Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, the newest installment of the FX and Hulu documentary series, seeks to bare the truth of those infamous 9/16ths of a second, a moment that had both global and deeply personal repercussions for everyone involved.
According to showrunner Mary Robertson, the inspiration to look back at the events surrounding Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl performance came directly as a result of the feedback from Framing Britney Spears. “We essentially saw some folks saying, ‘How about Janet?’, and we thought that that was a good idea,” she tells Consequence.
The 70-minute documentary, directed by Jodi Gomes, doesn’t just dig into the events that resulted in Jackson’s breast being exposed in the final moments of the halftime show. Instead, it paints a portrait both of Jackson’s remarkable career prior to that moment, as well as the cultural forces which made one “wardrobe malfunction” into a lighting bolt of controversy.
In this interview, which has been transcribed and edited for clarity, Robertson and Gomes explain how they approached the material and the importance of capturing not just what caused the malfunction, but the controversy surrounding it. They also discussed Justin Timberlake‘s involvement in these events, as well as the bigger issue: who was asked to apologize for what, and when.
When did the idea of taking a look at Janet Jackson’s story come about?
Mary Robertson: In the days following the premiere of our first Britney Spears film, we honestly noticed that there was commentary and talk, especially on Twitter, about Janet Jackson — we essentially saw some folks saying, “How about Janet?” and we thought that that was a good idea.
I think one of the things that we were so moved by in working on the Britney Spears film, and in watching that film engage the world, was the power of marrying really rigorous New York Times journalism with matters that others had perhaps trivialized.
In taking great care and working to look at events from our recent history in context, to provide real perspective so that you’re not just looking at a minute or a day in isolation, you’re rewinding decades sometimes to understand the forces in the culture that were exerting influence upon the way in which we received that moment at the time.
For all of these reasons, we thought it would be wise to bring our journalistic enterprise to the subject matter. And then we knew we needed a brilliant director and we called Jodi and we’re so lucky that she said yes.
For you, Jodi, what was important for you about taking on a story that we’ve heard a lot of versions of?
Jodi Gomes: I think the most important thing for me was a fact finding trip and being able to work with The New York Times and their wonderful reporting to, you know, really take a story that we all thought we knew from 17 years ago and revisit it with a fresh lens. To give it a voice, a new perspective, and then let us draw our own conclusions in today’s marketplace — to figure out exactly what happened back then.
And more importantly, the why. Why did we react so strongly for 9/16th of a second of a breast reveal? That’s what’s always caught me — like, I actually saw the Super Bowl and I missed the incident at the time and so rewinding it 17 years later and looking at it for myself, I had a clear different perspective of what had happened. I just thought we should share that with the world.
I remember at the time that it was a story that spread across everything — it was even a technology story, because of TiVo.
Gomes: Yeah, that’s correct. And even like a year later, some of the founders of YouTube have said that they credit the malfunction at the Super Bowl as one of the reasons they wanted to upload videos. So it begat the creation of YouTube.
In terms of understanding what happened, did you have a sense of there being big misconceptions that needed to be cleared up?
Gomes: I don’t know that I thought there were misconceptions I wanted to get into. There was this larger-than-life performance, right? The Super Bowl is the biggest stage. And I remember this amazing performance that led up to the final seconds and there were unintended consequences for that performance.
Within a quick timeline of that performance happening, we had immediate media outrage. We had immediate FCC movement. We had immediate congressional hearings. And I just remember thinking, boy, I wish America would pump the breaks and kind of take a breath here and really figure out what we’re so outraged about. I don’t know if that answered your question, but that, that for me was why I wanted to look at this whole thing.
Robertson: I think that many of us don’t perhaps remember the totality of the story. Perhaps we never knew the totality of the story, and perhaps we don’t remember it. One of the things we worked hard to achieve in this film was to, you know, render the ways in which the Parents Television Council and the rising forces of conservatism were exerting influence over the ways in which we would perceive this moment and its aftermath. Perhaps we didn’t know that at the time. Perhaps we don’t remember that when we think about the indelible parts of this experience.
