Column: Remember ‘Nipplegate’? 20 years later, we all owe Janet Jackson an apology
The numbers do not lie: The Super Bowl is our most cherished TV show.
Regardless of location, matchup or storylines … regardless of protests or presidents … regardless of crimes and other off-field drama … this one game is consistently the year’s most viewed event.
Which is why it’s so important that the NFL invites Janet Jackson back.
LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.
It’s now been 20 years since our culture decided a half-second glimpse of one of Jackson’s breasts — the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the halftime show with Justin Timberlake — threatened the foundations of society.
Sounds ridiculous now, given the modeling career of former First Lady Melania Trump, but back when we were still pretending to be precious about sex, we wrung our hands about this scandal for weeks, only half-jokingly nicknaming the saga “Nipplegate,” as though it were on par with the crimes and coverup that forced Richard Nixon to resign. Talking heads condemned Jackson 24/7.
It’s been 35 years since she first sang ‘Fast Car’ at the Grammys, a ceremony crowded with closeted queer performers. The world has changed a lot. Chapman hasn’t.
In short, we overreacted.
It was an election year, and the U.S. was engaged in two religious wars: one abroad in response to 9/11 and one at home as President George W. Bush used the threat of same-sex marriage to fuel his culture war and drum up votes.
Everybody wanted to appear patriotic while the definition of patriotism got blurry. Islamophobia seemed to replace freedom of religion. Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated war hero, was mocked for his service in Vietnam. This was the era when the Dixie Chicks (as they were then known) spoke out against Bush starting a war in 2003, and for that they were threatened and nearly lost their careers.
As long as lawmakers are trying to oppress LGBTQ+ people, representation matters. Someday maybe we can afford to just say, ‘who cares?’
Less than a year later, it was Jackson’s turn.
She’s moved on and we’ve moved on, but no one ever made amends for mistreating her. The Super Bowl would be the place to do it. We need to apologize for how we treated Jackson in the aftermath of Nipplegate because we were never as pious as we pretended to be in 2004.
When we found out players for the Dallas Cowboys ran a brothel during the 1990s, we didn’t cast them out. We kept calling them “America’s Team.”
Why is he shunned? The country has changed since he protested police brutality in 2016. And the Rams could really use his help.
After learning that college football star Lawrence Phillips dragged his ex-girlfriend down three flights of stairs before smashing her head into a mailbox in 1995, the National Football League made him the sixth overall pick in 1996. The nation responded by making the Super Bowl the most-watched show once again, as if nothing unsavory had happened. Corporations paid more than $1 million for a 30-second commercial back then.
Today we’re the country with elected officials who talk about secret sex parties in Washington and display sexting photos on the House floor. We’re the country where celebrities with sex tapes visit the White House and a top candidate for president can be found liable for sexual abuse without losing support.
What happened in 2004 was nasty. Not because of Jackson but because of us.
Every other performer at Super Bowl halftime shows ends the night feeling on top of the world. Jackson ended hers hiding and in tears. She woke up to threats, the Federal Communications Commission getting involved and the sudden need to save her career. Not because she crossed a line, mind you, but because we overreacted.
Jackson has rebuilt her life from that low point. She doesn’t need the Super Bowl gig. Her 2023 tour was the highest grossing of her career, and she’s back on the road again this year. But the coronation that comes with the Super Bowl halftime show was stolen from her. There’s a simple way to make it right.
Football is more than a game to us. Even those who don’t care about the sport are affected by its culture and influence.
Taylor Swift could not have had her six-night mini residency at SoFi Stadium last summer — a run that brought in an estimated $320 million to Los Angeles County — but for the NFL. Stan Kroenke, owner of the Rams, bought the land in 2014. The league’s exploration of the area goes back to the mid-1990s. No other industry swooped in to develop that land over those years.
The Super Bowl venue this year exists only because the Raiders moved to Las Vegas and helped develop Allegiant Stadium, which not only built up the city’s sports culture but also brings in revenue from other events at the stadium that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago.
In my hometown of Detroit, Ford Field anchors a revitalized downtown. The two playoff games the Lions hosted this season brought $40 million to the city.
Football’s reach holds many communities together.
And in 2004 we took all that togetherness, all that cultural and economic inertia and vilified one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
In 2001, Jackson’s album “All for You” was her fifth consecutive to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart. She won a Grammy in 2002. When the NFL approached her about the Super Bowl, Jackson held the record for the most consecutive Top 10 hits. More than Madonna, the first female solo act for halftime; more than Beyoncé, who was second; more than Lady Gaga, who came after that.
What better way to atone for the foolishness of 2004 than to give Jackson her flowers in 2025? It would be a way to not only guarantee a terrific show but also recognize Jackson’s most important characteristic: resiliency.