So what if Super Bowl viewers saw a little more of Janet Jackson than they expected?
Justin Timberlake and Jackson were finishing a steamy duet of "Rock Your Body" during Super Bowl XXXVIII's halftime show Sunday when he reached across her leather outfit and pulled off a section of her bodice. Jackson's right breast — the nipple masked by a sun-shaped, metallic decoration — was exposed to an estimated 89.6 million viewers. CBS quickly cut away from the shot as she began covering up.
Shouldn't we be used to this kind of thing? The same-sex kiss between Britney Spears and Madonna on MTV's Music Video Awards show was not all that long ago, and sometimes it seems Spears' fashion sense is just a little tamer than Jackson's boob-popping incident.
Television in 2004 has come a long way since The Ed Sullivan Show refused to show Elvis' swiveling pelvis back in the 1950s. Between seeing David Caruso and then Dennis Franz bare rear ends on NYPD Blue to the popularity of HBO's violent and vulgar The Sopranos, we should be used raunchy behavior and skin on television these days, right?
"I think people have become indifferent to these kinds of things," said Damien Cave, an associate editor at Rolling Stone. "They see Janet, they see Britney and Madonna kiss, and say, 'Yeah, OK. Who cares?' I think it's becoming more difficult [for artists] do something that's creative and says something about them as an artist. Something like this [story] is going to go away real quick."
The Worst Publicity: No Publicity
The Federal Communications Commission and CBS executives were not so indifferent and apparently, neither were some Super Bowl watchers. The Super Bowl is the most-watched sports spectacle in the country — by both adults and children.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell called the incident "a classless, crass and deplorable stunt" and ordered an investigation. After receiving some angry calls, CBS and MTV, which hosted the halftime show and is a corporate cousin of the Eye Network through ownership by Viacom, both apologized and said they did not know the display would be part of the act.
An apologetic Jackson later corroborated the statements from CBS and MTV and said in a statement, "The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. … It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended — including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL."
Investigation aside, Jackson — like other celebrities who have been embroiled in "shocking" performances — may only reap rewards from her "boob tube" performance.
"You know the old saying, 'The worst publicity is no publicity at all,' " said Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. "In the extremely competitive world of the music industry, any little edge that you can get that makes a difference in your career is a good thing."
When Shock No Longer Shocks
However, shock tactics can backfire if the controversy is either too volatile, or a jaded public grows to expect behavior from the artist — or senses the celebrity is only trying to attract attention.
From Like a Virgin to Like a Prayer to Erotica, Madonna built her career on pushing views and artistic expression on taboo subjects. However, her career today appears to have stalled, perhaps because of more than 20 years of exposure. And she may not appeal to a sought-after teenage audience hardly shocked by anything anymore.
Artists not known for sexually charged lyrics, photo-shoots and videos could probably generate the most attention for shocking incidents. They are the unlikeliest of suspects — and perhaps the least likely to perform stunts just to bring attention to themselves. John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged bed-in protests for peace, not just publicity.
"When Sinead O'Connor ripped up the photo of the pope during Saturday Night Live, she was trying to send a message," said Cave. "The huge deal that's being made over Mel Gibson's movie The Passion is about beyond selling movie tickets. It's something he [Gibson] feels strongly about."
Making a Statement vs. Attracting Attention
However, some experts point out, there is a difference between staging a shocking incident and making a shocking statement. Some believe that celebrities can never really be hurt by controversial incidents, as long as they're not crimes like murder and molestation, but are more damaged by political or religious statements.
Beyoncé Knowles was criticized for her sexually suggestive dance at Grant's Tomb during a live concert for NBC last Fourth of July. However, her career hasn't suffered — her album remains in the Billboard top 20 and she's been nominated for multiple Grammys.
However, arguably, Irish songstress O'Connor's career never truly recovered after she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992. The Dixie Chicks' album sales dropped last year when a member of the trio said they were ashamed that President Bush was from their native Texas.
"You can almost be never hurt [by a shock incident]," said Levinson. "However, when the Dixie Chicks made their comments about President Bush, they felt a backlash because they were making a statement. When Sinead O'Connor ripped up the picture of the pope, she was making a statement."
‘Nasty’ Reality Check
Jackson is set to release a new album in the spring, her first since 2001's All for You.
At 37, she is geriatric compared to the 20-somethings who rule the pop charts these days, like Timberlake, Spears, 50 Cent and Nelly. Though Jackson said the breast-exposure was a stunt unintentionally gone too far, some believe it was the start of a publicity campaign for her upcoming album.
"The more I think about it, it's hard to believe it was a just a wardrobe problem," said Cave. "Here we have Janet, she's releasing an album soon. She's getting older and she's trying to prove once again that she's still sexy," said Cave. "If nothing else, this [the Super Bowl controversy] introduces her to an audience that wouldn't have thought about her otherwise, that didn't get her last album."
Still, Jackson's new audience may not buy her CD anyway — and not because they're offended by her Super Bowl performance.
"The idea is she may have been introduced to a new group of young boys," said Cave. "But the way the music industry is today, they're more likely to download the music instead of buying the album."