I also think in retrospect — much as with the Britney film — our coverage of Janet in particular, in the immediate aftermath, seems at times strikingly cruel. I think that we, in retrospect, often find that perhaps we’ve been a bit too simple in our rendering of these women, public figures such as Janet and as such as Britney herself, at the time. It seems so clear in retrospect. So we hoped that we could deliver the images and the coverage, and then transport the audience to this time and then let that coverage speak for itself.
Janet Jackson, photo by Solaiman Fazel
One aspect of the doc I really appreciated was putting the moment in the context of the entire performance — like how even before that final moment, the Parents Television Council already had plenty of ammunition.
Gomes: That’s right. It was important to show the culture that Janet found herself walking into and, you know, knowingly or unknowingly, she did walk into it. And then it was an examination of, “Did the punishment fit the crime?” That, I thought, was a very important question that we would always ask ourselves while we were doing the film.
Robertson: Yeah. I think you might be remembering that in the film, we show how Kid Rock, who had performed earlier in the halftime show, had wrapped himself with the American flag. And in that moment, there were some executives in the audience who thought that that would be the scandalous part from the halftime show.
One thing that was really striking was that one of the very first moments in the documentary that features Janet is her as a child, but in a pretty sexualized moment. Was that a deliberate choice, finding footage of her from a young age already dealing with these issues?
Gomes: Well, I think one of the running themes of the whole entire film is body image and the use of body image and the actual control of one’s agency and control of one’s image. And, you know, Janet, you know, notoriously claimed control of her image when she broke out with an album called Control.
So I thought was a great irony for the film: Showing how she’s been subjected to body imaging from a very young age, and then all of a sudden, flash forward 34 years later to when she’s on the Super Bowl stage, and that very thing is used against her.
Robertson: I think also that if we are to understand the significance of the so-called wardrobe malfunction and the culture’s reaction to that moment, and if we are to understand the significance of the treatment that Janet received in that moment, then we need to understand perhaps what may or may not have been lost, which is to say, we need to understand what Janet had achieved in the decades prior to that moment.
For that reason and others, it was important to us to really chronicle her ascent and, as Jodi has referenced, to really chronicle the ways in which she self-actualized work to extricate herself from business and personal arrangements that were controlled by men, to get to a point in which yes, she was making an album called Control, she was making an album called Rhythm Nation.
She was owning her sexuality on stage, in a way that seems to have been self-directed. So while [Malfunction] wasn’t explicitly a biopic or, you know, a film that tries to tell the full sweep of Janet’s life, we did think it was really important that we chronicle that trajectory, so that we understand the real consequence of what happened at the Super Bowl and in the months afterwards.
Let’s talk a little bit about finding ways to represent the voices of the Parents Television Council and the NFL leadership in the documentary. Was it hard to find people to talk to from those points of view?
Gomes: I don’t think it was particularly hard to find the players involved in the film, whether from the MTV side, from the NFL side, or the Parents Television Council. I think, you know, 17 years later, a lot of people had a lot to say, and they, they actually wanted to revisit their actions from back then. And so it wasn’t difficult.
Also, you know, obviously it being The New York Times, I think they all knew and felt comfortable that we’d be coming from it from an unbiased perspective and would just let the facts fall where they were. And so I didn’t find it strikingly difficult to get those people to speak on camera, and I’m glad that they did because I think it well rounds out the film.
Robertson: It’s always important to us to bring ourselves as journalists and filmmakers and eventually our audience as close as we possibly can to the events at hand. That’s part of the promise that we make to the audience, is that we will do everything that we possibly can to bring you into the sort of figurative room and Jodi was dogged and smart in her pursuit of those individuals who could bring us into those rooms. Not just the stage on which Janet was performing, you know, but the conference rooms and the boardrooms where the decisions were made that ultimately influenced her trajectory.
Was there anything that came out of doing this reporting that really surprised you?
