The redemption of the wardrobe malfunction: Janet Jackson has been owed an apology for 17 years

A new documentary about Jackson’s infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’ shouldn’t just right a pop culture wrong, but remind us all of the star’s incredible pop legacy, writes Adam White

Friday 19 November 2021 14:44
<p>Janet Jackson in concert in 1991</p>

Janet Jackson in concert in 1991

Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction was a perfect storm of American derangement. The star’s breast – concealed by a nipple shield, it should be said – popped out mid-performance at the 2004 Super Bowl, and every ingrained cultural absurdity collided at once: the sexualisation of women’s bodies; the psychic right-wing ownership of American sports; the hyper-policing of Black women in the public eye; the power and influence afforded to white people co-opting Black spaces. Justin Timberlake – the man who pulled open Jackson’s costume and feigned ignorance in the aftermath – fled the scene, career intact. Jackson, her breast identified as a valuable distraction from the fledgling Iraq war, was ruined.

Seventeen years, a widespread blacklisting and one $550,000 (£409,000) indecency fine to broadcaster CBS later – the fine was ultimately voided – and Jackson finally has her redemption. Tonight (19 November), US cable channel FX will premiere the New York Times-produced documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson. It arrives at an appropriate time. Earlier this year, FX and The New York Times turbo-charged the freedom of Britney Spears via a documentary about her conservatorship – Timberlake, an accessory in Spears’s mid-Noughties media vilification, featured prominently in that one, too. We’re also in the middle of an industrial complex of films and documentaries about wronged women from pop culture past, from Paris Hilton and Princess Diana to Brittany Murphy and Monica Lewinsky.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of respect for her music importance in general, the injustice of Jackson’s Super Bowl treatment has largely flown under the radar. While both Jackson and Timberlake have maintained that the incident was accidental – the performance was always going to have a reveal timed to Timberlake singing about having Jackson “naked by the end” of their duet, but of Jackson’s red bra, not what was underneath it – the annihilation of Jackson’s career in the aftermath far outweighs any of her apparent misdeeds.

Viacom ordered complete Jackson erasure from their broadcasters – which included MTV, CBS and a number of powerful US radio stations – while various scheduled performances were cancelled and she was banned from attending awards shows. Jackson further lost movie roles and was reportedly asked to personally apologise to Viacom CEO Les Moonves if she wanted any chance of a comeback. Probably recognising how ludicrous the whole thing was, Jackson declined. Still, the incident came to define her music career. Just a few years earlier, she was one of the most successful pop stars in the world.

There is a debate to be had about the usefulness of documentaries like Malfunction, which allow viewers of today to nod furiously and self-satisfyingly at outrageous pop culture history. For Jackson, though, Malfunction also amplifies a career reappraisal up to now confined to the internet. Every Super Bowl Sunday, Jackson seems to trend on Twitter. Millions of people – and many of them Black women – use the February day not to discuss the annual game, but to celebrate the woman once felled by it.

If there is one element missing from this current wave of pop culture documentaries, it’s celebration of what these stars were so good at. We’ve seen a lot of archive footage of Britney being asked inappropriate questions by lecherous journalists, but little of her phenomenally great music or unparalleled stage presence. Likewise, a recent Brittany Murphy documentary for HBO Max barely skimmed the surface of her acting, instead deciding to leer and speculate about her death. Malfunction should, at the very least, compel audiences to dig into the treasure trove of music Jackson has to her name.

The seconds before Jackson and Timberlake’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at the 2004 Super Bowl

A true transformer, Jackson has never rested in any particular pop mode. The eight singles from her seminal 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814 are proof of this: she glides from the defiant industrial pop of the title track to the blissful buoyancy of “Escapade”, before crashing into the hard rock fury of “Black Cat”. Control, released in 1984 and featuring singles like “What Have You Done for Me Lately”, is one of pop’s great emancipation records, burning with youthful rebellion and confidence. The Velvet Rope, her 1997 album, is a candid, bruised portrait of depression, grief and sexual experimentation. It’s a record that deserves to be spoken of alongside Nineties classics such as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. And even at her least creatively inspired – notably the vaguely faceless post-Super Bowl records 20 YO and Discipline – Jackson deploys bangers with ease. And that’s before mentioning the fact that she was doing all of this in the shadow of the biggest pop star to have ever lived, her older brother Michael. That she exists so spectacularly as a separate entity from him is a credit to her work and drive.

Malfunction probably won’t make the same waves as the first Britney documentary, but it would be wonderful if it had elements of the same effect. For 17 years, Jackson has been defined by nine-sixteenths of a second of televised boob. Just as Britney was freed from her conservatorship, let’s give Jackson freedom from her Super Bowl performance, too.

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