were few and far between. Every cultural discussion carried more weight at the time. You couldn’t just check out #trendingtopics on Twitter, established in 2006, or see the posts on Facebook, launched, coincidentally, just three days after the Super Bowl incident. It wasn’t the present-day pop-culture-of-the-moment society where an icon, incident or idea bombards the collective consciousness for a day before people move on to the next thing.

After the nipple exposure, searches for “Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction,” “Janet Jackson Super Bowl” and the like topped Yahoo! and other platforms for weeks. (A great Silicon Valley rumor says YouTube was invented because of the wardrobe malfunction and folks hunting for the clip. YouTube has more mythological origin stories than Hercules, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. And no, it still doesn’t have the uncensored clip, which is nearly impossible to find online.) 

Fallout fizzles out

In reality, what mattered wasn’t how many people actually saw it or how accessible the clip was to the public but simply that the moment existed. Conservative pundits and vocal parents turned the Super Bowl incident into powerful cultural ammunition — and caused enough of a ruckus to change what we consider acceptable broadcast programming today.

“How can nudity and a striptease in front of 90 million unsuspecting TV viewers not qualify as indecency?” the Parents Television Council would later ask in a press release.

“I think for many years before that incident, people assumed that if something aired on TV, it must be OK and that it would be futile to complain,” Melissa Henson, director of grass-roots activism and advocacy for the Parents Television Council, said Friday. “If anything, I think the Super Bowl incident and what followed served to prove that we don’t have to just sit back and accept what is happening to the broadcast airwaves we own, that we have the right and the ability to speak out in opposition to the networks’ abuses of their broadcast licenses.”

What isn’t clear is if pop-culture expression changed in the way the Parents Television Council and other groups might have intended.

“The effect, perhaps what the Parents Television Council didn’t want, is that it put such a laser focus on the indecency rule. When all was said and done, the rule began to collapse,” Thompson said. “Thinking about how 2014 would have been a decade ago, you would have thought we would have been back to ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Leave It to Beaver’ — without using ‘beaver’ in the title. With all the talk, the indecency rules, for all intents and purposes, are completely disemboweled.”

The FCC would later drop the fine against CBS.

Just last week, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell — in and interview with ESPN: The Magazine leaked early by Perez Hilton — apologized for the aggressive legal pursuit of the Super Bowl incident and especially to Jackson, who he felt took more blame than Timberlake.

“I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on,” Powell said. “Part of it was surreal, right?”

Damon Brown is the author of the TED book “Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed With Documenting Our Lives Online.”

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