Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl ‘Nipplegate’ happened 20 years ago. People are still mad

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium on February 1, 2004 in Houston, Texas.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium on February 1, 2004 in Houston, Texas.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Decades before football fans were discussing how much Taylor Swift is too much, there was another singing superstar some viewers saw more of than they wanted.

On February 1, 2004, the now-infamous “Nipplegate” incident occurred at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show as Janet Jackson performed with Justin Timberlake, crescendoing to a costume malfunction/reveal that begot the aforementioned name.

Since then, Timberlake has bore the brunt of anger from many who blame him for not supporting Jackson in the aftermath, which included her reportedly being cut from the Grammys that year along with other professional opportunities.

Writer and culture critic Gerrick Kennedy understands the anger, but believes it’s time to move on.

“I think the outrage towards Justin, at this point, not only is it unfair, but I actually believe that it continues to revictimize Janet,” he told CNN. “I think it really does this other piece that really bothers me the most, where it strips two adults from autonomy over a mistake.”

Here’s a refresher as to what happened: The pair were performing Timberlake’s hit “Rock Your Body,” and at the lyric “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song,” he was to rip Jackson’s top to reveal a red bustier beneath.

Instead, the estimated 100 million+ viewers tuned in along with the Super Bowl attendees saw a flash of Jackson’s bare breast with what appeared to be a nipple piercing. She quickly moved to cover herself, but the damage was already done.

The fallout was instant, and stunning.

Hundreds of thousands of complaints flooded into the Federal Communications Commission, CBS (which aired the Super Bowl) was fined and Jackson’s career suffered.

The pair of pop stars were accused of staging the whole thing for publicity – something both Jackson and Timberlake have denied – and Jackson was initially mocked by everyone from comedians to some fans.

While both artists apologized for the incident, Timberlake was viewed as having abandoned Jackson after the mishap, after building his career largely by appropriating Black culture when it suited him with his R&B sound.

For years #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay trended every Super Bowl Sunday, driven by her supporters who were seeking “Justice for Janet.”

When Timberlake was announced in 2017 as the halftime show headliner for Super Bowl LII, the move reignited calls for Timberlake to make it right.

Journalist Jason Lipshutz tweeted in 2017, “Justin Timberlake officially doing Super Bowl halftime. Dream setlist – “Lovestoned” – 9-minute Janet Jackson apology – “Gone” (w/ *NSYNC)”

Now, two decades after it all happened, both Timberlake and Jackson still enjoy robust fan bases, yet Timberlake is still being held to account given that recent documentaries included reexaminations of his treatment in the early aughts of both Jackson as well as his ex-girlfriend, Britney Spears.

And as with every Super Bowl, the anniversary of “Nipplegate” has not been forgotten.

One person posted on X (formerly Twitter) Wednesday, “20 years ago, justin timberlake exposed janet jackson’s breast at the 2004 superbowl halftime show. jackson was punished by viacom by blacklisting her for nearly the rest of the decade while timberlake was left unpunished.”

For their part, both Spears and Jackson appear to be on good terms with Timberlake.

Despite her fans trolling his new song “Selfish” by returning Spears’ 2011 song “Selfish” to the streaming charts, Spears recently posted her admiration of his tune on her verified Instagram account.

As for Jackson, in her 2022 Lifetime documentary, the “If” singer said she tried to advise Timberlake after the controversy.

“We talked once, and he said, ‘I don’t know if I should come out and make a statement,’” she said. “I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want any drama for you. They’re aiming all of this at me.’ So I just said if I were you, I wouldn’t say anything.”

The incident “was blown way out of proportion,” she said.

“Of course, it was an accident. That should not have happened, but everyone is looking for someone to blame, and that’s got to stop,” Jackson said in the doc. “Justin and I are very good friends, and we will always be very good friends. We spoke just a few days ago, and he and I have moved on, and it’s time for everyone else to do the same.”

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform at halftime at the Super Bowl in 2004.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform at halftime at the Super Bowl in 2004.

(Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

Hasan Ay, who is a superfan of Jackson’s, agrees with her.

“It’s not healthy to keep that much hate for so long,” said Ay who last year appeared on an episode of “The Janet Jackson Podcast.” “Justin was in his early 20s when it happened, what he did was stupid but we’ve all been there. His was just in public. She’s moved (on) and so should we.”

Kennedy said he believes the continued animosity is in part some people “trying to overcompensate for the fact that many of us decided to treat [Jackson] differently after that moment.”

“I think that so much of our revisionist history is us making ourselves feel better about how we were then,” he said. “We do it with R. Kelly, we did it with Britney Spears, obviously we’re doing it with Janet Jackson.”

“I think so much of what people are doing is they’re trying to make themselves feel better for their jokes, for their shame, for clowning Janet,” Kennedy added. “All those things that people did culturally for a very long time.”

CNN has reached out to representatives for Jackson and Timberlake for comment.

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