It was Feb. 1, 2004, a fine day for a Super Bowl.
The Carolina Panthers, quarterbacked by someone long since retired, were taking on vampire Tom Brady's New England Patriots in Houston, and the MTV-produced halftime show featured a slew of very of-the-moment music acts, including Jessica Simpson, Kid Rock, P. Diddy and Nelly. But you don't remember anyone being on that stage other than Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, do you?
Because after Jackson performed her classic "Rhythm Nation," Timberlake joined her for a rendition of his "Rock Your Body." Which ended, shockingly, with him grabbing at her bustier and tearing the fabric over one cup, briefly exposing her right nipple—barely, as it was camouflaged by a sunburst nipple shield, and most living rooms weren't yet anchored by an HD flat screen.
But as it turned out, barely wasn't enough for some. Nor was the concept of brief—nine-sixteenths of a second, in fact, as the world's top scientists specializing in pop culture combustion would soon calculate.
That blink-and-you-missed-it, pre-Twitter moment, the cultural climate it occurred in and its endlessly unfortunate aftermath are the subject of The New York Times Presents' latest episode, Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson.
Having most recently taken on the plight of Britney Spears (also, coincidentally, featuring Timberlake in not his best light), the Times' FX/Hulu documentary series again seeks to jog our jaded memories about an incident that so many people got wrong in the moment, including fellow celebrities, the first lady of the United States and countless members of the media who clucked over Jackson's "R-rated Super Bowl stunt" and came up with headlines like "Breast in Show."
"Many are are asking, what happened to the line that shouldn't be crossed?" Katie Couric said at the time, reporting on the concerns of the "many" on Today.
And in the heated, puritanical aftermath of (still shaking our heads) "Nipplegate," there was no question as to who would face the harshest consequences: The Black female pop superstar who, a decade prior, had dared to unapologetically embrace her sexuality, show off her body and declare that this was who she is and if you didn't like it... oh, well.
Malfunction's probe of the titular incident and the subsequent pearl-clutching serves as another harsh reminder that no female artist, no matter how talented or influential, has ever been too revered not to get dumped on when it suits an agenda. But the show will also make you want to crank up Designs of a Decade and dance for the duration in defiance of the B.S. that Jackson was put through.
Here are all of the punches to the gut that our sense of what's right and fair took while we were watching:
After 2004, MTV never again produced a Super Bowl Halftime Show and director of NFL special events Jim Steeg, a veteran of 26 Super Bowls, resigned that August. Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in 2006 that Timberlake had reached out but she'd yet to speak to him since the debacle.
"Friendship is very important to me, and certain things you just don't do to friends," she said. "In my own time, I'll give him a call."
Timberlake returned the Super Bowl Halftime Show as a headliner in 2018, the announcement prompting much speculation (and more than a few demands) that Jackson might join him as a not-so-surprise guest. Full circle, water under the bridge, all's well that ends well, redemption.
Months ahead of time, it was clear that Jackson would not be doing the show, sources close to her saying she wished him well but it wasn't in the cards. And especially after watching this, reliving the proverbial bus rolling right over her, we can't blame her for not wanting any piece of that.
In February, however, in response to renewed criticism of his early-'00s behavior resurfaced by The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, Timberlake apologized both to his ex and Jackson.
"I am deeply sorry for the time in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right. I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism," the 40-year-old father of two stated on social media. "I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed. I also feel compelled to respond, in part, because everyone involved deserves better and most importantly, because this is a larger conversation that I whole heartedly want to be part of and grow from."
He recognized that his apology didn't undo the sins of the past, but he vowed to "do better."
Otherwise, she stayed out of the fray and let Timberlake handle this one on his own.
Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson premieres Friday, Nov. 19, at 10 p.m. on FX and Hulu.