Gomes: Yeah, there was two things that surprised me. One: That it was only 9/16th of a second. I will sound like a broken record until I die, because I swear that in my memory, my muscle memory, I thought it was 40 minutes long. And so the fact that it was 9/16th of a second really does make me take pause. And then the fact that that 9/16th of a second ended up going to Congress within 30 days of it happening, and a breast changed the law, you know, that actually I thought was a little compelling to me.
Hearing the 30 days number puts into a whole new perspective — like, how long did it take for there to be a Congressional committee on the events of January 6th this year?
Gomes: Right. Don’t forget at that time we were also at war, and so there were lots of things going on culturally that I think probably should have taken precedence. Yet, a nipple was sort of front and center and, you know, it was what it was and the broadcast decency law was augmented because of it.
In terms of Les Moonves’s involvement, was there anything in particular that you felt was essential to include?
Robertson: Yes. You know, I think when we embarked on the project, it was very important to us that we bring scrutiny to the powerful and the powerful institutions that surrounded this moment. And in that way, you know, we felt that we would really earn our right to make the film and our right to exist if we could really scrutinize the ways in which the powerful and the powerful institutions shaped this moment, in ways that at the time were perhaps unseen.
We are so lucky to have on our team Rachel Abrams, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who has reported extensively on Les Moonves, CBS, and Viacom in the past. And part of what Rachel learned through her reporting was that Les Moonves had demanded an apology from both Justin and Janet in person prior to their appearances at the Grammys, and it was widely understood that they wouldn’t be welcome at the Grammys without this apology.
We understand that Justin did apologize. It was a tearful apology. And Janet did not, and of course we then see Justin at the Grammys and Janet is not there. That’s new reporting that we’re bringing to this film. We were quite struck by who was asked to apologize for what, and when, and we wanted to ask questions around that. We wanted to ask questions about contrition in this film too.
Of course, Les Moonves himself at the time was perhaps perpetrating many transgressions, and I think we asked ourselves also to what extent he was asked to apologize for those transgressions and in what ways, and to what extent he ultimately did.
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show
The film includes the apology that Justin Timberlake issued last spring. And it seemed very sincere, but I guess the question is, is it enough? Which leads to a bigger question — is any apology enough?
Gomes: I always think that’s a personal question that should be directed to the two artists who are involved, which would be Britney and Janet. You know, Janet apologized multiple times too, and it was never enough. So, I think that comes down to the artist and the artist’s personal relationship with Justin. The fans have certainly spoken and said, “It’s not enough.” It’s interesting, we, we asked the question of contrition in our film, and I guess now, even outside the film, you know, what should be done next? You know, who should say it and when?
Robertson: It’s not our intention to make a film that explicitly attacks Justin. That is not our intention. Our intention is to render the events with accuracy and complexity and nuance, and he was certainly a part of them. So we make some effort to include his various responses to these events throughout the years, which include most recently an apology.
Looking forward, Mary, pop music is not the only topic that The New York Times Presents has covered. But it is definitely one that has touched a nerve for a lot of people. What kind of subjects are you looking to explore in the future?
Robertson: We’re really compelled at The New York Times Presents by this notion of undertaking what we might call radical biography — approaching those stories of public figures with rigorous New York Times journalism and perhaps, you know, rendering those stories in ways that are full of revelation that complicate your existing perception or understanding of what that story might be.
All of that is enormously appealing, and I think that there are meaningful ways in which we can serve public interest by correcting those distortions by bringing context and perspective to these stories. So we are absolutely compelled by those notions.
The series has already done one sequel to Framing Britney Spears, and of course there was a pretty big update to that story just recently. Are there plans to make that a trilogy, essentially?
Robertson: We have an incredible team that continues to work on reporting out that story.
For you, Jodi, do you have a dream list of additional subjects you’d love to cover under the New York Times banner?
Gomes: Oh boy, that’s a big question. I do. It was a great experience, and anytime you can have such a powerful entity that helps you unearth the truth behind clandestine and secretive arenas, it’s always attractive for a director. There’s a million different topics that I’d love to cover, and I just will stay close to the vest with them.
Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson premieres Friday, November 19th at 10:00 p.m. on FX and Hulu.