It started as a controversy over exposed skin. Now the focus is on skin color.
When Justin Timberlake ripped away Janet Jackson’s bra cup to reveal her right breast during CBS’ broadcast of last week’s Super Bowl halftime show, they sparked a public- relations disaster that drew the ire of CBS, the NFL and even the FCC. In the days following, both singers issued public apologies – but with very different results.
While Jackson shouldered most of the responsibility for the incident, Timberlake distanced himself from it, painting himself as a victim. Now Timberlake is under fire from urban radio stations that feel he betrayed not only Jackson but, in a sense, the entire urban-music community he’s worked so hard to emulate.
“It doesn’t take a genius to notice that he pays homage to a lot of African-American singing greats,” says Miss Info, a morning-show host on the hip-hop station “Hot 97” (WQHT/97.1 FM). Many callers “feel like he’s been accepted by a multicultural audience, and they want him to stand by his multicultural musical coworkers.”
Initially, Jackson and Timberlake benefited from the Super Bowl stunt, which became a popular topic in newscasts, late- night monologues and watercooler conversation. Jackson’s new single “Just a Little While” was released to radio stations the day after the Super Bowl and became a hotly requested song. “That was fun,” Timberlake said in a television interview immediately after the performance. “We love giving you something to talk about.”
But as criticism grew and the FCC announced it would launch an investigation, Timberlake changed his tune, blaming the incident on a “wardrobe malfunction” and apologizing for any offense. Jackson went even further, claiming responsibility for the maneuver.
What has angered many black music fans is that Timberlake then seemed to turn his back on Jackson. In an interview with a CBS television station in Los Angeles, Timberlake claimed he was “completely shocked and appalled” by her partial nudity. He also described himself as a successful artist who’s above such stunts. “I’ve had a good year,” he said. “I don’t feel I need publicity like this.”
Those statements raised issues of Timberlake’s loyalty to Jackson and to black music as a whole. A former crooner in a boy band, Timberlake has essentially used R&B music to gain credibility as a solo artist, says Erik Parker, music editor at the urban-music magazine Vibe. From his Michael Jackson-esque vocals to the records he’s made with musicians such as Nelly, Brian McKnight and the Neptunes, Timberlake has ingratiated himself with an audience that often regards blue-eyed soul with suspicion.
“When that audience feels betrayed or exploited, there’s going to be some type of repercussions,” Parker says. Consciously or not, Timberlake is “abusing his white privilege.”
At urban radio stations, callers have been irate. “They’re mad at Justin,” says Wendy Williams, a nationally syndicated radio host based in New York, whose show airs on WBLS/107.5 FM. “They’ll support Janet, but they’ll look at Justin and say, ‘Your ghetto pass has been revoked. You’re no longer an honorary brother.'”
It didn’t help that Jackson’s planned performance on CBS’ Grammy awards broadcast Sunday night was canceled, while Timberlake’s went forward. (He also collected two Grammys.) In fact, CBS asked both artists to apologize at the ceremony before they would be allowed to perform, and Timberlake did so. Jackson declined to attend. Still, the perception has been one of unequal treatment.
“I did a poll about whether if Janet was to be barred, should Justin be barred also, and the resounding answer was yes,” says Ed Lover, a morning show host on “Power 105” (WWPR/105.1 FM). “My audience thinks there’s some racism involved there.”
Timberlake triumphed at the Grammy ceremony during his duet with trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, pushing aside the controversy and forging ahead with his song “Señorita.” The number proved that he was adept at not only R&B but Latin-inflected jazz.
“Our audiences are very savvy and critical, but they’re also forgiving,” Miss Info says. “If he can stand the heat, he’ll be able to come back into the kitchen.”