Malfunction: NYT Documentary Re-examines 2004 Superbowl Controversy

It was one of the most talked-about incidents of the naughties. Middle America was shocked by the onstage actions of Janet Jackson during the halftime show at the Superbowl. It even featured in montages of the most important moments of the decade. But a new documentary researched and produced by the New York Times is looking at this event through a new lens.

Credit: USA Today

This documentary takes you behind the scenes of that infamous night in 2004 – and recontextualises it. Timberlake was a rising solo star, having left his boyband roots behind him. After winning a Grammy for Justified, the way was paved for him to perform at the Superbowl – a big deal in its own right – but with none other than Janet Jackson, who at the time was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.

During the closing lines of the single Rock Your Body, Timberlake reached across Jackson and tore her corset, exposing her right breast and nipple covering. Jackson looked down at the torn piece of clothing, shocked. The stadium went black. And for one of the two singers, their lives would be forever changed.

In the documentary, we’re given a clearer picture of the impact this event had on Janet Jackson’s career. Despite enjoying critical and commercial success in the lead up to the incident, the documentary examines the vilification Jackson suffered due to a toxic, misogynistic culture. It then compares this to Timberlake’s ongoing success and points out the gigantic double standard at play here.

A Long Overdue Reckoning

Credit: The Guardian

For proof of this double standard, it’s simply a matter of looking at where the two singers respective careers went after 2004. Timberlake became one of the biggest stars of the noughties, with his album FutureSex/LoveSounds one of the most popular releases of the decade. Add onto that a successful foray into acting, appearing in films like Friends with Benefits, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Social Network.

Compare this success to Janet Jackson post-2004, and a very different picture is painted. She faced an unimaginable backlash in the media and chose to keep a low profile in the wake of this negativity. Her music never reached the same heights, and most tellingly perhaps is the fact she was never asked back to perform at the Superbowl – but Timberlake was, in 2018.

The new 10-episode docuseries delves into the origins of that fateful performance’s choreography. It posits the idea that the only three people who really know what went on are Jackson, Timberlake, and her costume designer. It then explores whether or not the malfunction was planned for (something that has been suggested before when discussing this incident) or consented to. Popular opinion suggests that it wasn’t. As Jackson’s brother Tito frankly puts it: “Janet’s breast didn’t just jump out.”

Facing the Consequences

Between this and the revelations about the nature of his romantic relationship with Britney Spears that came to light in the documentary Framing Britney Spears, Timberlake has faced a huge backlash of his own as we examine these events in the context of the current climate.

Addressing this, he wrote: “I am deeply sorry for the times 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.” Hopefully, this documentary will change some minds, and vindicate Jackson somewhat from her current status as something of a pariah.

Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson is not currently available for streaming in Australia. FIB will review it when it becomes available.