As a longtime football fan, I am increasingly sure that history will not look kindly upon America’s favorite sport. The prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among former football players dampens the majesty—or emphasizes the barbarity—of on-field achievements.<1> Conservative backlashes against NFL players’ protests of racial injustice highlight the troubled state of race relations in the United States today.<2> Frequent allegations against collegiate and professional players of domestic or sexual assault show that the culture of violence in football extends past the field.<3> Despite protest, there is still a team called the Redskins. Football has big problems, and they seem increasingly difficult to ignore with each passing year.
In this climate, I believe that the NFL chose Justin Timberlake to perform at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show in a protective effort to avoid controversy. The NFL wanted a commercially successful artist who had experience with large-scale events and who would appeal to their fan base. Most importantly, they needed someone who would not bring “politics” into the performance.
Politics were surely on the minds of the event’s planners: in 2016 Beyoncé performed “Formation” with her Black Panther backup dancers, and in 2017 Lady Gaga presented an “All-American” show that promoted “the spirit of equality, and the spirit of this country as one of love and compassion and kindness” in what was surely an implicit critique of President Trump’s divisive politics.<4> In that context, Timberlake must have felt like a safe choice: Justin has long been America’s sweetheart, a charming and funny entertainer who currently has some cultural momentum from his 2016 mega-hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” and a just-released album titled Man of the Woods. The trouble with the NFL’s choice was that seemingly every writer on the internet has not forgotten about his 2004 Super Bowl performance with Janet Jackson, in which Timberlake accidentally (or “accidentally”) exposed Jackson’s right breast in a wardrobe malfunction dubbed “Nipplegate.”<5>
Nipplegate was a big deal, and its impact continues to be felt. Between 200,000 and 540,000 people filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission over the half-second gaffe. The FCC attempted to fine CBS $550,000 for televised nudity. Viacom, the media conglomerate that owns MTV, blacklisted Jackson, which likely contributed to the decline in her career around the 2000s.<6> In 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records recorded the incident as the most searched item in internet history.<7> That same year, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim said in a USA Today interview that the video sharing site was created so that he could easily share the clip with his friends.<8> And in 2018, Nipplegate reemerged as a subject of conversation because the NFL chose Timberlake to perform at the Super Bowl.
While Jackson suffered personally and professionally from Nipplegate, Timberlake’s solo career only improved. Timberlake later acknowledged that Jackson bore almost the entirety of the blame: in a 2007 interview promoting his album Future Sex Love Sounds, he said that America is “harsher on women,” and is “unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”<9> In light of Timberlake’s selection as the 2018 halftime performer, many writers chose to remind readers of this unfairness (and of Timberlake’s poor word choice); Vox staff writer Constance Grady encapsulates the sentiment:
America is unfairly harsh on women and “ethnic people” in a way that it is typically not harsh on straight white men. America loves to police the bodies and the sexualities of women of color — so when Timberlake reminded us all that Janet Jackson, a black woman, not only had a body but also had secondary sex characteristics, the media pounced on her. But Timberlake’s uncontroversial white male hand, the hand that actively disrobed Jackson, went unremarked-on and unpunished.<10>
Whether you agree with Grady or not (I do), it is clear that Nipplegate still impacts contemporary American life and politics. So why would the NFL open itself to such criticism when its players are openly protesting racial discrimination and its ratings are dropping?<11>
To avoid a repeat of the 2004 scandal, all of the Super Bowl halftime shows between 2005 and 2010 (with the exception of Prince) featured canonic rockers, including Paul McCartney and Tom Petty, who made their names in the 1960s and ’70s.<12> This “classic rock” trend stood out because all of the shows between 1998 and 2004 featured at least one contemporary act. I believe a similarly defensive reaction occurred due to the recent player protests: when the NFL hired Timberlake to perform at their halftime show, they probably assumed he could serve as a middle ground between artists the Twitter generation would not recognize and Beyoncé’s radical blackness.<13> Hip, but not too hip. Someone who will hang out with Jimmy Fallon after the show but who has never met Ta-Nehisi Coates (or Ed Sullivan). The best vanilla ice cream money can buy.
The irony is that Timberlake occupies anything but the middle ground in the politics surrounding Super Bowl history. In today’s polarizing political atmosphere, such middle ground may not exist anymore. Nevertheless, I close by predicting that, rather than Bruno Mars getting his wish to see Atlanta-based hip hop artists perform in the 2019 halftime show, the NFL will again select a performer who they feel is safe.<14> My early prediction: Ed Sheeran, with guest performers Drake and Kelly Clarkson. Until then, I’ll keep watching Prince perform Purple Rain in the rain from the 2007 halftime show.
<1>See Tom Goldman, “CTE Found in Nearly All Donated NFL Player Brains,” NPR, 25 July, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/07/25/539198429/study-cte-found-in-nearly-all-donated-nfl-player-brains.
<2>Bryan Flaherty, “From Kaepernick Sitting to Trump’s Fiery Comments: NFL’s Anthem Protests Have Spurred Discussion,” Washington Post, 24 September, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/sports/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protests-and-NFL-activism-in-quotes/?utm_term=.f1790e0965ac
<3>Lisa Hickey, “Is the NFL’s Culture of Violence Causing a Crisis of American Masculinity?,” The Good Men Project, 21 November, 2017, https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/nfl-crisis-american-masculinity/
<4>Amanda Petrusich, “Lady Gaga’s All-American Super Bowl Halftime Show,” The New Yorker, 6 February, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/lady-gagas-all-american-super-bowl-halftime-show. Kirsten Ulve, “Just How Political Can Lady Gaga Get During Her Super Bowl Halftime Show?,” Billboard, 3 February, 2017, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/super-bowl/7677935/lady-gaga-halftime-show-politics-super-bowl.
<5>Daniel Kreps, “Nipple Ripples: 10 Years of Fallout From Janet Jackson’s Halftime Show,” Rolling Stone, 30 January, 2014, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/nipple-ripples-10-years-of-fallout-from-janet-jacksons-halftime-show-20140130.
<6>Shira Karsen, “13 Years Later, Justin Timberlake, Without Janet Jackson, Is Confirmed to Perform the 2018 Super Bowl Halftime Show,” Billboard, 23 October, 2017, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/super-bowl/8007041/janet-jackson-justin-timberlake-2004-super-bowl-what-happened.
<7>Kreps, “Nipple Ripples.”
<8>Jim Hopkins, “Surprise! There’s A Third YouTube Co-founder,” USA Today, 11 October, 2006, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-10-11-youtube-karim_x.htm.
<9>Emily Stewart, “Janet Jackson Says She Won’t Perform With Justing Timberlake at the Super Bowl,” Vox, 4 February, 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/2/4/16970130/janet-jackson-justin-timberlake-super-bowl.
<10>onstance Grady, “Justin Timberlake Is a White Man. That Grants Him Incredible Freedom in His Career,” Vox, 2 February, 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/2/2/16947136/justin-timberlake-man-of-the-woods-white-masculinity.
<11>Daniel Rapaport, “NFL TV Ratings Down Roughly 10% From Last Season,” Sports Illustrated, 4 January 2018, https://www.si.com/tech-media/2018/01/04/nfl-tv-ratings-decline-ten-percent-colin-kaepernick-thursday-night-football.
<12>Kreps, “Nipple Ripples.”
Nathan Landes is a PhD Student at Indiana University whose dissertation is on heavy metal and cultural boundaries.