Last week, the New York Times and FX released Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, a documentary that aimed to reframe the infamous Super Bowl 2004 performance of Jackson that brought her career to a grinding halt. The trailblazing performer and one of the biggest selling female solo artists of all time became a media pariah after her breast was exposed during the halftime concert, a moment that was forever cemented in pop culture history as the ‘wardrobe malfunction.’ This documentary, part of a recent trend of re-examinations of shamed and misunderstood women, is long overdue for Janet Jackson, although her status as the scorned villain of this event has been much discussed by cultural critics and fans online. Following the mainstreaming of the #FreeBritney movement and the recent legal move to drop the conservatorship that has kept Britney Spears restricted for over 13 years, all eyes fell upon the shared adversary of sorts between these two women: Justin Timberlake.
Timberlake already took to Twitter several months ago to offer a half-baked and non-specific apology to both Spears and Jackson, a move that few people took as sincere. We couldn’t blame anyone for thinking that Timberlake’s attempt to rectify a few wrongs seemed smarmy and belated. After all, this was the man who spent many years bragging about how he got to have sex with Spears while she faced endless scorn and slut-shaming. While Timberlake’s career flourished after the Super Bowl performance once he offered an apology for the incident, Jackson was blacklisted by former CBS President Les Moonves and singularly positioned as the fault of the entire evening. Timberlake would perform and jokingly recreate the nipple reveal on-stage while Jackson became persona non grata. He starred in SNL skits mocking Spears as the paparazzi lay on the ground to get pictures of her without underwear. Malfunction wasn’t a shocking expose of new details, and Timberlake isn’t even painted as the main villain of the piece — that honor falls to Moonves — but the reminder of his Smithers-esque groveling and Teflon-like ability to avoid accountability while women suffered inspired much ire.
November 2004 ignited a revealing kind of culture war that reverberates through to 2021. A Black woman became the lightning rod for anger over sexuality in entertainment while the white guy using Black music to become a worldwide success continued to adhere to an unfair and outdated hierarchy of power. Moreover, Timberlake slowly came to embody many discomfiting and revealing ideas of privilege and pop culture that garnered greater discourse as the years passed. Conversations over the appropriation of Black culture in music gained greater volume. We examined how the virgin-whore complex permeated art of all kinds and who such narratives benefitted.
Timberlake has always been a man of vaulting ambition, a former boyband member who wanted to mold himself into a Sinatra-style Jack of all trades, leaping effortlessly from music to film to brands and beyond. What he lacked in range, he made up for with pure drive, as well as the helpful and well-financed support of an industry that saw profitable opportunities with a handsome white guy who can dance and sing about ass. He was always trying very hard, and that endeared him to enough people to open the right doors, from his regular appearances on Saturday Night Live and skits with Jimmy Fallon to his hosting of the ESPY Awards to his relentless awards campaigning to land the song from Trolls an Oscar nomination. He was the showman who hogged the spotlight, doing anything and everything the camera demanded of him. He’s certainly not without talent. He’s got some bops, he can dance, he’s great in a few movies, and that cocky comedic charisma is easy to sell. Moreover, his set of skills were flexible to the trends.
A lot of this makes sense when you remember that Timberlake is a former child star who grew up under the one-two crushing control of Disney and Lou Perlman, the latter of whom Timberlake and his *NSYNC band members had to take to court to free themselves from a shockingly exploitative contract. This is a star who has been part of the system longer than he hasn’t, complete with the media training and awareness of the industry’s demands that all entailed. He was plucked from nothingness into stardom and that means a lot of people invested in him for the long term.
He was primed for this, and unlike his female contemporaries, he wasn’t restricted by misogynistic double standards that practically guaranteed a vicious backlash. The sexy white guy singing R&B breakup songs could be candid about sleeping with his girlfriend while she faced scorn for the same thing. He could position himself as a victim in songs while implicitly making Spears the villain then project self-awareness about this rakishness in comedy skits with Andy Samberg. When he danced provocatively in videos, he didn’t face endless think-pieces about whether or not he was setting men back fifty years.
Timberlake is not on top now, and that slide out of the A-List happened well before our collective re-examination of his issues. His last album, Man of the Woods, was released in February 2018 to a slew of mixed reviews. An attempt to reinvent himself as a folksier figure while keeping one foot firmly planted in the Timberland beats that made him famous fell flat with critics and fans alike. That album did eventually go platinum but at a snail’s pace and it didn’t work as a display of Timberlake’s scope. Instead, it seemed like a transparent chasing of trends as well as a retreat into whiteness, flannel shirts and all. Frankly, it was also extremely uncool (there’s a song on the album called ‘Sauce’ and the lead single ‘Filthy’ is maybe the worst song he’s ever released.) That same year, he worked on a Woody Allen film then attended the Golden Globes with a Time’s Up pin on his jacket. He got caught holding hands with a woman who wasn’t his wife. At a time when the face of men in pop had changed to focus on the likes of BTS, Harry Styles, and Ed Sheeran, Timberlake felt out of place, a relic of a near yet far past. When you stop being on top, the shields that cloister you suddenly stop being impenetrable.
Obviously, Timberlake will be fine. All he has to do is release a few undeniable bops and the sales will rise. He may need to tone down some of his more obnoxious showboating (jeez, remember his People cover for his wedding?) but the moral of this story has always been that certain privileged individuals will always have more opportunities than others, regardless of talent or merit. Maybe he’ll give an interview where he says things that sound right and stops smiling long enough to make it seem genuine. There’s something endlessly malleable about Timberlake and his type of celebrity that ensures a kind of professional durability. The qualities that made him so marketable before may not fly now but he’s a blank enough slate to ensure that there will be a new phase of his career. There will always be Trolls 3.
But there is one big ‘if’ in the way for him: another documentary centered on Janet Jackson will air in January on Lifetime and A&E. Unlike Malfunction, this one will feature Jackson telling her own story. Whether she dives deep into the Timberlake incident or ignores him entirely, it’ll be notable. Timberlake better hope for the latter but I don’t personally see him returning to the spotlight with a wholly clean slate.
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