February 1, 2004, is a date that will live in skinfamy.
As more than 144 million viewers eyeballed the big, climactic moment of the biggest halftime show of the biggest sports championship game of all time, pop star Justin Timberlake strutted up alongside his duet partner Janet Jackson and belted out, “Gonna get you naked by the end of this song!”
With that, Timberlake tore open the front of Jackson’s leather bustier and out popped her right breast, naked except for a shield-like areola adornment that only served to highlight her visible nipple.
Less than one second later, big game broadcaster CBS cut to a distant overhead shot of the stadium, then went to a commercial. Nonetheless, the then-prominent Iraq War term “shock and awe” may as well have been coined to describe the impact of the incident that would forever after be known as “nipplegate.”
Unclothed female nipples, of course, are forbidden on United States broadcast television. So while millions reeled at the sight of one of music’s all-time most popular superstars being exposed, no small number of them took serious offense. Members of that latter group also immediately took action.
Outraged viewers bombarded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with a total of 544,000 complaints, albeit many of them via form letters and mass call-ins organized by watchdog groups such as the Parents Television Council. Congress members on both sides of the aisle bombastically condemned the display.
MTV, the network that produced the halftime spectacular, played innocent and added a new and permanent term to the popular lexicon: “wardrobe malfunction.”
The company said that Timberlake was supposed to pull off Jackson’s strap to reveal a red bra, but that the bra cup accidentally came off and — whoomp! — there it was.
Officially, MTV stated:
“The tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance. MTV regrets this incident occurred and we apologize to anyone who was offended by it… Our goal was to produce an entertaining stage experience with a positive message about empowerment and voting. We are disappointed that this message has been overshadowed by the unfortunate incident.”
CBS also maintained its innocence, stating that its reps had been at every rehearsal and they witnessed no such shenanigans in progress.
The NFL played the flabbergasted card, stating: “We were extremely disappointed by elements of the MTV-produced Halftime show. They were totally inconsistent with assurances our office was given about the show. It’s unlikely that MTV will produce another … halftime.”
America seemed to talk about little else in the days ahead. Late-night comedians joked up a storm. Celebrity-nudity website Mr. Skin experienced what remains the single biggest day for traffic in the company’s 18-year existence.
When Jawed Karim, a software programmer at PayPal, and his friends wanted to create an easy way to upload and share the “nipplegate” video, they ended up inventing YouTube.
Eventually, the Guinness Book of World Records officially recognized the 2004 big game halftime show as “the most searched incident in the history of the internet.”
Janet Jackson ultimately said she herself bore full responsibility. She then went on to spoof the whole affair while hosting Saturday Night Live.
On February 8, FCC chairman Michael Powell deemed Jackson’s reveal “a classless, crass, and deplorable stunt” and launched an official government investigation into the incident.
Media companies panicked. Longer delays were added to live broadcasts. Radio giant Clear Channel dropped perennial FCC whipping boy Howard Stern. “Edgy” content disappeared from broadcast outlets. Massive new penalties, intended to financially cripple violators, were put in place for “indecent” and/or “obscene” transgressions.
After months of controversy, on September 22, the FCC ordered CBS to pay a $550,000 fine. The commission also ruled that Jackson and Timberlake plotted the moment “independently and clandestinely.” Viacom — the parent company of CBS at the time — said it was not guilty and contested the ruling.
Just before Thanksgiving, Viacom cut a deal to pay $3.5 million for outstanding FCC penalties involving numerous violations, including many filed against Howard Stern. Still, the company refused to fork over one cent regarding “nipplegate.”
Seven years of litigation followed, with the Third Circuit court ruling twice that exposure constituted “fleeting indecency” and voiding the fine against Viacom. When the Supreme Court refused to take the case, also for the second time, the matter was finally dropped.
Freedom has been ringing, properly clothed, ever since.
Main photo: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, Files)