It's been five days. Have we, as a nation, recovered from the sight of not one but both of Adam Levine's nipples?
Chances are most of us have forgotten about it. News cycles aren't what they used to be. Neither are Super Bowl halftime performances. Levine's band, Maroon 5, which starred in Sunday's show, did achieve two remarkable things during their 13 minutes on the biggest stage in entertainment. First was delivering a set so flaccid and mayonnaise-flavored it made 2018 headliner Justin Timberlake look like Prince. Second, they exposed (pardon the pun) an infuriating double standard.
This year's Super Bowl marked the 15th anniversary of what became known as "Nipplegate," when the viewing public was traumatized by seeing Janet Jackson's exposed breast for half a second. Jackson was performing during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, which also included Timberlake, who ripped a piece of Jackson's top during a choreographed dance and ... well, maybe you remember. "Wardrobe malfunction" is the term everyone settled on, and someday we'll tell our grandchildren where we were when it happened.
The Super Bowl halftime show has to be a lousy gig. It’s logistically daunting, and the entire world is waiting for something to go wrong. While a few artists — Beyonce, Prince, Madonna, U2 — have done memorable work in that space, everyone else seems content to get through it without attracting too much ridicule.
Maroon 5, the sort of chart-topping pop act whose singles feel more like focus-grouped brand extensions than creative works, fell into the latter category. The band accepted the gig, to widespread cultural indifference, after Rihanna, Cardi B and Jay-Z had reportedly turned it down to protest the NFL's treatment of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who became a controversial figure for refusing to stand during the National Anthem.
During Maroon 5's show, the only suspense involved which article of clothing Levine intended to remove when. He started with a jacket, which he removed to reveal another jacket and — following shoehorned-in cameos by rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi — stripped down to a tank top. Finally, as if to demonstrate Maroon 5's incapability of offending anyone whatsoever, he ditched the shirt to reveal the tapestry of tattoos covering his torso.
The best reaction I saw came from ESPN+ host Katie Nolan, who wrote on Twitter: "Super Bowl halftime nipple rules seem inconsistent."
Do they ever. Janet Jackson — who, again, exposed less of her body for less time, and not intentionally — spent years enduring a backlash that never fully subsided, receiving most of the blame and becoming a lightning rod for pearl-clutching moralists. While Timberlake went on to enjoy a decade of hits and critical accolades, Jackson saw diminished commercial returns and an effective blacklisting despite no significant dip in the quality of her music.
Much of that was because of Les Moonves, then the CEO of CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl the year of Nipplegate. The Huffington Post reported in 2018 that Moonves — eventually ousted following extensive sexual harassment allegations — was obsessed with sabotaging Jackson’s career. He dropped her from that year’s Grammy Awards broadcast and ordered all CBS-affiliated media, including MTV, VH1 and radio stations nationwide, to stop playing her songs and videos.
Jackson kept recording and performing anyway, and did solid work. If you need to spice up an evening, the single “No Sleeep” from her 2015 “Unbreakable” record is sexier than anything Maroon 5 or Timberlake have released in recent years, if not ever.
When Timberlake performed at the 2018 Super Bowl, a movement called #JusticeForJanet formed as a backlash to her decade-and-a-half of mistreatment. She deserved better, and still does.
This year, Jackson gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and celebrates the 30th anniversary of her landmark “Rhythm Nation” album. It would have been a great time to pay her back by having her headline the halftime show. She could outperform Maroon 5 with her eyes closed, but it's a gig she probably would have been wise enough to decline.
Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.