This isn’t going to harm anybody. It’s just a breast. What’s so dirty and filthy to you about it?
—Michael Musto, The News on CNBC (4 February 2004)
I think that it becomes a race thing when, in fact, we see the response of most in America in which Justin gets off scot-free and Janet has to bear 99.9% of the weight and the gravity.
—Cornel West, Tavis Smiley (17 February 2004)
It’s wet. This stage is so slippery.
—Janet Jackson, Good Morning America (31 March 2004)
Janet Jackson has an album to sell. Specifically, she has an album, Damita Jo, that garnered mixed reviews and opened at number two on the charts, behind Usher’s apparently unstoppable Confessions. She also has the little matter of the Super Bowl Halftime Show to get over. And so, good trooper that is, Janet did what she had to do. She returned to TV.
“Do you think that I’m that person / You watch on TV?” asks Jackson on the new album’s title track. It’s an understandable question, coming from this consummate product of popular culture. As every Janet Special recounts, she’s “grown up” on TV, on variety show stages with her brothers, on Good Times, on Diff’rent Strokes, and of course, on MTV. Miss Jackson’s career, much like that of her most ignominious brother, has depended on music videos, from “Black Cat” to “Rhythm Nation” to “Runaway.” Her signature is movement, deft and dynamic, whether the choreography demonstrates athletic rigor (as in “Control”) or sinuous seduction (“The Way Love Goes”). Janet Jackson’s music videos don’t confine or define her so much as they stretch possibilities, making the medium itself seem more flexible and optimistic than rigid.
And then, the Super Bowl Halftime Show, the second and a half that changed the TV landscape (take that! ER, JC Chasez, and Victoria’s Secret!). Not to mention TV’s mutually beneficial commercial relation to the Internet. Ironically and predictably, the record-breaking bijillion downloads of the “reveal” reveal only bits of an event, broken down and repeated, again and again: her strut on stage, her hair across her sweaty face, her hand raised to cover her exposed breast, the look of horror directed at her dance partner. The meanings of such shots are as fluid as the frozen moments themselves are not: Janet’s surprised or embarrassed, she’s acting or calculating, she’s victimized or unnerved, or maybe she’s something in between.
Since the Show, Jackson’s TV appearances have been few. And more power to her. She did not, famously, attend the Grammys. She did, briefly, appear in front of a grainy video camera for an apology (otherwise known as the “hostage tape”), explaining that while the reveal was her idea, it also accidentally “wrong in the end.” Voice resolute but also breathily unthreatening, she continued, “I am really sorry if I offended anyone. That was truly not my intention.” She exonerated CBS, MTV, Viacom, and everyone else, including ghetto-pass-revokee Justin Timberlake. (As Black Talent News’ Tanya Kersey puts it, “He sold Janet out to save his own skin, showing his true colors. It’s a classic case of profiting from Black culture but jumping ship when things get hot.”) The apology hardly mattered, except as it fueled more seeming “news” coverage. Was she sincere? Was she aware of the damage she’d done? Was she really sorry?
The story, increasingly loopy, continued to course through the air- and cablewaves, as an improbable range of commentators offered their insights. While Janet retreated from visibility, everyone from Geraldo and Kato Kalin to Touré and Chuck D weighed in. Some defended her against the seemingly endless onslaught, and a few more condemned her unjustified performance, presumably faux contrition, or her cynical calculations to sell Damita Jo. All had moral and political points to push: the end of Western civilization looked nigh.
Jackson’s initial counter-programming included a night at a fundraiser organized by Behind the Bench, an association of wives of NBA players, where Janet, in a low cut blouse, was honored for her charity work. Good move. From there, she turned to non-television, in preparation for the album drop. Television not being the only venue that offers itself up for rituals of available for redemption and supplication, this also seemed a wise decision. The Jackson Machine landed her on the covers of Upscale and Ebony, respectable publications that use her disarming smile and vaunted cleavage and midriff to make respectable statements, like “Janet Talks about Loving Jermaine Dupri,” or, more directly, “Janet Speaks!” (“This is the first time I’ve ever had to deal with something like this”). In both instances, she looks great, sanguine and relaxed. And if, in either case, she’s wearing a nipple ornament, you’ll never know.
