A singular event occurred during the halftime show of the Super Bowl on February 1, 2004. While performing a duet with Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake briefly exposed one of her breasts in what was later described as a “wardrobe malfunction.” The performance was airing live all around the world—an estimated 143.6 million people tuned in for all or some of the broadcast —and coincided with the rise of digital video recording and internet technology, as well as a national discussion about technology’s impact on children. As such, “Nipplegate” became one of the most-viewed, most-searched-for, and most-talked-about moments in the history of the internet.
Jackson and Timberlake, along with Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock, performed a lavishly-produced medley of songs. Halftime shows were traditionally conservative affairs, featuring marching bands and family-friendly music, but this changed in the 1990s. Jackson’s brother, the iconic pop star Michael Jackson, had played the halftime show in 1993, proving to the NFL and television executives that high-powered pop performances could dramatically increase ratings and ad revenue.
During the final song, “Rock Your Body,” Timberlake and Jackson danced suggestively. They claimed that the show was supposed to culminate in Timberlake ripping off Jackson’s bodice to reveal her red lace bra as he sang the final line, which included the lyric, “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song.” Instead, the bra fell away with the rest of the bustier, and the prophecy of the lyrics was fulfilled.
Jackson immediately moved to cover herself up, and CBS immediately cut away; her breast was exposed on television for less than a second. Many speculated, and continue to assert, that either Timberlake, Timberlake and Jackson acting together, or the event’s producers themselves had exposed her breast on purpose as a publicity stunt.
The Federal Communications Commission received 540,000 complaints about the incident, 65,000 of which came from a single organization, the Parents Television Council. Coming as it did at a time when the right-wing “family values” movement was still a major presence in American culture, and amid a growing paranoia that the internet and mass media were exposing children to inappropriate content, “Nipplegate” caused a sensation that lasted months. Viacom, CBS’ parent company, received the maximum fine the FCC could issue for such offenses, and paid $3.5 million to settle indecency complaints about the broadcast.