Jackson, then 38, was performing alongside 23-year-old Timberlake in the prestigious half-time slot in front of a packed stadium and millions of TV viewers watching live at home. A serious mishap occurred during their dance routine, when Timberlake accidentally caught Jackson’s top, momentarily exposing her right breast.
Although the incident only lasted half-a-second, it was broadcast to around 150 million viewers. The overwhelming backlash led to adverse publicity for Jackson, and she suffered reduced airplay and a huge drop in record sales, despite being the victim of an accidental mishap.
Finally, after 18 years, she has told the media it’s time to move on, forget the incident and perhaps more importantly, to forgive Timberlake, who has since become her good friend.
When Janet Jackson met Justin Timberlake, both were well-established stars in their own right. Jackson’s singing success began as an eight-year-old member of the famous showbusiness family, when she appeared in the TV variety series, The Jacksons, in 1976.
After appearing in other network TV shows in the 1970s and early ’80s, she signed a record deal with A&M Records in 1982. Her studio albums, Control in 1986 and Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989, turned her into a respected contemporary pop star.
Timberlake had also been a child star in the 1980s, appearing on TV shows including Star Search. He rose to prominence in the late 1990s as a lead vocalist in one of the best-selling boy bands of all time, NSYNC, before his first successful solo album in 2002.
The pair first met when NSYNC opened for Jackson’s tour in 1998.
On the fateful day of the mega-mishap, 1st February 2004, the two pop legends were more than ready for their slick half-time show. It was being broadcast live from the stadium at Houston, Texas, on the CBS TV network. The US National Football League had chosen Jackson as the headline performer at the event.
All was going well, until Timberlake was singing the final lines of their performance. During a raunchy dance routine, he accidentally pulled off part of Jackson’s low-cut costume. The shocked star quickly covered her modesty, but neither of them could have been prepared for what followed.
Although the CBS live broadcast immediately cut away to a wide-angled shot of the stage and then an aerial view of Reliant Stadium, the damage had been done.
Jackson found her career took a nosedive; her invitation to appear at the 46th Grammy Awards the following week was abruptly withdrawn. She was blacklisted by the entertainment industry, with her music being removed from radio stations and television channels.
Her eighth studio album, Damita Jo, was released in March 2004, but the critics were still focusing on the Superbowl incident, rather than her music. The album was blacklisted from radio and TV music channels, leading to poorer than anticipated sales.
Bizarrely, Timberlake’s career was helped by the incident and the backlash was almost all directed at Jackson. He attended the 2004 Grammy Awards and received the awards for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for Cry Me a River, while Justified won Best Pop Vocal Album. He issued an apology onstage when accepting the first of his awards.
It was reported that Jackson’s costume had been in two layers, with a tight-fitting rubber bustier layered on top of a red lace bra-style top. Timberlake was supposed to pull away the top layer to fit in with the song lyrics. However, due to what was described as a “wardrobe malfunction”, the whole top came away in his hand. He later said, publicly, he was “sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction”.
Unfounded accusations followed, suggesting that the whole thing had been a deliberate publicity stunt, which outraged the American public and industry leaders. Both Jackson and Timberlake denied wholeheartedly the accusations.
Did Janet and Justin speak again?
Jackson rarely spoke publicly about what had happened in the ensuing years. However, she broke her silence in January 2022 in her candid new documentary, entitled “Janet”. She claimed the whole thing was “blown way out of proportion” and reiterated, “Of course, it was an accident.”
Jackson’s fans had blamed Timberlake and the issue had never really gone away in the 18 years since it happened. However, Jackson revealed she and Timberlake had become friends and she said in an interview, “Everyone is looking for someone to blame and that’s got to stop.” She says she and Timberlake “will always be very good friends” and that they have “moved on”. She urged listeners, “It’s time for everyone else to do the same.”
Jackson also revealed Timberlake had invited her to perform on stage with him at the 2018 Superbowl. She admitted to feeling tempted and said it would have been “nice to be able to perform”. However, on the flip side, she feared it would be “dredging up the past”, so she declined.
While the resulting publicity from the mishap following their first meeting wasn’t something anyone could have foreseen, it doesn’t seem to have damaged their careers long term. Both Jackson and Timberlake remain major stars at the peak of their careers.
Jackson’s accolades include 11 Billboard Music Awards, 11 American Music Awards, five Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Timberlake has won ten Grammy Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards, four Primetime Emmy Awards, three Brit Awards and the Contemporary Icon Award from the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
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