Sunday's Super Bowl marks the 10th anniversary of nipplegate: the halftime performance that ended in Justin Timberlake pulling off the breastplate of Janet Jackson's costume and revealing her breast, naked aside from a tiny, bejeweled nipple cover. The moment lasted but for a second on television, yet its implications were wide – from the sinking of Jackson's musical career (while Timberlake rose as a solo artist) to the birth of YouTube. It also had a knee jerk effect on the choice of Super Bowl performers to come.
Ten years later, it appears that the powers that be have finally gotten over the risk aversion caused by nipplegate, with the choice of Bruno Mars – a young artist, coincidentally, oft-compared to Jackson's brother Michael.
The selection of Mars came as a surprise for many reasons. Though he has been embraced by the entertainment industry – he has two Grammy awards, the most recent awarded this past Sunday during the annual show (altogether he has 18 total nominations since his career began) – although he is not exactly a household name yet. This year's "Unorthodox Jukebox" is only his second album.
And while his sound – pop and R&B with a dash a rock and some old school soul (and the pipes to carry it) – is widely appealing, his squeaky clean appearance is somewhat deceptive. He sings about sex, a lot, often explicitly and with some very overt imagery. He was also arrested for cocaine possession in 2011 (a charge that was eventually dismissed with a fine, community service and drug counseling).
His eclectic background – he can be described as Ukrainian, Filipino, Hispanic, Jewish, Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Hungarian and Spanish – makes him a fitting poster boy of the demographic changes at hand in America.
But it took the Super Bowl 10 years and a whole lot of classic rock bands to get here. Often lost in the memory of nipplegate is that Jackson and Timberlake were also joined by P. Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock. The selection of performers for 2004 are notable once you compare them to the years prior: a Disney-sponsored sentimental medley in 2000, a mish-mash of classic rock and teeny-bopper pop in 2001 and an obligatory U2 9/11 tribute in 2002.
In 2004 the Super Bowl was finally embracing contemporary black music, with three African-American artists representing different pockets of the industry – Jackson a pop/R&B star with a very famous name, Diddy a well-established rapper representing the Northeast, and Nelly, who was leading the Dirty South's invasion of hip hop – as well as two white artists, Timberlake and Kid Rock, who were carving out their musical niche by co-opting a black sound (soul and rap, respectively).
Of course whatever transition the Super Bowl was finally making into a more varied representation of music was interrupted by that star-shaped, metallic pasty, and the years that followed would look quite homogenous, with a very specific era and genre carrying through: Paul McCartney in 2005, The Rolling Stones in 2006, Tom Petty in 2008, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2009 and The Who in 2010. 2007 can be considered a respite from this trend with the performance of Prince, an aging funk star rather than an aging rock-n-roller. Springsteen too is also somewhat a variation, in that he was a generation younger than his rock brethren and was still making (and continues to make) timely music – the kind of music critics still want to write about.
Just because they were all safe choices doesn't mean they were bad performances – though somedefinitely weren't great. Still, these years reflect a resistance to the contemporary hip hop and pop music that was growing ever more dominant on the Top 40 charts.
The Super Bowl finally caught up with this reality in 2011, with the choice of Usher and the Black Eyed Peas, who were still joined by yet another rock relic, Slash of Guns and Roses. The set was widely panned, but fortunately that didn't scare the show's planners back into their cave of senior citizen guitar groups.
In 2012 they chose to showcase some of the brightest stars in hip hop and R&B-influenced-pop – Cee Lo Green, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. – albeit anchored by the show's headliner Madonna, a pop star decades into her career and fading in relevancy. 2012 also marked the year controversy returned to the Super Bowl stage. All eyes were on Madonna – ever the provocateur – to spark a scandal. Yet it was the relative unknown M.I.A. who provoked censors by flicking off the crowd.
This time the NFL was wise enough to punish just the artist – "quietly" – and not revert back to old habits. The next year they made the brilliant choice of Beyoncé – a tireless performer at the top of her game whose music attracts a broad audience.
Yet controversy surrounded the show again; this time not because of what happened at the game but what happened before it, at Beyoncé's last big nationally televised gig. Days before the Super Bowl, it was revealed she had lip-synched the National Anthem at President Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration. Perhaps the extra scrutiny spurred Beyoncé – already considered the hardest working woman in show business – to work even harder and she killed it on the New Orleans Superdome stage.
The success of her performance perhaps gave Super Bowl planners the confidence and good-faith required to hand the microphone over to Mars. However this doesn't mean the Super Bowl stage has become the official stop of artists on the way up. Mars will be backed up by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, perhaps in hopes of recreating the unexpected magic that was Britney Spears's and Aerosmith's 2001 "Walk This Way" duet. Their inclusion appeals to both the rock fans and those of an older generation; 90s music, after all, is beginning to infiltrate the classic rock stations that traffic in the artists featured in the 2005-2010 Super Bowl years.
Whether Mars makes for a memorable performance or not will have to wait for Sunday, but it's hard to imagine him doing anything that will rock the boat. He has been humble and grateful in preview interviews. The number of performances he's done at awards shows have hardly ruffled any feathers. And for the racy themes of some of his songs, he still exudes that nice-guy-you-could-take-home-to-mom vibe. However – considering Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea's proclivity for performing shirtless – the 2014 Super Bowl halftime show may just harken the return of the nipple.