David Philip / AP
The first message sent ripples through the universe of pop culture: New York Times is developing a documentary about Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl event.
That’s because the newspaper’s documentary work for FXs The New York Times presents series has been nothing short of spectacular. Especially its two films about Britney Spears – Framing by Britney Spears, released in February and Directed by Britney Spears, which aired in September – is widely credited for sparking a public outcry that culminated in a judge closing the pop star’s 13-year-old conservatory last week.
These films had such an impact, in part, because they pushed us all to rethink how Spears was treated more than a decade ago by the media, stand-up comics, the music industry, and even her friends and family in the light of modern attitudes. on misogyny and mental health.
But their new documentary, Error: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, does not have quite the same effect – partly because the film itself reveals a more complicated situation and fails to answer some basic questions.
Sorting through the Super Bowl controversy
It’s centered on the massively explosive controversy that started when surprise guest Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s costume during their performance at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show and briefly revealed one of her breasts.
The film’s thesis is summed up in its title: it claims that Jackson was unfairly and unreasonably punished for the “wardrobe mistake”, as it became known, while Timberlake in particular won Grammy awards and continued his charming show business.
The film suggests that what was hidden in mind was how sexism and racism focused criticism on Jackson – given a helping hand by former CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, who took the whole scandal personally as he had promised NFL officials, that the break would be. suitable for family entertainment.
The documentary features a former employee of The Recording Academy who says that Moonves, who resigned from CBS in 2018 after several women made allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against him, insisted that Jackson and Timberlake apologize at this year’s Grammy Awards. (Timberlake attended and apologized, but Jackson did not attend.) As the movie shows, Jackson’s eighth album Damita Jo, released a few months after the break show, fell apart in the midst of controversy when MTV and VH1 seemed to avoid playing her videos.
“It did not just happen to her … it waved and touched us all,” says Jenna Wortham, a New York Times author who talked about identifying with Jackson as a black woman. “I still do not understand how hard they came after Janet.”
This is not a new idea; Jackson fans have long complained that Timberlake paid a much lower price than she did when their stunt went wrong in front of a massive TV audience.
But the film also suggests that the idea for the stunt came from Jackson or one of her co-workers, quoting former MTV director Salli Frattini, a senior vice president at MTV who worked on the break show. Frattini says Jackson left the stadium immediately after the incident and never really explained to CBS or MTV staff on the spot what happened, though the star later issued several public apologies.
According to the film, people who worked on the break show remember seeing a sample of Timberlake pulling her skirt off and concluding that it did not work. MTV produced the break show; with a list of artists including Nelly, Kid Rock and P. Diddy, the lineup had already intimidated the NFL and the network, making it clear they did not want anything too risky to happen.
The film takes note of news reports suggesting that Jackson’s stylist may have purchased new wardrobe items, including a sunburst-shaped nipple shield, after the test. According to Frattini, Timberlake met with Jackson and her stylist privately for a few minutes before the show, and they made the show where Jackson’s naked breast and a sunburst nipple shield were exposed for a moment.
“I felt betrayed,” Frattini adds during the film. “My instincts told me there was a private conversation between wardrobe, stylist and artist where someone thought this would be a good idea. And it backfired.”
And while it’s tragic to see how much criticism and setback Jackson endured, the film never quite struggles with the idea that this was a mess that may have originated with the singer herself, at a time when everyone involved knew that sexual content on television was a hot-button issue with CBS, the NFL and the general public.
Key questions remain unanswered
One reason the word “hint” appears here is that the film lacks original interviews with some primary characters: namely, Jackson, Timberlake, and Moonves. Nor did they talk to the stylist who allegedly bought Jackson’s new wardrobe items. (The stylist, Wayne Scot Lukas, told New York Post in April, that the stunt was Timberlake’s idea, as a way to show Britney Spears, Madonna and Christina Aguilera, who had kissed on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards 2003.)
As the film notes, the day after the break, Jackson issued a written apology, which in part said: “The decision to have a costume revealed at the end of my break show was made after the final rehearsals … MTV was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it should go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone who has been offended – including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL. ” She posted a similar statement on video two days after the incident.
So who really came up with the idea? And did the stunt go as planned, or was the intention only to reveal her bra, as Timberlake and Jackson’s representatives later claimed? The film’s inability to answer some of these basic questions is definitely disappointing and deprives the program of some power.
The film documents how a deluge of media reactions focused on criticizing Jackson, sometimes referring to race and gender in dismissive, insulting ways. It also suggests another reason why Timberlake survived the controversy was because he apologized to Moonves personally and distanced himself from Jackson in his initial public statements, essentially allowing her to take the full burden of the negative publicity.
Timberlake offered a vague apology on Instagram to both Spears and Jackson in February, admitting he “took advantage of a system that tolerates misogyny and racism.” Of course, a better excuse could have been to say this in interviews to any of the New York Times documentaries about both artists. But the film also notes that Timberlake and Jackson share the same publicist, indicating that they must not be too cross with each other.
What the documentary does well is to explain how controversy over the incident – which Frattini admits happened so quickly that she did not even notice it – was driven in part by conservative activists who had called for stricter repression of television and radio content for years.
Back then, TV and radio broadcasts dominated the media landscape. The Federal Communications Commission had the power to fine television companies for presenting material it found indecent, and eventually tried to impose a fine of $ 550,000 on CBS, which was eventually thrown out of an appeals court.
In modern times, with a media landscape dominated by streaming services, cable channels and online platforms not regulated by the FCC, it feels almost strange to see a time when a glimmer of nudity provoked such a condemnation. Especially at a sporting event featuring the violence of professional football and the lightly dressed cheerleaders’ sexiness.
This may be the main reason why this documentary feels less effective than other projects that encourage us to reconsider past scandals distorted by sexism and racism; unlike Spears’ conservatory, what happened to Jackson is not going on while the film is being aired.
She survived the scandal, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has a two-night documentary of her own set to be aired on A&E and Lifetime early next year, and she promises to tell her life story in her own way. And the concern about conservative repression of media content has been wiped out by the internet.
still, Error: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson serves as an important reminder of how differently the nation saw sexual content on television less than two decades ago, triggered by a high-profile stunt that pressed the buttons of society in ways that none of the performers seemed to anticipate.