If our children or our children’s children ever dig up a time capsule from the beginning of the new millennium, they will find that in February 2004, America collectively lost its damn mind. Here’s what they’ll see: Janet Jackson on a stage in the middle of Houston’s Reliant Stadium, wearing a leather kilt and bustier, surrounded by dancers in corsets and bikini tops and bowler hats and helmets, looking like a ragtag steampunk army of cabaret chorus girls and Highlander extras and BDSM enthusiasts. They’re grinding their hips, Janet is caressing her corseted torso and 71,000 Super Bowl spectators are screaming themselves hoarse for the beatboxing of a 23-year-old white boy. Justin Timberlake emerges from an elevated platform beneath the stage in too-big khakis and a too-big jacket — pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! pfff-ti-pff-ti-chk! — and a brass band blasts him into “Rock Your Body,” a song from his first solo album. He and Janet are romping across the stage, pausing their cat-and-mouse game every so often to work her booty into his hips.
The common assumption by the media and by the public was that the flash of nudity was an attention-grabbing publicity ploy; the question was by whom. Some signs seemed to point to MTV. Before the show, a few of the producers had entertained themselves by mock-ripping their clothes off at Timberlake’s final line. And in rehearsals, they had tried a move where Timberlake tore off Jackson’s kilt. Then there was an article on MTV’s website beforehand in which Jackson’s choreographer promised “shocking moments.”
To this day, everyone involved maintains the conspiracists have it wrong. The mock-ripping? That was their natural response to Timberlake’s closing lyric — “better have you naked by the end of this song” — not in anticipation of anything he might do. The tearing off of the kilt? It didn’t look good, so members of the production team say they killed it and never discussed another option. The article? The site was later updated with an editor’s note: “At the time of this report, MTV thought that the ‘shock’ was going to be the as-yet-unannounced appearance of Justin Timberlake as part of Janet’s performance. Janet Jackson’s subsequent performance was not what had been rehearsed, discussed or agreed to with MTV.”
In an on-camera apology after the event, Jackson backed up the producers, insisting she decided on the big reveal after the final rehearsal, without the knowledge of anyone at MTV. Timberlake was meant to pull off a piece of the costume, she later explained, but it was supposed to reveal only a lacy red undergarment; unfortunately, as it played out, that undergarment came off in Timberlake’s hand too. Timberlake also apologized but never offered his own version of events other than to coin the term “wardrobe malfunction.”
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