During Sunday night’s Super Bowl halftime show, the producers flashed back through the years of iconic musical performances. The 2016 Super Bowl was the 50th anniversary of the big game, and though in the early years the featured musical act tended to be a college marching band, popular music acts became a more consistent part of the show starting in 1980. But in the roster of performances, one big name was consistently absent. Janet Jackson was left out of the tribute video, as was Justin Timberlake, who ushered in a more conservative era of musical choices in 2004 when he ripped off part of Jackson’s costume and revealed her breast.
And seeing that studious omission ripple through the Internet, it struck me that it’s long past time for the National Football League and Ricky Kirshner, who has produced the halftime show since 2011, to do the right thing and invite Jackson back to the Super Bowl and for the broadcast networks to support them in the invitation.
There’s precedent for artists to appear at the Super Bowl more than once. The musical education program Up With People provided the halftime entertainment at four Super Bowls between 1976 and 1986, and while their song choices might seem embarrassingly dated, the kind of television-friendly mass spectacle they provided lives on today:
They’re hardly the only repeat performers.Gloria Estefan has performed at the Super Bowl three times. Timberlake’s debacle with Jackson was his second time on the Super Bowl field; he performed as part of NSYNC, his original band, in 2001. The St. Louis rapper Nelly has showed up in group performances twice. And two of last night’s artists were repeats: Bruno Mars performed in 2014, and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter hit the halftime stage with Destiny’s Child in 2013.
And beyond the question of precedent is one of righting a wrong.
After the 2004 Super Bowl, Jackson was cut from the Grammys, amidst a round of general media hysteria about what might happen to fragile American viewers if they were to see televised images of women’s breasts. CBS had demanded that she apologize if she were to appear at the awards show. When CBS appealed the inevitable Federal Communications Commission fine — at issue was whether the network should have prepared a video delay as a precaution — one of the issues was whether CBS could have anticipated that Jackson would be exposed. Some media accounts of the appeal noted that Jackson said CBS hadn’t been informed about the final choreography, but neglected to note that Jackson hadn’t intended to expose her nipple: rather the wardrobe malfunction in question was the fact that an undergarment came away along with Jackson’s bustier when Timberlake ripped it off.
At best, Jackson’s critics viewed her as a savvy manipulator: “She was out to accomplish a naked agenda — the resuscitation of her fading career on the eve of her new album’s release — and so she did,” wrote Frank Rich in a slightly snide column pretending to praise her. And the NFL shoved Jackson right under a strategically-timed bus, declaring “We applaud the F.C.C.’s investigation into the MTV-produced halftime. We and our fans were embarrassed by the entire show.” The look on Jackson’s face at the moment of her exposure doesn’t seem to have registered with the league; this happened to her as much as to the NFL.
More than a decade and three albums later, the 2004 Super Bowl still lingers as a far bigger footnote on Jackson’s career than it actually should, even if only in moments like last night’s omission. If the NFL wants to prove it’s truly brave enough to put on a genuinely spectacular concert, the league should invite Jackson back and acknowledge that one of the greatest performers of her generation is greater than the sum of her parts.