It’s been 15 years, and we’re still debating nipples at the Super Bowl halftime show.
Maroon 5 headlined Sunday’s performance, arguably pop culture’s biggest stage, with assists from Travis Scott and Big Boi. And the band’s lead singer, Adam Levine, took the moment as an opportunity to get half-naked and bare his chest to the world.
You know who else had an exposed nipple during a Super Bowl halftime show? Janet Jackson.
The parallel, and why it was apparently okay for one performer but not another, did not go unnoticed on social media:
On Sunday, Big Boi performed “The Way You Move” (while wearing a very heavy fur coat, may we add). Maroon 5 went into the next song, and Levine ripped off his jacket, the universal sign for “Oh, I’m about to get serious in here.”
Then they went into “Moves Like Jagger.” Levine stripped off his tank top, timed to the lyrics, “You wanted control so, we waited/I put on a show, now we’re naked,” and shimmied around with abandon.
Levine’s approach was much more overt than what took place in 2004, when Justin Timberlake ripped off Jackson’s breast plate during their performance, leaving her nipple exposed on TV for less than a full second.
The incident attracted a $550,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission (which was eventually thrown out on appeal), introduced “wardrobe malfunction” into our lexicon, helped inspire the creation of YouTube and became a flash point in the debate over regulating indecency.
Both singers apologized immediately after and said the brief nudity was not intentional. Jackson suffered the brunt of the backlash; MTV, which produced the show, later blamed her as having engineered the stunt. And according to HuffPost, former CBS chief Les Moonves reportedly didn’t think Jackson was contrite enough in the aftermath, prevented her from appearing on the Grammys the following week and discouraged Viacom’s MTV and VH1 from playing her music. (Moonves was fired in 2018 after facing sexual misconduct allegations.)
While Timberlake’s career soared, Jackson’s career suffered greatly, something which her fans are still angry about (so much so that Timberlake 's 2018 halftime show spawned the #JusticeforJanet hashtag).
According to the FCC, showing obscene, indecent and profane content on broadcast TV is prohibited by federal law. A well-known 1964 Supreme Court opinion — “I know it when I see it” when it comes to obscenity — influences the FCC’s rules, and the commission’s enforcement is driven by public complaints.
Will Levine’s exhibitionism attract the same kind of outrage to the FCC as the 2004 halftime show, when more than 500,000 people wrote to the agency to complain? Probably not. The female body is regarded very differently than the male body, on TV and in real life.
But who would have thought that Adam Levine, of all people, would spark a conversation about nudity and double standards?