I’ve wanted to write about Justin Timberlake performing at the upcoming Super Bowl LII halftime show for a while. I held off at first because he wasn’t confirmed but then, after the news came out, because I frankly wasn’t really sure what to say.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Timberlake and his music since I was old enough to understand cultural appropriation, white privilege and the events of the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime show with Janet Jackson in 2004 (you know where this is going). I appreciate Timberlake as a talented singer, dancer and performer. I still have a few N*SYNC and JT songs that I like (although due to recent events they no longer live on any of my Spotify playlists); during my “not woke” days, I was one of those who would say things like “Justin Timberlake is a Black dude in a white boy’s body” and “He’s so invited to the cookout.” But no, he can never be invited to the cookout, no matter how much he makes women swoon by performing moves and musical styles that were popularized by Jackson’s brother, the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
I could write about how Timberlake is a privileged white man who capitalized on Black culture to build his career after years as the frontman of a squeaky clean boy band — which, yes, also did its share of cultural appropriation. I could share my thoughts about how Jackson should be far more iconic than Beyoncé but instead has seen her status as a legend tarnished. As BET noted last April, she has become “pop music’s most disrespected icon.”
But these ideas aren’t new; they are just my feelings and opinions. Despite my fervent belief in their truth, they are also subjective and can be contested. Instead, I’ll share a few completely concrete, objective facts and figures related to the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show and its immediate aftermath:
Nine-sixteenths of a second: that’s the fraction of time during which Jackson’s breast was bared for all the world to see. By contrast, Kid Rock, another halftime performer that year, paraded around in an American flag repurposed as a poncho for more than two minutes. Aside from criticism from then-Democratic Senator Zell Miller and the FCC receiving complaints that Rock was desecrating the flag, not much else was heard about that incident. It has largely been forgotten in the pantheon of NFL controversies.
One million and two thousand: that’s the number of copies that Jackson’s album Damita Jo sold in the US. Damita Jo was released months after the Super Bowl incident, and while it debuted at number two and eventually went platinum several times, it remained a disappointment when compared to albums like Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and even All For You, which Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss described as “lackluster.” Also according to Rolling Stone, the sluggish sales of Damita Jo were due in no small part to a Viacom-issued blacklist of Jackson’s music and videos on MTV, VH1 and other radio stations and subsidiaries. Since the incident, none of Jackson’s albums have cracked the one-million-unit mark.
Conversely, mere days after that same Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake scored two Grammy awards and was invited to the ceremony; Jackson’s invite was rescinded. His sophomore album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, released in 2006, sold more than four million copies in the US. His next album, The 20/20 Experience, sold more than one million copies and topped the charts in several countries. And, again, Timberlake has been invited back to perform at this year’s Super Bowl. Because while poetic justice is a nice concept, it’s an unreliable one.
You know what they say, numbers don’t lie.
Anyone with eyes and a heart should be able to see the misogynoir that plagues Jackson’s treatment in the aftermath of the incident now widely referred to as “Nipplegate.” Half-hearted concessions from such FCC executives as its former chairman, Michael Powell, and even Timberlake himself that Jackson was unduly castigated for her minimal role in the scandal are far too little, too late. The metrics above show unequivocal evidence that Jackson was, and continues to be, culturally and professionally shafted. Nearly a decade and a half after the incident, her very public fall from grace remains in the public zeitgeist, while Timberlake now is seemingly being afforded the ultimate redemption for his role in the same performance.
I won’t fool myself into thinking that Jackson hurts for the world’s approval — or wants an apology from Viacom, CBS, MTV or the NFL. She appears to be doing just fine, continuing her “State of the World” Tour (which I saw live) and being a new mother. She still has a legacy that reflects the title of her 2015 album: Unbreakable. But the NFL is more and more proving itself to be an institution that cares nothing about the Black bodies on which it capitalizes, both on and off the field.
A sincere apology to Jackson would be a step in the right direction and a move towards righting a wrong that should never have occurred. I’m not a football fan; I can’t recite stats; I only know a few players’ names. But I have kept up enough to know that anti-Blackness and white privilege have been at the forefront of this football season, and in our political climate and in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Timberlake headlining the Super Bowl reminds us that this white man endured none of the punishments nor any of the public shaming that this Black woman was subject to.
Another lowlight in a very problematic year.