Over the last week, America has been enthralled with megastar Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Halftime performance, in which she, along with dancers clad in uniforms styled like the black nationalist group, The Black Panther Party, performed Beyoncé’s new track, “Formation”. The performance, along with the accompanying music video, have both sparked controversy and outrage for its vehemently pro black visual aesthetic. Conservatives have gone as far as to call for boycotts against Beyonce’s music, and impending Formation World Tour, deeming the song, video, and performance as racially divisive, and “anti-cop”. Additionally, radio stations have begun to ban the song from the airwaves. Simply put, white folks are seething.
The issue of race in America is a complex, provocative, and at some points taboo topic. Depending on who you’re talking to, we as a society have either progressed passed the point of color lines and racial boundaries, OR with the constant killings of unarmed black men and women by police, the lack of governmental reaction toward the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and many other issues, it is more indicative that there has been very little progression at all.
While many people would assume that a celebrity's access to the public would give them a gigantic platform to bring awareness to these issues, there are far too few that actually take advantage of it. Beyoncé, an artist embraced by white middle American culture, and beloved by millions of people, has challenged the “racial status quo” of America. While she's far from the first artist to do it, she is one of today's most visible artists that has now chosen to base her artistic choices on very real issues affecting us all. The sad part, is that by her being a black woman, she is more vulnerable toward a more negative reaction towards her decision making. She unfortunately, is not the only black woman in the entertainment industry who has suffered a similar blowback.
February 1st, 2004. Janet Jackson, one of the biggest stars in the world, is headlining the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. From 1986 – 2001, Jackson has been unstoppable, her last album “All For You” debut at #1 and sold over 600,000 copies in it's first week. The lead single and title track from the album, “All For You” spent 7 weeks at #1. Giving Jackson her 10th number one single, and 26th top ten hit. The streak seems to be continuing, “Just A Little While” the first single from “Damita Jo” has leaked ahead of her halftime performance, and it is already the most added and played song on all pop radio formats.
All of this changes in a matter of 9/16th of a second.
Jackson who has just performed “All For You”, and the social injustice anthem “Rhythm Nation”, is joined onstage by Justin Timberlake. Jackson and Timberlake duet to a version of his single, “Rock Your Body.” At the point in the song when he sings, “Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song,” he pulls at Jackson's bustier. A red lace bra is supposed to be revealed. Instead, both the bustier and bra rip off revealing Jackson's breast.
Infamously coined as a “wardrobe malfunction” by Justin, the failed gimmick took the media by storm. The mainstream media ripped Jackson to shreds, putting all of the blame for it squarely on her. The Washington Post’s Tony Kornheiser wrote, “What Janet Jackson did was bizarre, deliberately flopping out of her costume like that.” No mention of Justin who was just as significant in the moment played round the world, as it was he who ripped her costume revealing the breast. In fact, Timberlake remained blameless, for the most part. The media treating him as if he were an innocent victim defiled by the evil black woman with a star on her nipple.
Timberlake played the victim role easily, throwing Jackson under the bus in many interviews during that time:
The result? Janet Jackson who is supposed to present an award at the 2004 Grammy Awards is uninvited. Justin Timberlake is allowed to perform (and wins two Grammy awards that night). Timberlake goes on to become an MTV and pop radio staple. His every release going into heavy rotation on both outlets. Janet Jackson is blacklisted.
One has to wonder would if Madonna,who made a career out being sexual provocative and intentionally controversial, had shown a breast during a major performance, would she have been blacklisted by almost every media outlet? Boycotted to the point that those same media outlets wouldn't even acknowledge that she had new music out?
If it were Britney Spears and Usher performing during that halftime show, would the media have attacked Britney or Usher? Spears, who many compare to Madonna simply because she's white, in actuality, patterned herself after Janet's blueprint for the “sexy but relatable girl next door image”. Would America have attacked spears for the “wardrobe malfunction”, or Usher for being the hand that revealed more than it was supposed to? Why did America so easily forgive Justin even though he held just as much responsibility for what happened?
Was the real issue that a breast was exposed or the fact the breast belonged to black female?
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Many would argue, why compare a breast being exposed on national television to a performance meant to celebrate blackness? True, they are separate situations. However, the comparison can be found in how both issues were demonized in white conservative America.
Beyonce has been called anti-police, anti-white, and boycotts have called for her music. Rallies are being organized to protest Beyonce. “Formation” has been banned on many radio stations. Many conservative politicians have used the controversy surrounding Beyonce to further their agenda on “values” in a tight race for the white house?
Sound vaguely familiar, yet? Let's continue...
In 2004, George W. Bush was up for re-election, with the failing war in Iraq and America's disenchantment with how the war had be handled, Republicans needed to create a distraction. Thankfully, they found one in Janet Jackson's breast.
FCC head Michael Powell (Son of Colin Powell, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State) lambasted Jackson in front of the media. In a statement, he called her Super Bowl performance "classless, crass, and deplorable stunt," and promised to take action.
Years later, Powell would say: “I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on.”
CBS owned by Viacom was fined $550,000 by the FCC. As a result, Janet was blacklisted from almost all Viacom owned media outlets. Jackson's single “Just A Little While” which had been the most added and played song on pop radio literally disappeared from station playlists all over the country.
Thankfully for Beyonce, social media will play a key role in her coming out of this controversy unscathed.
The Beyonce Boycott and Janet Jackson's Blacklisting: The role of social media
If social media had existed, in the same way it does now, the public at large could have rallied around Janet in the same way they have rallied around Beyonce.
In 2004, Twitter didn't exist, Youtube didn't exist, MySpace was in the early stages of it's brief time of popularity, and Facebook was launched days after the performance (and didn't become popular until around 2009). For example, it is only now, 12 years later, that people realize that Jackson was blacklisted on most media outlets. Something that wasn't widely publicized in mainstream media at the time, only truly known now thanks to social media.
Our opinions and thoughts aren't dictated solely by what is put out there by the mainstream media. If we disagree with something, we can easily take to social media to voice our opinion, something that did not exist in 2004. Many felt the controversy surrounding Janet was absurd, but no platform existed for people to say it on a large scale.
Many on Facebook, Twitter, and even Youtube have assembled in support of Beyonce. The voice of those celebrating “Formation” and the true message behind it is much louder than those trying to create a narrative that Beyonce is suddenly “anti-police” and/or “anti-whiteness”.
As much as people try to downplay the racial barriers and inequalities, they still exist. They will praise you until you do something they don't like. Case and point: Janet Jackson and Beyonce