Framing Britney Spears, a short and brutal reflection on the pop star’s career and the murky legal structure that regulated her affairs, was published in January by the New York Times documentary team. The 75-minute documentary, which had almost little new material but painted a unified, scathing portrayal of her treatment by the press, set off a cultural dynamite.
It sparked widespread calls to end Spears’s conservatorship, which Spears, 39, later championed (the 13-year arrangement was terminated last week by a judge); as well as meditations on punishing cultural commentary, callous treatment of mental health, or the hollow, deceptive empowerment proffered by Spears’s sexy teenage image; and a queasy wave of Britney Spears content (including a NYT follow-up, Controlling Britney Spears, that was part
Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, the latest New York Times documentary for FX on Hulu, aims for a similar cathartic reframe through an infamous episode of early 2000s pop culture: Janet Jackson baring her breast for nine-sixteenths of a second at the 2004 Super Bowl, and the ensuing cultural firestorm. The 70-minute film follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, combining archive material (including lots of cringe-worthy early 2000s fashion) with first-person interviews and cultural critic comments.
Unlike the Spears films, which served as part of a journalistic investigation into a perplexing, shrouded, and by all accounts predatory legal situation, Jodi Gomes’ Malfunction has a broader goal: to reintroduce the incident to national consciousness, present the available facts, and restore Jackson’s reputation.
The obvious issue is: what did we learn here? With involvement from NFL and Halftime Show insiders, reporters, and journalists – but, crucially, neither Jackson herself, nor Justin Timberlake, her co-performer who ripped off part of her bodice in the last seconds of the performance —
In terms of fresh information, the answer is: not much. Malfunction, like Framing Britney Spears, derives its potency in a basic chronology, a chronological cataloging of Jackson’s groundbreaking career (with minimal mention of the Jackson family) and the Super Bowl blow-up. Even if there isn’t much new to observe, politicians’ handwringing and Jackson’s departure from radio highlight the ridiculousness and injustice of the whole incident.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL executive Jim Steeg gave the filmmakers access, revealing that of the halftime performance lineup that year – Jackson, Diddy, rapper Nelly, and Kid Rock (Timberlake was a surprise visitor) – NFL brass were least worried about Jackson.
Salli Frattini, the MTV executive in charge of the halftime show, recalls how, under pressure to make sex appeal to the broadest swath of Americans possible without becoming overtly explicit, the executives provided a two-page memo of edits to the halftime show days before the event – requesting changes to Diddy’s lyrics, Nelly’s lyrics, and Kid Rock’s intention to wear an American flag.
Timberlake’s intention to rip Jackson’s skirt off and expose a jumpsuit in rhythm with his lines “have you naked by the end of this song” was cancelled. Someone from Janet’s wardrobe staff went to a tailor, but it’s unknown what was changed; similarly, Jackson and Timberlake chatted for a few minutes before the concert, but it’s unclear what they discussed.
Jackson was said to be unhappy and inaccessible after the performance. “We couldn’t reach Janet on the phone, and we couldn’t reach her manager on the phone,” Frattini explains. “She should have said something like, ‘No one knew, and it was a mistake.'” She didn’t say anything to us at all. We’re attempting to contact the individual who experienced this – since it occurred to her – but she’s gone.”
The Recording Academy’s former VP of communications and artist relations, Ron Roecker, explains Jackson’s absence from the Grammys, which aired a week later on CBS. According to him, the then-CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, determined that both performers would have to apologize on the air in addition to their written apologies in order to attend the program.
Timberlake agreed (on-air, “I know it’s been a rough week on everybody [to laughs], what happened was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys are offended”), but Jackson did not show up.
“It felt like another request for something that had happened by chance,” recalls Matt Serletic, the former CEO of Virgin Records, Jackson’s record company at the time. “It wasn’t anything that needed to be absolutely put on her. So she didn’t do it, which is commendable.”
Timberlake, who comes out as a career-hungry celebrity more eager to kiss the ring and more culturally prepared to avoid the aftermath, isn’t the story’s solitary villain. Moonves, who was fired in 2018 following several sexual assault and harassment charges, was allegedly enraged by the incident and wanted an in-person apology from Jackson and Timberlake (Timberlake reportedly agreed).
Malfunction is less of a revelatory film and more of a brisk account of an incident that many people are familiar with and for which clear remedial requirements have, for the most part, passed. In 2018, Timberlake was re-invited to perform the halftime performance, despite widespread criticism; earlier this year, in the aftermath of Framing Britney Spears and the mainstreaming of the #FreeBritney campaign, he delivered a personal apology to both women (in an Instagram message). Jackson is generally regarded as a pioneer in popular music, and the film concludes with his 2019 entrance into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (There’s also a message at the end confirming that she and Timberlake still work with the same publicist, which makes me wonder!)
In the film, New York Times reviewer Jenna Wortham states, “Our culture doesn’t know what to do with independent women, especially independent Black women.” “Forget about a self-sufficient Black woman who earns her own money, knows who she is, and appears to be sexually liberated.” They punished her for it when the time arose.”
But Jackson could still get the final laugh, or at least the chance to explore or ignore her most public incident at her leisure: her own first-person documentary, Janet, will broadcast on Lifetime and A&E in January. It may add another chapter to this era’s numerous versions of 2000s pop culture history – or just provide an opportunity to hear a voice that is glaringly absent today.