The stage was set: Janet returned to TV, on terms that resembled her own, even given the unstable ground that had been so hysterically laid. Although it’s a good bet that everyone and her mother wanted her to sing and dance and be interviewed on television, she made shrewd moves: she talked to Letterman (29 March 2004), clothed in a stunning cut-out dress (with navel jewelry), to initiate what Lisa de Moraes describes as the “Clean Breast Tour” (Washington Post, 31 March 2004). While Dave played lascivious (“This is all I’ve wanted to talk about for months!”), Jackson played demure, earning audience sympathy along with the dimwitted censorship of someone in the control booth when she sighed “Jesus” in response to one his 35 requests to talk about the malfunction.
The next day, Janet embraced the love fest at 106 & Park (30 March 2004), where Free told Janet she looked “incredible,” and A.J. asked whether she thought maybe “America overreacted.” Janet, for her part, allowed that she had “moved on.” When the album dropped on 31 March, she performed for Good Morning America, where the crowd shouted down Diane Sawyer’s attempts to query Jackson about the Super Bowl with shouts of “Album! Album! Album!” (“I think they’re basically saying they want to talk about the album,” Janet interpreted.) When Sawyer asked if she considered taking a song off the album following the “incident,” Janet was ready for that too: “There are people that wanted me to take certain songs off the album, ‘cause they thought it would pose a problem, but that would be changing who I am and, and I’ll never do that for anyone. For anyone.”
That moderately defiant performance has been followed by a couple of others—the white boy’s version of Oprah, also known as On-Air with Ryan Seacrest (2 April 2004), and Saturday Night Live (10 April 2004). The Seacrest crew even went so far as to re-relocate a childhood friend of Janet’s, Kendal Seidel, whom Janet had mentioned in an interview with Oprah (though the remark was cut from the broadcast). Seacrest threw down his gauntlet: “We’re finally on this program today turning the page.” No questions about the breast. Just Janet’s performance for a crowd at a Hollywood shopping center, Ryan’s gushing, and lots of big, warm love.
This even as the fallout persists. Reports the Associated Press, “The Seacrest show was aired on the East Coast with a seven-second tape delay, just in case Jackson was inspired to repeat the Super Bowl “incident.” Because, of course, she must be wanting to do just that, again and again. Because she’s out of control. Because she’s devious.
This ongoing effort to pathologize Janet Jackson—by any means possible—is wearying. It is also historically resonant (cf. the sanctions traditionally directed at black women’s bodies) and imaginatively bereft (aren’t there any other ways to think through seeming licentiousness than to blame performers delivering to commercial expectations?). As Joshunda Sanders notes, Janet “has always been juxtaposed, symbolically, against her white counterpart, Madonna, as a Jezebel. If Madonna makes an album of Bedtime Stories, she’s a shrewd businesswoman; Jackson does it and she’s a whore” (San Francisco Chronicle, 15 February 2004).
Leave it to SNL to defy exactly such prejudice. In the opening skit, Janet appears as Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Darrell Hammond’s Dick Cheney. As she frets over her appearance before the 9/11 Commission, this Dick offers canny, media-baiting advice: “I think you should flash a boob.” She can’t believe what she’s heard. “It does two things. You win over the liberals, plus, it’s a distraction for the press. You flash a bazzoom, I promise you, that’ll be the headline,” Cheney persists. Upset at the very idea, Condi/Janet is almost more bothered when Cheney tries to wheedle her. “I am not a prude, sir,” she huffs. “But this hearing is not the forum for that kind of lewd conduct. There are other forums, like pay television or national sporting championships. That would be fine, but I am the National Security Advisor.”
All of which leads, of course, to her appearance before Tom Kean, spliced in from the actual testimony, making a speech before he asks a question. Stuck for an answer, Condi/Janet rips open her blouse to reveal yet another version of the pixilated blur that’s appeared on television so many, many times since February. “Live from New York,” she beams, “It’s Saturday Night!” While the rest of the night’s episode never quite attained the goofy exhilaration of this resistant moment, the points were well made. It behooves TV producers and consumers to focus their attentions on significant “news,” rather than the daily distractions offered up by politicians, performers, professional spinners, and journalists. Janet is not that person you watch on TV. And neither is anyone else.