Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nipplegate revisited

Update: Justin Timberlake just announced he is forming a new record label--so this is discussion is more timely than I thought...

Okay I'm about 3 years late in commenting on this but can we talk for just a moment about the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction at Superbowl 38? Bear with me for a second, I think perhaps there are still some big ideas to explore here.

As you know, a lot of words were spilled over the incident. Over 200,000 people contacted CBS to complain. Viacom was fined $550,000 by the FCC for indecency. The media exploded with commentary.

But the one thing I haven't heard anyone say, and I think it's worth discussing, is that the incident was a powerful artistic and political statement. Here's the infamous moment in one sentence:

A young privileged white man, tears the bodice from an African American woman (who may or may not have been sexually abused as a child), revealing what appears to be a surgically augmented breast, during the entertainment break for the pinnacle contest of "America's Game" which celebrates and glorifies American male violence.

Think about it for a minute. There is so much there. It's like Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake called the question. It's like they said, "This is America too, the part of the story that we don't talk about." White privilege, male privilege, violence, America's original sin, the violence of plastic surgery, objectification of women, abuse. In a contest where huge HGH-enhanced bodies crash into each other (often causing concussions, broken bones and torn ligaments, and shortened life spans) with surgically enhanced women dancing on the sidelines and celebrated in commercials, JJ and JT said, 'look, this is what this is all about, this is the meaning behind the message.'

A couple problems with my thesis: As far as I can tell, neither Janet Jackson nor Justin Timberlake ever defended their actions as an intentional artistic statement. That would have been amazing. Think about the conversations that could have opened up. Instead they said it was an accident. Nevertheless, the power of an artistic statement is often not in the intention of the artist but in the way the art is received by the viewer.

Second, and I think the biggest problem, is that a Jackson was involved. I think people are rightly concerned about Michael Jackson's alleged sexual misconduct with children. So when Michael Jackson's younger sister bears a breast, there's a certain amount of guilt by association, and a feeling that inappropriate sexuality is being forced upon people who never consented to seeing it. But what if it had been Missy Elliot or Mary J. Blige or even Ani Difranco making that same artistic statement--would a different messenger have changed the way the message was received?

As a postcript to this whole thing, it's interesting to note that Janet Jackson's career seems to have suffered as a result of the performance while Justin Timberlake's career has never been hotter. Ironically, that seemed to be one of the points of their performance--that white male privilege in America society means that guys get a free pass when it comes to sexuality and women often get blamed for the sins of others.

Just a thought...

No comments: