It’s confirmed: Justin Timberlake is headlining the NFL’s 2018 Super Bowl Halftime Show. On the lowest of keys, I too, am excited about the opportunity for a live performance of “Señorita.” And “My Love” — Timberlake’s collaborative single with Timbaland and T.I. — is still one of my favorite songs. However, this announcement is pretty upsetting given Timberlake’s history with the Super Bowl. If you’re old enough, you probably still remember Timberlake’s performance with Janet Jackson that will go down in history as the most memorable wardrobe malfunction of all time. The NFL isn’t exactly playing it safe and avoiding controversy with this decision. The internet has already commenced to dragging both the NFL and Timberlake for what feels like rubbing salt in a 13-year-old wound for Jackson. I have another theory altogether: the league is trying to make a reactionary statement of its own, but not to Timberlake or Jackson; rather, to Beyoncé.
Before I explain why I’m not being an overzealous General in the Beyhive, let’s recap exactly what happened with Timberlake and Jackson. During the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime show, Timberlake ripped off the part of Jackson’s costume that covered her breast and exposed her nipple, complete with a sunburst nipple shield, to hundreds of millions of viewers. Both entertainers apologized for what they still insist was a mistake, but almost immediately after the controversy, it was clear that Jackson was being punished way more harshly than Timberlake. She was banned from presenting at the Grammys that year, while Timberlake still got to perform. She lost a movie role and the Mickey Mouse statue dressed like her at Disney World. It was widely thought that she was blacklisted by record labels and entertainment conglomerates in the aftermath. Timberlake on the other hand — who actually committed the act that caused the scandal — went on to have a decade of success, including being invited back to the NFL's Super Bowl halftime show in 2018.
If none of this seems fair, it’s because it’s not. There is obviously a sexist, racist double standard in our culture that has called for Jackson to be vilified while the white dude is forgiven. And this is where Beyoncé comes in. She, too, caused controversy when she stole the show as a featured performer at the 2016 Super Bowl alongside Coldplay and Bruno Mars. For her performance of “Formation” — a loaded song whose video acknowledged Black Lives Matter with slogans like “stop shooting us” — she and her dancers donned costumes reminiscent of the Black Panther Party’s militant uniforms. Conservatives were triggered by what they said was an attack on police, while supporters appreciated that Queen Bey used the platform to promote a broader message. Either way, there is no denying the political undertones of Bey’s performance. When Lady Gaga followed up as the headliner for the 2017 Super Bowl, the conversation surrounding her performance was whether or not she creatively made a statement as well. Clearly, Beyoncé had set a precedent that viewers and commentators were eager to follow.
However, if there is one thing the NFL doesn’t like, it’s politics. News of which NFL players have taken a knee or refused to enter the field during the playing of the national anthem has been front and center, with Donald Trump chiming in to call such protesters “son of bitches.” Colin Kaepernick, who started the movement, is currently filing a suit against the league for colluding to keep him out of the NFL as a result of his protest. Trump has been tweeting his opinion on the protests, dragging the league even further into the world of politics than it ever wanted to be. I honestly feel bad for the people working in the league’s PR department.
On the one hand, they’ve only managed to create more short term problems for themselves by hiring Timberlake for the halftime set. People are upset and tweeting about it. However, Timberlake has been notoriously mum on a whole host of social issues, and the league can pretty much guarantee that there won’t be a single political undertone in the song and dance of the white man. The moral of the story? Beyoncé has the league shook.