This week's Super Bowl is the tenth anniversary of the legendary "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed Janet Jackson's right nipple to the world. The story carries implications far beyond the Super Bowl. Janet Jackson's nipple—or, more broadly, the criminalization of female nudity (and our culture's animosity toward/distrust of black female sexuality)—launched YouTube, turned TiVo into an entertainment giant, pushed Howard Stern off terrestrial radio, and forever changed the way live television is produced.
ESPN's Marin Cogan wrote a long, complex retrospective on the subject, featuring interviews from producers and candid insights from then-FCC chairman Michael Powell, and you should really go read it. But I've highlighted some of the Big Questions here, if you're in a hurry.
So, What the Fuck Actually Happened?
Ummm...not to spoil everything up front, but it's still pretty much a huge mystery.
Justin reaches over, grabs a corner of Janet's right breast cup and gives it a hard tug. Her breast spills out. It's way more than a handful, but a hand is the only thing Janet has available to cover it, so she clutches it with her left palm. The breast is on television for 9/16 of a second. The camera cuts wide. Fireworks explode from the stage. Cue the end of halftime. Cue the beginning of one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in America since the Salem witch trials.
Did the Producers Know This Was Going to Happen?
"There was lots of chaos in the truck, and we played it back and we were like, 'Oh, s — . What just happened?'"
...Whether Frattini or the higher-ups at MTV, CBS and/or the NFL knew what was coming remains one of the enduring mysteries of the event — at least that's the generous explanation for why millions of people watched the clip with the same intensity as that of JFK conspiracy theorists poring over the Zapruder footage.
Did Janet Jackson Know?
In an on-camera apology after the event, Jackson backed up the producers, insisting she decided on the big reveal after the final rehearsal, without the knowledge of anyone at MTV. Timberlake was meant to pull off a piece of the costume, she later explained, but it was supposed to reveal only a lacy red undergarment; unfortunately, as it played out, that undergarment came off in Timberlake's hand too.
Did Justin Timberlake Know?
Timberlake also apologized but never offered his own version of events other than to coin the term "wardrobe malfunction."
Originally they'd talked about Justin ripping off Janet's kilt to correspond with the lyrics "Better have you naked by the end of this song," but that idea was reportedly scrapped. Nobody will admit to replacing the kilt idea with a tearaway bustier.
If Justin Was Only Supposed to Pull Away Part of Janet's Bustier Thingy and Reveal Her Lacy Red Bra Underneath, Which Seems Like a Reasonable Explanation, How Did the Right Bra Cup Magically Detach from the Left and Come Away with It?
Because someone designed it that way. On purpose. Someone did it. Look at this pic. LOOK!!! THE BRA PART IS BASICALLY A LACE DICKEY. THERE IS NO BRA, MAN.
So Who Actually Did It?
I don't know, man. Puck? Loki? Bart Simpson? Reynard the trickster fox? Q???
What Is Up with Janet's Weird Nipple Jewelry?
It's a thing called a "nipple shield."
(For the record, not much areola was even visible underneath Jackson's large starburst nipple shield.)
Why Is Janet Jackson's Nipple an Abomination but Dennis Franz's Butt Is Awesome?
THE PATRIARCHY PROLLY I GUESS.
Children Are Free to Gaze Upon Male Nipples as Much as They Want, and Children Also HAVE NIPPLES. So Why Is This Nipple Different from All Other Nipples?
The Aftermath Was Ridiculous. Did Anyone REALLY Care!!??!?!?! How Could a Person Possibly Care?
Dude, Michael Powell didn't even really care.
"I think we've been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on," he says, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes. "Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we're gonna do?"
..."I ended up testifying for nine hours on just this," he says. "On 9/16 of a second."
Okay, but Somebody Must Have Cared
Yeah, I guess these dumbasses "cared" a little bit.
Previously, Powell says the FCC received only a handful of indecency complaints a year. It received 540,000 about Janet Jackson's breast. The PTC launched a campaign to punish everyone involved. "An outraged public needs to make this backlash long and commercially painful," Bozell wrote in an article. "The NFL needs to back off its trend of treating its fans with the lowest common denominator of sleaze.
Was Nipplegate Racist and Sexist?
Yeah, seems like it.
Timberlake himself said he believed Jackson had taken a disproportionate amount of the backlash. "I probably got 10 percent of the blame," he told MTV. "I think America's probably harsher on women, and I think America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people."
...The next six Super Bowl halftime performers were middle-aged men.
When you have time, go read the whole thing. Now can somebody PLEASE get Columbo up here to figure this shit out once and for all?