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Beyond Earshot: how Nipplegate exposed industry sexism

Beyond Earshot is a new series by Jacob Seferian examining the cultural impact of music, past and present. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter

News that Justin Timberlake would headline this year’s Super Bowl halftime show left the younger half of millennials struggling to recall a recent hit of his other than the Trolls theme song, while the rest of us old enough to actually remember JT’s music career recall the fateful night he derailed Janet Jackson’s, spawning the hashtag #JusticeForJanet.

Rewind to 2004: Timberlake was enjoying his first taste of success outside the ranks of *NSYNC, while Jackson was entering a late career renaissance (All For You wielded the then second highest first-week sales for a female artist ever). Both were embracing hypersexual public images, with Justin seeking to assert himself as a new sex symbol, and Janet reassuring the public she still was one. Up until this point, the pair didn’t really have anything to do with one another. That was until Jackson, who was scheduled to headline that year’s halftime show, brought Timberlake on stage as a surprise guest. Everything was going fine at first; they made an attractive duo and their mutual sensuality ensured they hit their marks with ease. However, within the final moments of the performance, Justin would sing an ill-fated “gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” and tear Janet’s top, exposing her right breast for approximately half a second to an estimated 143 million viewers.

The backlash was immediate: over 540,000 people would file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, the NFL and its sponsors accused the stars of orchestrating the incident, and the media crucifixion of Jackson that followed resulted in her being uninvited to the Grammys, her music videos blacklisted, and uncharacteristically low sales for her next album. Both parties insisted Nipplegate was an accident. The pair, without telling producers, had planned a last minute reveal where Timberlake would tear away Jackson’s bustier to reveal a lacy red bra, however, a wardrobe malfunction turned what would’ve been a fittingly risque conclusion to a suggestive performance into a full blown scandal. Following the event, “Janet Jackson” became the most searched internet item of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Yet, for all the negative press, Timberlake seemed to emerge relatively unscathed.

Unlike Janet, Justin was permitted to attend the Grammy Awards (where he won two), McDonald’s maintained their brand partnership with him, and his next album FutureSex/LoveSounds, sold over 10 million copies. He would continue to have scattered musical success until around 2013, before he settled into playing the role of a pretty, widely-liked personality who frequents Late Night and SNL — but maybe he shouldn’t be so liked. 

In the 13 years following the incident, he has publicly expressed remorse, but never formally apologized to Janet Jackson, who undeniably took the brunt of the pubic outrage. His error, albeit accidental, effectively derailed one of the most distinguished music careers of all time. Jackson would feel the aftershocks for years to come, with the Supreme Court only just waiving the $555,000 FFC fine against CBS for indecency in 2012. And while she still remains a popular touring act, Janet hasn’t enjoyed anywhere near her former commercial success since.

But the real culprit, beyond Justin Timberlake, was a society so quick to shift the majority of blame to Jackson, a black woman who dared to embrace a sexual image throughout her career. The headlines disproportionately focused on Janet, because, unlike Justin, she committed the cardinal sin of owning the breast in question. But the national conversation veered into deeper questions about the cultural climate. Inspiring countless op-eds, a shoutout on the Congressional floor by a senator describing the decline in the nation’s morality, and according to the New York Times, “an indecency crusade [that] unleashed a wave of self-censorship on American television unrivaled since the McCarthy era.” Essentially, it took all of .56 seconds of air time for the false moral framework of society to unravel over a woman’s body.

While it doesn’t take a Sarah Lawrence gender studies professor to tell you that the struggles of everyday sexism extend into the music industry, Nipplegate is worth particular examination.

Women have historically charted lower on the Billboard Hot 100, and personal accounts of professional bias faced by female artists are endless. Despite this, Janet Jackson enjoyed immense chart success during the first half of her career, yet over two decades of invaluable musical contribution couldn’t spare her from misogynistic backlash. Nipplegate was an accident (although some still speculate it was a publicity stunt that backfired), yet Jackson was forced to apologize for something out of her control, while Timberlake, who had control and fucked it up, was deemed worthy of national sympathy. Let that sink in: a man rips a woman’s shirt and the woman is to blame. Jackson’s inequality in punishment is indicative of a deeper societal hypocrisy. Women are music’s most explored topic, yet beyond lyrical subject matter, male artists don’t seem to be invested in their well-being. Songs hypersexualize them, generate their male singers profit, but when faced with the real thing, the public loses its mind. Evidently we’re only comfortable with tits when they are being sung about.

It’s also worth mentioning that Timberlake’s 2006 album following the incident drew heavily on R&B, a decision which has since been criticized as appropriation for monetary gain rather than genuine influence. In his latest effort, Timerberlake declared a “return to his roots,” a troubling trend among white artists today who saw their careers flourish when they adopted elements of hip-hop music and style, only to distance themselves from the genre after the fact. This adds a layer to Nipplegate and Timberlake’s subsequent refusal to fully own up to his role in harming Jackson’s career. Once again, to lay it bare: a white man exposes the breast of a black woman on national television, and the black woman suffers the most.

The vilification of Janet Jackson and sparing of Justin Timberlake speaks volumes of how our society views women. Sexualizing women is apparently only permissible on a man’s terms, when a woman makes the decision (or in Jackson’s case, made for her) embrace such a narrative, she is slut-shamed and invalidated. But perhaps karma does exist. Timberlake’s new album, Man of the Woods, has opened to catastrophic reviews, begging the question: when white artists don’t steal from artists of color  — what is really left? 

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