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Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl doc looks at the most infamous wardrobe malfunction of all

Janet Jackson and two female backup dancers perform
Janet Jackson and backup dancers perform at the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show.
(Kevin Mazur / WireImage)

“Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” a documentary that revisits the original “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, is another installment in FX’s “The New York Times Presents” series, which this year brought us “Framing Britney Spears” and “Controlling Britney Spears.”

Jackson’s fans, foes, contemporaries and newbies are all likely to glean different things from “Malfunction,” which premiered Friday. It seems impossible that its central event, the accidental baring of Jackson’s nipple for a brief, televised second in front of an audience of 150 million, happened only 14 years ago.

Here are seven takeaways from the documentary, which you can stream on Hulu and its app.

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This is neither ‘Framing’ nor ‘Controlling’

“Malfunction” is unlikely to have the cultural resonance of either of the Spears episodes, which unearthed myriad details — many of them scandalous — that had been unknown to the public. The new doc is more like a retrospective of Jackson’s career that takes a hard focus on her most humiliating moment and its ramifications. But don’t expect — as the 2004 halftime show once promised — “shocking moments.”

Who’s going to get the most from ‘Malfunction’?

Put your money on Gen Z viewers and millennials born after 1990: People who didn’t real-time witness little Janet performing with her famous singing family and acting on television and weren’t cognizant of the 2004 Super Bowl.

If 2004 sounds like ancient days, this documentary might be valuable, both for the scandal part and the part where it revisits the national moral angst preceding it. (Hulu users should search for the series name, by the way, not the episode title or even “Janet Jackson.”)

In Screen Gab No. 14, we look back on the 2004 Super Bowl, prepare for the live-action ‘Cowboy Bebop’ and shoot the breeze with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Everyone was worried about the rappers

Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock also participated in that year’s halftime show, and a wary network and NFL were worried that they would offend a relatively square and patriotic football audience by cussing, grabbing their crotches or messing with the American flag. Lyrics were reviewed and choreography was checked.

The producer from MTV went through the show step by step with a standards-and-practices person from the network. As far as the production team knew, everything was locked down. The “shocking moment” that had been promised was Timberlake’s appearance as a surprise guest.

“I care for and respect these women and I know I failed,” Justin Timberlake wrote after drawing criticism in the wake of FX’s Britney Spears documentary.

A small group brainstormed the move that backfired

There was only one night of rehearsal on the field, that Thursday, during which the decision was made to cut a move where Timberlake ripped away Jackson’s skirt to reveal a jumpsuit. What nobody knew was that a small group — most likely Timberlake, Jackson and her choreographer and stylist — got together afterward and worked out a replacement move. And voilà, “nipple gate” was born.

Timberlake and Jackson were treated differently

Is this a surprise? Not really, just a fact. What is surprising is watching the post-gaffe treatment of Timberlake and Jackson contrasted as it played out across the media. Timberlake spoke out right away, apologized at the Grammys the next week, told CBS honcho Les Moonves in person that he was sorry, and went on his way. He got to laugh it off, telling reporters things like, “We love giving y’all something to talk about” and “Hey, man, it’s every man’s dream” to get nasty with Jackson.

“Haters gonna say it’s fake,” Justin Timberlake sang with an audible sneer to open his halftime show at Sunday’s Super Bowl LII, and it was easy to wonder who precisely he was complaining about.

Meanwhile, a mortified Jackson went incommunicado right after the performance. Her first apology didn’t come until the next day. Headlines like “Janet’s Super boob” didn’t help. She didn’t attend the Grammys the next week and refused to apologize in person to Moonves for what she considered an accident.

At 37, she was called “almost geriatric” by CNN. When she finally appeared on David Letterman’s show, he made fun of her breasts. (He also pressed her relentlessly for details about what had happened, even after she told him clearly, multiple times, that she didn’t want to talk about it. That part wasn’t in the doc.)

Jackson made the original apology video

Watching the singer’s plaintive apology video in the documentary, the blueprint she lays is clear: It’s the one followed by Morgan Wallen, Travis Scott and every celebrity in between who’s been caught in a bad situation. She was contrite and let her corporate cohorts off the hook. The only difference is that smartphones wouldn’t debut for another three years, so Jackson’s apology didn’t look 100% like a selfie.

A 17-year-old Madonna fan said it was the “best moment” of her life when the pop star brought her up on stage, yanked down the girl’s corset top and in the process momentarily exposed one of the minor’s naked breasts to a packed house.

Timberlake, meanwhile, coined the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” in his initial statement right after the football game, never knowing how ubiquitous it would prove in the years to come.

There’s a clear view of the offending moment

Yep, we’re going there. It may be tacky, but anyone who wants to see exactly what people were freaking out about back in the day will get the opportunity during this documentary. Again, it’s only for a moment, but it’s much easier to see in “Malfunction” than it was on Super Bowl Sunday in 2004.


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