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BILLBOARD: When Janet Jackson’s Breast Changed America

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With their NFC Championship victory, the Carolina Panthers secured themselves a slot in Super Bowl 50. Up against the Denver Broncos, this will give them a shot to turn around their 2004 Super Bowl loss against the New England Patriots. Even though the Panthers played the Super Bowl just 12 years ago, it seems a great number of people have forgotten. If you Google “Panthers Super Bowl,” the fourth non-news result is an article titled “Have the Panthers Ever Been to the Super Bowl?”

Why the collective short-term memory loss for something that happened within most NFL viewers’ lifetimes? The answer is simple: Wardrobe malfunction. The last time the Panthers played the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson‘s breast emerged and changed America.

After Super Bowl XXXVIII, everyone immediately forgot about the Panthers’ loss in order to fixate on Jackson’s clothing loss during the halftime show. During a gyration-heavy duet with newly solo Justin Timberlake on his hit “Rock Your Body,” her right breast burst out. The camera immediately cut away and both performers acted surprised, but the timing — it happened when he sang “gonna have you nekkid by the end of this song” — and the presence of a nipple shield on her breast indicated the alleged “wardrobe malfunction” was actually a pre-planned publicity stunt.

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01) Janet performing at the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show 02) Leaving the stage after ‘Nipplegate’.

In that sense, it achieved its goal. That nip slip was all anyone can remember from that Super Bowl halftime show (seriously, can you name one other performer who took the stage with Jackson other than JT? For the record, Jessica Simpson, Kid Rock, Nelly and P. Diddy also performed.)

There’s good reason the boob-seen-round-the-world is the best-remembered part of 2004’s Super Bowl. It’s a pop culture moment that effected more real-world change in America than any other live performance in the last two decades.

Let’s run through the different ways in which Nipplegate changed things — some of it’s good, and plenty of it’s bad.

Damage to Janet Jackson’s Career

The saddest, most despicable part of the whole incident is what happened to Janet Jackson. While Timberlake was part of the wardrobe malfunction, his career emerged unscathed (actually, it’s only gotten bigger since then). Jackson’s career, however, took a swift downturn. The Super Bowl aired on CBS, and following the controversy, the network rescinded its invitation to Jackson to participate in a Grammys tribute to Luther Vandross. Popular wisdom has it that Jackson was blacklisted by radio and MTV (who produced the halftime show and whose parent company, Viacom, also owned CBS) following the incident, and although that’s never been definitively confirmed, it’s true that her songs and videos did seem comparatively absent from airwaves following the game.

Public Complaints & Major Court Battle

The Federal Communications Commission received more than half a million complaints following the Super Bowl, with a few Americans even attempting to file lawsuits to express their moral outrage. The FCC opened an official investigation into the incident and ended up fining CBS for $550,000, an amount the network fought in court until 2012, when the case finally died with the fine voided. Regardless, Viacom paid a reported $3.5 million over the sight of a partially exposed breast on TV for a second.

It Helped Create YouTube

When news of Nipplegate hit, anyone under the age of 25 immediately turned to the Internet to see what exactly happened (or watch it for the first time). Only back then, there wasn’t a go-to repository for videos online. It was this realization — that there was a video everyone wanted to see but was having a hard time finding — that lead YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim to the idea of the user-friendly video sharing site.

It Demonstrated the Importance of Replayable TV

Back in 2004, a TV that you could pause and rewind was a new, novel function — while TiVo was popular, it was still in its infancy and not established as a must for households. The wardrobe malfunction immediately became the most replayed moment in TiVo’s history, demonstrating the benefits of replayable TV for consumers and demonstrating the enormous appetite for that function to corporations.

Implementation of the 5-Second Delay

Until Nipplegate, most live broadcasts on TV were exactly that — live. After the FCC crackdown and the public frenzy over one not-actually-naked breast, that all changed — live shows were changed to broadcast with a five-second delay so that censors could be on hand to cover up any so-called offensive language or images.

Rise of the Suffix ‘Gate’ & Term ‘Wardrobe Malfunction’

Thanks to the 2004 Super Bowl, “wardrobe malfunction” is now the go-to term for such incidents (it even entered a few dictionaries). And although the original Gate is still the most historically salient (Watergate, obviously), Nipplegate gave the suffix new life in popular culture. No longer the exclusive realm of politics, attaching “gate” to the end of a controversy became a handy, often irreverent way to describe (and simultaneously send-up) hysterical fever around a given incident.

So yes, after all that, you can be forgiven for forgetting that the Panthers played the Super Bowl just 12 years ago. Might there be a repeat when they play Super Bowl 50 next month? Of course not! After what went down in 2004, we may never see a partially visible breast during a Super Bowl again… at least during the actual game. You can pack as many partially exposed breasts as you want into the commercials and no one seems to care.

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