It was the very definition of flashing — a less-than-one-second shot of Janet Jackson’s exposed right breast at the end of Super Bowl XXXVIII’s halftime show, a moment that changed our pop-culture world. Except, that is, when it didn’t.
On the 10th anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2004 wardrobe malfunction that launched a half-million complaints to the Federal Communications Commission and a Congressional hearing, here’s a look back at both the things that changed and the things that didn’t.
Things That Changed
1. An expression was born. Wardrobe malfunction is now an entry in the Oxford dictionaries. The phrase made its debut in the language scene following the infamous Super Bowl moment via astatement from Justin Timberlake, who was Jackson’s unannounced halftime co-star, and who bared Jackson’s breast (that was actually partly covered by a star-shaped pasty) when he tore away Jackson’s bustier in the closing moments of their duet, “Rock Your Body.”
“I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl,” Timberlake’s apology went.
Around the same time, Jackson almost, but not quite, coined the term herself, with her camp explaining that the incident was the result of a “malfunction of the wardrobe.”
Though regularly mocked, “wardrobe malfunction” was Timberlake’s and Jackson’s official story: Yes, the costume was supposed to be ripped, they maintained, but, no, it wasn’t supposed to be ripped down to the breast.
To Oxford, a wardrobe malfunction is a noun meaning “an instance of a person accidentally exposing an intimate part of their body as a result of an article of clothing slipping out of position.”
2. Timberlake and Jackson’s relationship. In 2002, the May-July pair (he was 21 at the time; she was 36) were rumored to be, if not exactly dating, then bumping and grinding at nightclubs. After the Super Bowl, they went their separate ways, though Timberlake reportedly has been in touch. “He has reached out to speak with me, ” Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in 2006, adding, “… and in my own time, I’ll give him a call.”
3. MTV’s and the NFL’s relationship. In 2001, the envelope-pushing network produced its first halftime show for the rulebook-bound footballers. Just three years later, it produced its second halftime show—the one with Jackson, Timberlake, and Jackson’s breast. “It’s unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime show,” an NFL execpredicted after Super Bowl XXXVIII. To this day, it hasn’t.
4. Timberlake’s career. It got bigger. And bigger.
5. Where and how you watch funny cat videos. In 2005, when Jawed Karim couldn’t find clips of the Jackson-Timberlake incident online, he suggested to two former PayPal pals that they start a site like YouTube. And so the trio did. They actually started YouTube. And now you can find about 33,000 YouTube search results for “janet jackson super bowl flash” (and, of course, about 2.3 million results for “funny cat videos.”)
6. “America’s Got Talent” — no, really. Two months after the wardrobe malfunction, Howard Stern told his radio listeners, “Janet Jackson’s breast got me in a lot of trouble.” Seven months after that, with the on-alert FCC breathing down the neck of the provocateur’s broadcast station more than usual, Stern signed the deal to take his act to federally unregulated satellite radio. With the debut of his Sirius show in 2006, Stern stopped making controversy, and by 2011, he was deigned sufficiently radioactive-free to be tapped as a judge on NBC’s family-friendly variety series.
7. The FCC’s mind. To be accurate, it’s the mind of former FCC chair Michael Powell that’s at issue here. In 2004, Powell made a federal case, literally, out of the halftime flash. “Clearly somebody had knowledge of it,” he said in ordering an FCC probe. “Clearly it was something that was planned by someone.” Under Powell, the FCC effectively fined CBS $550,000. A decade later, Powell, who now heads the cable industry’s chief lobbying group, downplayed the incident to ESPN the Magazine. “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,” Powell said.
8. The government’s tolerance for wardrobe malfunctions. CBS successfully appealed its FCC Super Bowl fine, but it was able to do so, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts wrote in 2012, because the FCC previously didn’t have a rule against flashing. “It is now clear that the brevity of an indecent broadcast … cannot immunize it from FCC censure,” Roberts said. “Any future ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ will not be protected on the ground relied on by the court below.”
Things That Didn’t Change
1. F-bombs, if not bared breasts, still happen on live TV. People are people, even if they are subject to FCC censure. They cuss (as Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco did after his team’s win at last year’s Super Bowl). They show a little too much skin on the red carpet and at the awards-show podium (see: Robin Wright’s reveal at the most recent Golden Globes). They, meaning Seth MacFarlane, sing a song called “We Saw Your Boobs” at the Oscars.
2. Live TV is still (pretty much) live. While delays of a few seconds are commonplace now (and were becoming so before the 2004 Super Bowl flash, thanks to Bono’s F-bomb at the 2003 Globes), delays of five minutes, as was instituted at the Grammys held just days after the Jackson-Timberlake Super Bowl show, are not. Which is why F-bombs, if not bared breasts, still happen on live TV.
3. MTV is still (very much) MTV. A decade ago, the network was in damage-control mode, and shuttling some of its videos, a la Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” to late-night slots. The modesty was short-lived. Last summer, it was home to Miley Cyrus’s twerking routine with Robin Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Being a cable network, MTV is not subject to FCC censure.)
5. Generation X’s plight. Prior to the Jackson breast incident, Gen X-aged entertainers, from members of New Kids on the Block to Shania Twain, were regularly tapped to be Super Bowl halftime performers. After the Jackson breast incident, the NFL turned to older artists who didn’t wear bustiers: McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, for example. (True, Madonna got the gig in 2012, but she was out of her bustier stage by then.) In short, same old, same old: Gen X got squeezed out, and the baby boomers and/or their music got the spotlight. When the halftime show has gone younger in recent years, it’s largely gone millennial young (Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, etc.) On Sunday, the Red Hot Chili Peppers will share the stage with Mars and represent for Gen X, so there’s that.
Changed, but Maybe Not for the Reason You Think It Changed
1. Jackson’s career. In the years since taking the halftime stage at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, Jackson has sold millions of albums, including 2008′s No. 1-charting “Discipline,” and starred in a No. 1-opening box-office hit, “Why Did I Get Married?” But overall, no, a decade after the controversy, she’s neither moving the needle nor the merchandise as she used to. So, yes, her career has changed. But has it changed because of the Super Bowl?
Timberlake himself once said that he only “probably got 10 percent of the blame” for the incident, and that America is “harsher” on women and people of color. But Kid Rock, who is a white male, like Timberlake, has also seen his star cool since sharing the halftime billing with Jackson, and Kid Rock had nothing to do with the ripping of any bustiers. Ditto for Sean Combs (then P. Diddy) and Nelly, likewise on the 2004 Super Bowl performance lineup card. Pop acts, in general, do not age well. Timberlake is the exception. At 33, Timberlake is also the only artist who appeared on the halftime show that year who’s still well under 40. (Nelly will turn 40 in November; the rest are already on the other side, and, at the same time, are a decade or two too young to be the all-new Paul McCartneys.) All things considered, it could be argued that Jackson’s career, though changed, has aged as well as could be expected.