Justin Timberlake on Sunday will return to the most-watched pop culture stage — the Super Bowl halftime show — 14 years after he infamously exposed Janet Jackson’s breast during a performance at the 2004 game.
The incident, dubbed “nipplegate,” made Timberlake a controversial choice to perform during Super Bowl LII — especially since the consensus is that Jackson took way more of the heat during the fallout than Timberlake did.
Timberlake, whose “Man of the Woods” album drops Friday, said this month that he’s “absolutely” made peace with Jackson and they’ve spoken in private about it.
“I don’t know that a lot of people know that,” Timberlake told Zane Lowe during a Beats 1 interview earlier this month. “I mean, I don’t think it’s my job to do that, because you value the relationships that you do have with people.”
Timberlake said he “stumbled” through his 2004 performance and “had my wires crossed.”
He added: “It’s something that you have to look back on and go, like, ‘OK, well, you know, you can’t change what’s happened, but, you know, you can move forward and learn from it.'”
When asked about why he was able to get the gig after the debacle, Timberlake said, “It’s just one of those things where you go, ‘What do you want me to say? We are not going to do that again.'”
That reassurance hasn’t stopped some parents from worrying. The Parents Television Council issued an “urgent appeal” to Timberlake on Tuesday, asking him to “keep the halftime show friendly and safe for the children watching.”
Ahead of Sunday’s performance, let’s revisit the drama of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show:
What happened on Feb. 1, 2004?
Jackson headlined the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, where Timberlake appeared as a surprise guest. The two sang Timberlake’s hit “Rock Your Body” while dancing playfully across the stage.
“Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song,” the former ‘N Sync star crooned as he tore off a piece of Jackson’s top, revealing her pierced nipple to millions of viewers. Both singers looked shocked, and Jackson quickly covered her breast.
If you watch a video of the incident, it’s pretty clear that Jackson’s bejeweled nipple should have remained covered by a piece of red fabric, which she wore on both breasts. Jackson later said that Timberlake inadvertently tore off the extra material. But conspiracy theories abounded, with some critics speculating that it had all been a publicity stunt.
What happened afterward?
MTV (which produced the halftime show), the NFL and CBS all released statements after the broadcast.
“We were extremely disappointed by elements of the MTV-produced halftime show. They were totally inconsistent with assurances our office was given about the content of the show,” NFL executive vice president Joe Browne said. He added that “it’s unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime.”
“We attended all rehearsals throughout the week and there was no indication that any such thing would happen,” CBS said in a statement. “The moment did not conform to CBS broadcast standards and we would like to apologize to anyone who was offended.”
MTV’s statement noted that “the tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance.”
MTV later placed the blame squarely on Jackson: Tom Freston, then MTV’s chief executive, told Reuters that Jackson had “engineered” the stunt.
The FCC received more than 500,000 complaints and fined CBS Corp. $550,000. The fine was eventually thrown out by a federal appeals court, but as the Daily Beast notes, the case was tied up in court for more than eight years.
What did Jackson and Timberlake say about it?
Both singers issued statements in the days following the broadcast.
“I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl,” Timberlake said. “It was not intentional and is regrettable.”
“The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals,” Jackson said in a written statement. “MTV was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended — including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL.”
The following day, Jackson made similar comments in a video — a move she later said was demanded by her management team.
The following weekend, Timberlake addressed the controversy at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards, where both he and Jackson had been slated to appear. Timberlake’s performance went on as planned, but Jackson — who had been tapped to lead a tribute to Luther Vandross — was allegedly uninvited by CBS.
“I know it’s been a rough week on everybody,” Timberlake said, prompting laughter from the audience. “What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended.”
Have they said anything else since?
In a 2006 interview with MTV, Timberlake admitted that Jackson suffered more in wake of the controversy.
“If you consider it 50-50, then I probably got 10 percent of the blame,” Timberlake told MTV’s John Norris in a 2006 interview. “I think America is harsher on women. I think America is unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
He also said that he could have “handled [the aftermath] better.”
“I’m a part of a community that consider themselves artists,” Timberlake said. “And if there’s something that I could have done in her defense, that was more, that I could have realized, then I would have.”
That same year, Jackson appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where she called the incident “a very embarrassing moment” and said she was surprised it got so much attention.
“I thought it was absurd,” Jackson told Winfrey. “I thought it was very crazy that there was so much emphasis put on this when we were at war, our troops were over there [in Iraq]. So much more important things were going on in the world and the focus was on my breast? That didn’t make any sense to me.”
Winfrey asked Jackson about Timberlake’s statement. “Do you think people were too hard on you?”
“I think they were,” Jackson said. “I think they did put all the emphasis on me, as opposed to us.”
Jackson added that Timberlake had reached out her, but they hadn’t yet spoken. “Friendship is very important to me, and certain things you just don’t do to friends,” Jackson said. “In my own time, I’ll give him a call.”
Jackson hinted that she was upset at “certain things” Timberlake had reportedly said in the wake of the controversy.
“So you do feel he left you out there hanging?” Winfrey asked.
“To a certain degree,” Jackson said.
She added later, “I didn’t break down about it. I realized I was much stronger than I thought I was.”
How has history remembered the incident?
Many are still angry that Jackson received the brunt of the blame. Last year, Timberlake received significant backlash after tweeting that he was “inspired” by Jesse Williams’s impassioned BET Awards speech. “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too,” writer Ernest Owens tweeted at the singer.
After the October confirmation that Timberlake would perform at the Super Bowl, a lot of people on Twitter felt as though Timberlake needed to make a more pointed apology. The news spawned a #JusticeforJanet hashtag, where people pointed out the privilege inherent in Timberlake being invited back.
Timberlake — who celebrated the performance news in a cheeky video with Jimmy Fallon — didn’t initially directly address Jackson’s supporters. But “Football Night in America” host Mike Tirico did ask the singer if the NFL should be on alert for another wardrobe malfunction.
“That won’t happen this time,” Timberlake promised.
[This post, originally published Oct. 23, has been updated.]